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In a Year of Local Labor Battles Nationwide, A Major Union Doubles Down Online

BY Nick Judd | Friday, July 15 2011

One of the most politically influential labor unions in the country has signaled a shift in emphasis towards organizing and campaigning online by hiring senior digital staff in at least a dozen major U.S. cities.

In what may be a first for organized labor, Service Employees International Union is beefing up its online operations by hiring new media directors and campaign directors to work directly under the chiefs of staff of union locals in each of those cities, including Columbus, Ohio; Houston, Texas; Detroit, Mich; Portland, Ore.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Miami, Fla., among others, according to job postings that were available online. Because of the way union locals are organized, the size and territory of each organization varies. One of the largest locals in the country, for example, 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East, includes workers in six states.

While there are digital staffers in other unions, many union locals do not have a digital staffer with the level of seniority that the SEIU's new people will have.

It's worth noting for three reasons. First, SEIU locals are very politically active, so flag this as a decision to evaluate after this year's state and local elections and the 2012 presidential election. Secondly, if you're looking for an organization to track to see how a massive, membership-driven institution is changing what it does to leverage the power of the Internet, the SEIU's moves are probably ones to watch.

And, finally, while it's unclear if this had any affect on the decision, SEIU's staffing move comes after months of running battles over right-to-work legislation, budget cuts, or bills that curtail public-sector unions' collective bargaining abilities. During those battles, many unions, not just SEIU, turned to the Internet — and many locals have emerged with members battle-tested in online organizing as a result.

Union protesters rally against Ohio Senate Bill 5 in March. Union staffers nationwide say their members have moved increasingly online throughout this year's fights over state budgets and collective bargaining rights. Photo: Ohio AFL-CIO / Flickr

It will be the job of these new staffers to integrate digital into everything each union does, from building membership to working on activism campaigns, Tim Tagaris, SEIU's new media director, told me recently.

"I think it's a pretty big deal that they will be reporting to the chief of staff and having a seat at the table with the communications directors and the organizers," said Tagaris, whose career as an Internet strategist goes back to Chris Dodd's presidential campaign and Ned Lamont's U.S. Senate run.

Staff at other unions say that as organized labor gets comfortable with social media and online activism, online communications and organizing are assuming larger roles — but the SEIU's proactive push to get some of the largest locals to go digital, coming as it does from the union's Washington, D.C. headquarters, may be entirely new. It's almost too easy to say that, though, because it's hard to compare SEIU to other labor organizations. SEIU used to be part of AFL-CIO, for example, but separated from the federation in 2005.

"We've seen dedicated staff taking responsibility for online communications and organizing at both large and small local unions," Christine Kenngott, manager of online mobilization at AFL-CIO, the federation of 55 national and international labor unions, wrote to me in an e-mail. "In other cases, we're seeing a lot of organic organizing (online and offline) at the state level, done by a variety of staff or volunteers or members, in a variety of positions."

Unions Moving Online to Keep Up

Especially in the last seven months, as several states have considered or passed laws that weaken public-sector labor unions, unions have increasingly turned to the Internet for organizing. In Ohio, the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association turned to Facebook to help mobilize members against Senate Bill 5, legislation that reduces the power of public-sector labor unions in that state.

"We just did a parade," Sally Meckling, OCSEA's communications director, told me July 8. She was referring to a march on June 29 to deliver a 1.3-million signature petition to the Ohio secretary of state — a plea to place a repeal of Senate Bill 5 on the ballot in the next election. "We had 6,200 people. I don't think they thought a thousand people would show.

"That was something we almost exclusively planned on social media," Meckling said later on in the conversation, adding that the whole event was put together in about a week with the help of those tools.

Statewide, the fight around Senate Bill 5 motivated an unprecedented use of social media by unions in Ohio, AFL-CIO Ohio's communications director, Jason Perlman, told me. In fact, that was part of why the unions were able to collect so many signatures on their petition to repeal the bill.

"A lot of the unions did, for the first time, put something online for their members, to be able to get involved versus the usual flyers," or being urged to come to a meeting, Perlman said.

"We did a lot of what we call drive-thrus," he added. "We would have folks in rural areas find a location somewhere. We would then use Facebook, people's personal Facebook, the union Facebook, the Central Labor Council's, to announce the event, both to recruit people to work it and to get it to the general public so that they'd know where they can go sign a petition."

In Florida in March, a coalition including labor unions organized 43 distributed protests against state budget cuts all on the same day, also primarily on Facebook. Called AWAKE the State, it was supposed to use a Salsa Labs software platform to create a website that would make it easy for people to organize events around the idea. But Ray Seaman, a staffer for Progress Florida and a lead organizer, says things didn't quite happen that way.

"We were a little late in actually getting the website up and running," he told me.

"The organic energy of this thing was happening so fast we had people literally within that 48-hour period, 72-hour period even, we already had a handful of events set up on Facebook," Seaman explained. "They weren't waiting for us."

And individual union members are tapping their connections to one another online to take action themselves. In February, after news of the AOL-Huffington Post merger broke and enraged some bloggers who contributed for free to a concern that was valued at the time at $315 million, some of them formed a Facebook group to organize social media campaigns against the Huffington Post, explore the possibility of legal action, and share links and information about the acquisition and about Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington. The Newspaper Guild used it to find recruits for its own actions, which have since extended to a boycott of the Post and a strike. Newspaper Guild organizer Writer Jonathan Tasini, who successfully sued the New York Times, has also filed a class-action lawsuit related to the Huffington Post merger.

"It's kind of grown into this community where people will say, 'Hey, Arianna's going to be in my neighborhood doing this talk or that event, can I go pass out flyers,' or, 'Does anybody want to come picket with me,'" said Sara Steffens, a former Newspaper Guild member who is now a staff representative with Communications Workers of America District 9, which encompasses California, Hawaii and Nevada. She occasionally assists the guild local in the Bay Area, called the Pacific Media Workers Guild.

Facebook organizes "people who might never have cause to meet but share this experience of just trying to make it as freelance journalists in this current economy," Steffens told me.

Does the Whipsaw Also Cut Faster?

But that ease of connectivity, the instantaneous nature of communications now, does as much to necessitate turning to blink-of-an-eye tools like Facebook or Twitter as it does to empower individuals. Is the Internet allowing Meckling, for example, from Ohio's public-sector employees union, to quickly respond to a barrage of threats, from Senate Bill 5 to budget cuts, or is it part of what sends them flying so quickly?

For the SEIU, the new environment warrants a shift in the way local — not just national-level — member organizations consider their work.

"To have someone whose role is to use technology as a complement to the traditional work of the local," said Tagaris, the SEIU new media director, "I'd just say that it was kind of about time for that."

Other organizations outside of labor agree. The state of Maryland hired former Washington, D.C. Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak as its first chief innovation officer; in the private sector, CitiGroup's Amy Radin was one of the first people to hold such a role. And the use of technology at play here extends beyond just social media — the AFL-CIO, for instance, uses a back-end system that extends email list and website management tools to its members.

The need for a sophisticated online presence is also not lost on Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose administration passed Senate Bill 5 and, says his spokesman Rob Nichols, fought off online and offline action from unions to make it into office in the first place.

"Everyone is communicating instantaneously," Nichols told me by phone Wednesday night. "I don't know how you would organize these campaigns 20 years ago on the scale that you can now. And that holds true with both sides."

Later in the conversation, though, he pointed out that the union's organizing had not stopped the passage of Senate Bill 5, or Kasich's election. (Meckling says that the union did manage to keep some collective bargaining rights, which she counts as a victory, or, at least, not a total loss.)

"Does it have a profound impact on the process?" Nichols asked, speaking of organizing on Facebook, and Twitter, and the use of other Internet tools. "Our budget's through, SB 5 is in place. I'll leave that to you and the pundits."

This post has been corrected.