||Issue No. 144||12 July 2002|
The Lotto Economy
Interview: Capital in Crisis
Industrial: No Sweat
Bad Boss: Super Spam
History: Living Treasures
International: Axis of Evil
Solidarity: Pride of Place
Technology: The Art of Cyber-Unionism
Poetry: The Masochism Tango
Satire: Foxtel-Optus Merger 'Anti-Repetitive'
Review: Bob Carr's Thoughtlines
The Locker Room
Week in Review
The Art of Cyber-Unionism
On the one hand Shostak uses, on his front cover, the word 'transformation'. On the other, he quotes, on a flyleaf, the words of that personification of 19th-20th century business unionism, Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, 1886-1924. Gompers asked and answered his own question: 'What does labor want? More.'. This was a quantitative answer to what had earlier been, and today may again be, a qualitative matter. So the question is raised, with respect to this book, as with his previous one (Shostak 1999, reviewed Waterman 1999:33-6) whether Shostak wants faster unions or transformed unions.
This is an edited and commented collection of mostly short pieces, written primarily by US union officers/activists/specialists, and divided into the following rubrics: 1) Surveying the field; 2 Getting started; 3. Email and list servers; 4. Websites; 5) Becoming a cyberunion; 6) Employing futuristics; 7) Innovations; 8) Services; 9) Honoring traditions; 10) Promoting democracy; 11) Promoting militancy; 12) Promoting organizing. There are preliminaries and conclusions. And then there are some 50 pages of appendices, offering: Labor website reviews; An internet resource guide; An annotated bibliography; An extensive index. (For the complete contents, see Appendix 1).
There is no doubt that this is the biggest and most detailed book in the field and that anyone involved seriously with inter/national labor computer communication should have one. Whether 40-50 accumulated chapters amounts to a handbook rather than an anthology may be in question. But Shostak's introductions to the book, to the parts and to each chapter individually are clearly intended to provide a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
Having recommended that readers buy this book, I now have to recommend how to read it. Not from front to back because: it is not an integrated overview; nor does it present an integrated argument or strategy; the contributions are often just 4-5 pages and mostly anecdotal. Possibly the book should be read by rubric title, if and as relevant to reader needs. Possibly, it could be approached by reading Shostak's introductions. He has, indeed, done so much work here that one wonders why he didn't write a short book and put all the illustrative material elsewhere! Readers could possibly use Shostak like the handbook it claims to be and work from the extensive index. They will certainly be able to make use of the appendices, though resources here are often predictable and redundant, such as the many union e-dresses one can find on many labor websites.
Strong on how-to and can-do, the book is weak on critique of hegemonic practices/discourses and on any alternative to such. The author thus handles informatization - a capitalist revolution that is simultaneously an epochal transformation - as if this were a change in the weather (though, as we know, weather changes are today themselves decreasingly natural). And he identifies with the existing union organizations, including an AFL-CIO leadership now seriously running out of reformist puff. It is not that he has no democratic values (so, possibly, did Gompers, alongside his racist and imperialist ones), nor that he is unaware of anti-democratic use of computers by employers and government. But Shostak does seem to believe that the severely shrunken, customarily top-down and often corrupt US union organizations, once powered by this new communications technology, can be 'transformed'. There is here a serious case for skepticism.
Let us consider the rubrics on Traditions (history? values?), Democracy, Militancy and Organizing. (Although without expecting too much, perhaps, from someone who puts Marx and Gompers on one line as 'alike' aiding internationalism (29)).
Shostak's introduction to Traditions is less a summary of, or commentary on, the following items than a series of - worthy - injunctions on how electronic media might be used in recording and propagating both historical and contemporary events and personages. (He also misses what has to be the inter/national labor history site, http://www.iisg.nl/. The following pieces, on training in internet use, and on an independent labor media center, are nonetheless useful expositions. The second one, by LaborTech coordinator, Steve Zeltzer, is one of the few that integrates the international into what is largely a national (not to say parochial) collection.
In his introduction to Democracy, Shostak cites Lane Kirkland (another AFL-CIO oligarch) but otherwise shows himself somewhat more attached to the matter than Kirkland was. He favors chatrooms, even unmoderated, as a space for rank-and-file members to express themselves. He favors equal space for a 'Loyal Opposition' (216) and, finally, when all else fails, he favors unofficial web sites and lists. The last is evidently a necessary recommendation, given that space for feedback and discussion are notably absent from most of the union sites reviewed in Ch. 46 (280-97).
Shostak's option for democracy is powerfully reinforced and advanced in the contribution by Matt Noyes, from the Association for Union Democracy. This is a complex and insightful argument about the relation of democracy to US unions and then of the internet to democracy. Noyes describes US unions, in passing, as customarily being one-party systems (239). Indeed, one gets from this contribution alone a good understanding of why they need 'transformation'. Noyes also gets the space (18 pages) to develop a radical position that does not require any own-trumpet-blowing. His piece also belongs - it strikes me - to a quite different tradition of writing about computers and unions, one that stands on the ground of radical democracy (rather than within the parameters of US-unionism-as-we-know-it) and which then considers the possibilities and limits of computerization.
The Militancy and Organizing sections again reveal Shostak's awareness of their current shortcomings in the USA, and of the capacity of computers for supporting strikes, for other protest activity, and for reaching both informatized and the non- or even anti-union workers (who can be the same). William Puete, in his contribution, states:
They say strikes aren't what they used to be, but more to the point, strikes can't be what they used to be in simpler times.Half of the US workforce regularly used a desktop or laptop computer at work as early as 1997, and the Internet is still recasting labor-management relations in fundamental ways. (252)
These two sections seem to me to get closer to where the bone is buried. Whilst contributions may continue the somewhat frenetically upbeat tone of the editor, they address themselves to the matter at hand with a strong feeling for what is new at work, in public life and even in the home. This sense of what is new, and an energetic engagement with it, is evident also in the Epilogue contribution of Peter Lewis, webmaster of Workers Online, a sophisticated and effective Australian site. Lewis is clearly aware of the difference between an old-economy organization and a new-economy network. And argues for unions to provide space for worker self-identification and organization, rather than trying to force cyberspace to conform to the institutional logic of the traditional union.
Having ploughed through this extensive work (and without even visiting the most interesting sites mentioned), I am still somewhat puzzled by its limitations. I think that these may have to do with its initial parameters (America/Unionism) as much as with Shostak's particular way of articulating these with cyberspace.
Unionism-as-we-know-it has to be understood as the means for self-defense and assertion of workers under the national-industrial phase of capitalism (a word curiously absent from this pro-labor book, though not from the daily discourse of anti-labor capitalists). 'National' implies that relations with other unions were literally inter-national, rather than trans- or supra-national. Often it has also meant imperial or racial (try these or related keywords, along with either 'Gompers' or 'Kirkland', in a Google search). 'Industrial' implies workers of mines, mills and factories, customarily with decreasing articulation over time with the community, non-unionized workers, womenfolk. (The AFL-CIO's 'Working Families' logo is a recognition of the problem but articulates it with the hegemonic discourse of 'family values'). Add to this company and/or state corporatism, with unions primarily focused on bargaining (a market concept), often putting a subordinate 'partnership' with employer and state - or a political party - before a democratic and egalitarian relationship with the rest of society, and you have a nutshell specification of the extent and limits of the creature that needs, at least in Shostak's title, to be transformed.
Mention, within the book, of community, social-issue movements, even the anti-globalization movement, is largely in terms of what unions can gain, or learn, from these - not of any more organic articulation that is surely necessary if unions are to even defend workers under contemporary conditions. Thus IndyMedia - an exemplar of cyberspatial networking, multimedia creativity, inspired by a global solidarity ethic, Born in the USA, coeval with the anti-globalization movement that created international awareness at the Battle of Seattle, multilingual, existing in Nigeria, Russia and Argentina as well as in Philadelphia, Kalamazoo (kidding!) and Boston - receives here no more than one reference, and then, misleadingly, as 'independent media centers'. Now, go online and compare http://www.indymedia.org/ with http://www.aflcio.org/, or even with http://www.global-unions.org/. And weep. Or, better, consider the challenge the former presents to the latter.
America. Or, to be less megalomaniac, the USA. This may be the birthplace of our globalized, informatized, financial and services capitalism. And there is no doubt that it is the belly, brain and brawn of the globalized beast. But the privilege, or provocation, this might provide to re-inventing the form of labor self-articulation has to be set off against a USAmerican sense of superiority, and a consequent insularity, that also powerfully affects its unionism. (I am not proposing, as alternative, the breast-beating syndrome in which anything non-, and especially anti-, USA is definitionally superior). The 'international' enters this book but rarely, and then almost solely in terms of what one might call North Atlantic Treaty Unionism (Korea, mentioned by Steve Zeltzer is an exception). International labor communication by computer has important North American roots. Mostly at the margins of the unions! But it has these equally in the UK, Hong Kong, continental Europe, and elsewhere. So has anecdotal evidence and critical reflection on the matter (see Bibliography below). Shostak's evident lack of awareness about such means that his positive commitment to the problem under consideration remains to a considerable extent parochial and simplistic.
After praising this book with faint damns, I do nonetheless again recommend it to the reader. It is full of interesting experiences and political/technical initiatives - such as that of Eric Lee's 'Labor Newswire' (167-71). It may not be State of the Art, but it is State of Play, and if the nuggets are not exposed to the naked eye, they are there to be dug for.
Arthur B. Shostak (ed). The CyberUnion Handbook: Transforming Labor Through Computer Technology. Armonk (NJ): M.E. Sharpe. 2002. 359 pp.
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