What can unions learn from Facebook?

I like to keep an eye on academic work on cyberunionism. There’s not a lot of it about, probably because trade union use of new technology is still fairly minimal. Also, the fast pace of technological change doesn’t fit in well with the academic cycle: it takes time to research, analyse, write, peer review and publish a piece of work, and the fast pace of change means the article can quite possibly be obsolete by the time it is published.

Nevertheless, it is good to see academics making a serious attempts to address the implications of new technologies for trade unions. When my colleague and friend Ian Manborde sent me an article from the latest issue of the Labor History journal called Online social networking and trade union membership: what the Facebook phenomenon truly means for labor organizers (Bryson, A; Gomez, R and Willman, P 2010) I was very pleased to read it.

It was an interesting read. The article is not about using social media such as Facebook for union work, but about the cultural implications of new technology and what it means for unions. 

It was quite perceptive and approached the issue of union decline from some important and interesting angles, notable the change in culture and the way social reinforcement works with regard to the way people see unions. They point out that the benefits of union membership are difficult to see unless you are in a unionised workplace with a good recognition agreement and an effective representative structure. Because it is hard work for unorganised workers to reach this point, there are huge initial barriers to getting people to join trade unions. They contrast this with Facebook, which offers good returns for little investment, and ask what unions can learn from this.

However, I found the article ultimately a little frustrating because I felt the authors were grappling with an important insight they couldn’t quite articulate. They are saying that society has fractured, atomised and balkanised since the 1950s, and there are few mass activities. This makes union organising hard, as current union structures are predicated on a mass culture. But despite this atomisation, Facebook has been immensely successful and has become part of mass culture. Unions should learn from this and adopt the attributes of Facebook to become part of mass culture again.

The problem is that they are not really clear on what attributes of Facebook make it really successful. They do mention ease of use, making the developer API available (so that programmers can write Facebook apps), and the fact that there is very low initial investment for users (5 minutes to join Facebook) for potential substantial return (hundreds of new friends). However, there are ten thousand things on the Internet that have the above characteristics, and fail to attract millions of users.

They have no real idea of how the positive attributes described above are transferable to unions, other than to suggest that organisational structures need to be reimagined. I agree with this, but they need to be less abstract.

Facebook is successful because it fills a specific need: the human desire to be social, to be seen, and to share information. It’s successful because it makes it easy to do this.

If unions really want to learn from the Facebook experience, they need to decide what need they fill in the lives of ordinary workers, and then make it as easy as possible to meet that need. I don’t know why the article couldn’t communicate that. To be quite realistic, unions seem useless to most workers. Union activists know that unions raise the average wages in society, make things safer and fairer etc., but this is not apparent to most people in the workplace. What can we do to communicate a message that is relevant to the modern workplace?

It’s also important to remain cognisant of Facebook’s exploitative relationship with its users: Facebook’s business model is to data mine user information and sell it to advertisers, and there is an antagonism between user’s desire for control over privacy, and Facebook’s quest for the maximum amount of information. A union’s relationship to its members is, hopefully, healthier than this.

For unions interested in exploring Internet business models for fun and profit, it might be worth adopting a freemium membership model. Freemium is the dominant web 2.0 business model: a basic but decent service provided for free, with a comprehensive service that you pay extra for. Survey Monkey is a good example: you can do basic surveys to a 100 people for free, but if you pay you get a really excellent, unlimited survey tool. Free accounts cost Survey Monkey nothing but a little bandwidth, and act as excellent advertisers. If unions used this model they could overcome the initial barriers to membership and bring new groups of workers into the fold without requiring a great commitment from them.

In a freemium model, some one could join the union for free, and get access to free online employment advice, possibly supplemented by an advice centre they could email and phone. The advice would have to be sound but generic, but crucially it would give unions important organising leads. If freemium members like their initial experience, they can become full members by paying, and getting representation, legal advice, collective bargaining in the workplace, lifelong learning and more.

I think this is worth trying, either through the TUC or a big general union. It would overcome initial barriers to union membership and give unions the opportunity to communicate to people what they offer.

I know that academic articles tend not to be very prescriptive, but I would have preferred it if this article had given some practical suggestions about Facebook-inspired organising models.

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