"Workers On The Net, Unite!"- InformationWeek Aug 22, 1994 Cover Story
                     I n f o r m a t i o n W e e k 
August 22, 1994                                               Cover Story

                       Workers On The Net, Unite!
        Labor goes online to organize, communicate, and strike

                       By Montieth M. Illingworth

        Copyright (c) 1994 by InformationWeek. This electronic 
        posting is not for commercial use. All rights reserved.
            Distributed by IGC-LaborNet with permission.


Organized labor is going online. Don't believe it? Just ask Marc Belanger,
who runs SoliNet, the only nationwide computer network owned and operated
by a labor union. 

SoliNet (Solidarity Computer Conferencing Network) is the computer
conferencing network of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE),
Canada's largest union. The network has 1,500 users drawn from the ranks
of CUPE and 20 other unions. But Belanger, CUPE's technology coordinator,
dreams of someday giving a password to every union member in the country,
or 14 million people. "To benefit from the information highway, we have to
build some of it," says Belanger from his office in Ottawa.  "Otherwise,
we'll be left behind."

Belanger suddenly has lots of company. In both the U.S. and Canada,
several unions are reaching similar conclusions about the Networked Age.
In the past, many unions viewed information technology (IT) mainly as a
threat to their members' jobs. While that mind-set persists, unions also
see power in computer networks, and they're determined to gain their
share. Some labor leaders also believe technologies could stop, or at
least slow, the loss of union membership. 

Labor's embrace of IT is taking several forms. The AFL-CIO operates a
private online conference on the CompuServe network that lets its members
communicate electronically. The Communications Workers of America (CWA)
uses a computer network to plan a possible strike.  And the United Food
and Commercial Workers Union is raising tough questions about the rights
of workers who use company computers at home. 

Also, as labor moves online, it is joined by white-collar workers.
Historically, unions have represented electricians, factory hands, and
other blue-collar workers, while white-collar employees were typically
considered management. 

Times have changed. Today, some white-collar employees at troubled
computer makers IBM and Digital Equipment Corp. use labor-sponsored
networks to share information.  "When hard times hit, it all comes down to
information--who has it, and when you get it," says Rand Wilson, a labor
organizer working with Digital employees. 

Belanger started building SoliNet in 1986, originally for the 450,000
teachers and hospital, municipal, and university workers who make up
CUPE's membership. He is unique in that he, not a telephone or
telecommunications company, created the first national computer
communications network in Canada. 

Belanger believed a lot was riding on who would be first.  "If we didn't
do it," he says, "management would have, and that could put labor at a
disadvantage. It's important for labor to have the power of technology."

SoliNet took time to build, mostly because Belanger had to raise enough
money to buy a central Digital VAX minicomputer, but also because
networking hundreds of union locals all over Canada is a complex job.
SoliNet has proved its value, Belanger says, many times over. 

In 1989, for instance, when a caretaker local at the Hope, British
Columbia, school system went on strike, SoliNet helped win the day. CUPE
officials, learning that the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang was coming to
Hope for a meeting, invited the notorious bikers to picket with the
caretakers.  When the gang accepted the invitation, the news went out over
SoliNet. The word spread fast and soon leaked to the other side in the
strike talks. The result? "They settled," says Belanger. 

Sense Of Solidarity

SoliNet also creates a sense of community among CUPE locals by providing
them with news, information, and support. The net--which now connects with
the Internet-- has more than 100 online conferences covering topics of
interest to its member unions. Special month-long conferences deal with
hot-button issues such as free trade and work-force diversity. Local union
officers also download stories from the newsline and incorporate them into
newsletters. SoliNet will even be used as an online classroom, linking
teachers and students in a labor-degree program offered by the University
of Athabaska in Alberta. 

Belanger hopes SoliNet will link unionized employees of Pizza Pizza Ltd.,
a Canadian fast-food delivery company that last year was embroiled in a
strike after it wanted to replace union members with non-union workers.
The union members won the right to keep their jobs--except that they had
to work at home (see story, p. 34). "If you take people out of a social
work setting, then you should have a cyberspace setting so they can
interact," says Belanger.  But more than that, he adds, it's about
empowerment, or what he calls "L'earning." That is, learning more enables
workers to earn more. 

Budding Network

Online bulletin boards, popularized by computer hobbyists in the '80s and
now the playthings of the Internet, are also proving to be useful tools
for organized labor. While a handful of U.S. union locals have quietly
operated bulletin board services for at least eight years, now one of the
most powerful union federations in the country--the AFL- CIO, with 14
million members--has a budding national computer conferencing network on
CompuServe called LaborNet. 

The number of LaborNet users is small--only 360 people-- and the AFL-CIO
has decided for now to limit use to union leaders. But that may soon
change. In late July, the CWA, a 700,000-member union that's affiliated
with the AFL-CIO, held a private conference for 60 locals in the South
involved in a contract dispute with communications and manufacturing giant
GTE Corp. That's also a test-run for much bigger plans. The CWA intends to
link up 500 other locals next year, either on LaborNet or on an
independent network--when negotiations begin with AT&T and the seven
regional Bell companies. "We want to share information with the rank and
file," says Marcia Devaney, a public relations coordinator with the CWA.
"That's the point."

There are other labor nets, too. The Institute for Global Communications
(IGC), a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, has since May 1992
operated a network that's also called LaborNet (the name isn't
copyrighted). It has about 300 users representing 150 unions, including
the Service Employees Industrial Union and the United Farm Workers, plus
labor lawyers, educators, and labor activists. This LaborNet comprises 32
online conferences, such as the one conducted by the 2,000-member National
Employment Lawyers' Association to discuss labor law and litigation. 

LaborNet also has current and archived labor news from around the world
and full Internet access, which includes a link-up with SoliNet. Users pay
$15 to sign up, a $10 monthly fee (it includes an hour of online time),
and up to $7 for each additional hour of online connection. 

The Colorado Cougar, based in Thornton, Colo., is a network of
labor-oriented computer bulletin boards geared for rank-and-file workers.
Like the IGC's LaborNet, it is part of the Internet and has ties with
similar networks that are cropping up around the world. These include
Glasnet in Russia, WorkNet in South Africa, Geonet in Germany, and Poptel
in the United Kingdom. 

Some U.S. labor organizers believe computer conferencing networks may help
rejuvenate their cause. The unions have been losing members steadily since
1970, when membership peaked at more than 19 million people, or more than
a quarter of the work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Today, union members account for less than 16% of the work force (though
membership in Canada is close to 40%). "Uniting has never been more
feasible or more necessary," says organizer Wilson. 

Wilson got his first taste of the power of networking during the CWA's
1989 strike against Nynex Corp. He helped the union organize the strike
and to use AT&T's EasyLink electronic-mail system to distribute strike
news and negotiation updates to 60,000 members in 30 locals in New York
and New England. 

"Information is everything during a strike," says Wilson.  "The greatest
value of E-mail was damage control. Rumors about the negotiations could be
laid to rest almost instantly." The strike ended with the CWA victorious
in most of its demands. 

Since then, Wilson has become director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice,
a community/labor coalition for workers' rights. Soon after he found out
about the IGC's LaborNet, he joined. 

Democratic Medium

Just as E-mail networks have enabled workers in the private sector to
communicate more freely, so have these services enhanced communications
among union members. 

"It's an inherently democratic medium," says Michael Stein, a LaborNet
coordinator. "We want union leadership to join, but we also encourage
workers to sign up individually and exchange ideas with other workers in
different industries. That kind of cross-sector link isn't supported by
union leadership." Adds Wilson: "I can see the networks eliminating a lot
of middle-layer functions among the union bosses, and that must be
freaking them out."

The AFL-CIO, for one, has decided not to let technology get too far ahead
of leadership. In 1992, it established LaborNet on CompuServe Information
Services. Today, users pay CompuServe's $8.95 monthly fee plus an extra $5
per month for unlimited access to LaborNet. While the AFL-CIO is a
federation of 86 national unions representing auto workers, actors,
miners, truckers, steelworkers, communications employees, and others, only
a handful of those unions have signed on. 

More significantly, the AFL-CIO service is targeted at stewards and above
from the 600 city central and 51 state labor federations, says Blair
Calton, LaborNet's coordinator. It's primarily a means for union bosses to
talk to other bosses. 

That has limited LaborNet's value to the rank and file, argues SoliNet's
Belanger, who has written to AFL-CIO leaders to encourage them to develop
the network further-- and to do it independently. "There is power in
knowing how the networks work," he says. Organizer Wilson agrees, but says
he knows why the AFL-CIO took its approach. "They want to control the
information just like everybody else," he says. 

Online services are encouraging some white-collar workers to organize,
too. After Digital announced in July that it would eliminate 20,000 jobs
worldwide, company employees in the U.S. and Germany contacted organizer
Wilson via IGC's LaborNet. They sought his advice on how they could get
together to discuss their options. As a result, a Digital workers' meeting
is being planned. 

White-collared IBMers may be joining them. Big Blue plans to lay off more
than 70,000 employees this year, and Lee Conrad, head of IBM Workers
United, an employee association, is also experiencing the "solidarity
effect" of the labor networks. 

Conrad, an assembler/tester in IBM's Endicott, N.Y., plant, started the
group in the mid-1970s. Though all he has to show for his efforts today is
a 150-subscriber newsletter called The Resistor, both the reach of that
newsletter and the power of his group are poised to expand. 

Conrad says many IBM employees are already commiserating on Prodigy, an
online service jointly run by Sears, Roebuck & Co. and--ironically--IBM.
Conrad is also on the Delphi commercial online service. From there he
exchanges E-mail with a handful of IBM managers around the U.S., plus
labor activists on IGC's LaborNet (including some Europe-based Digital
workers). Conrad intends to join LaborNet, and he hopes to put The
Resistor online as an electronic magazine. "A year ago, IBM management
would announce plant closings and layoffs nationally. They stopped doing
that. Now we don't find out about it until it's too late," Conrad says.
"Online, we can get that information ourselves directly from the people

But will white-collar workers actually want to organize around specific
issues with their blue-collar brethren?  Online chat and story swapping is
one thing, but taking action is quite another. All that can be measured
now is a temperament. There are signs that a growing number of
people--both blue- and white-collar--are open to the possibility of joint
action. "What's needed are pioneer efforts by volunteers," says one
Digital worker in an E-mail posting on the LaborNet. "I'd be proud to work
with them."


No Middle Ground

What happens when home workers and management can't agree on technology? 

There are days when Carol Van Helvoort feels as though she's working in an
electronic sweatshop. Unfortunately, that sweatshop is her apartment. 

Van Helvoort works at home on a computer terminal processing orders for
pizza delivery franchise Pizza Pizza Ltd. of Toronto, and she finds it
isolating. "I end up not going out at all most days," she says. 

But Van Helvoort is not a typical home worker. In fact, she's a member of
the only electronic home-worker union in North America, Local 175-633 of
the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Along with other union
members, Van Helvoort argues that she should be able to use her terminal
to communicate with co-workers. But Pizza Pizza doesn't want the terminals
used for any purpose other than processing orders. 

Can a company dictate what an employee working at home does with its
equipment during personal time? Don't look to the labor laws for much
help, either in Canada or the U.S. "A 'yes' is not a given," says John
Hornbeck, assistant general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board
in Washington. 

Van Helvoort's predicament, ironically, arises from a strike launched by
her union in late 1992, after the UFCW learned that Pizza Pizza had
replaced most of its 150 unionized order-takers with non-union,
self-employed home workers, saving itself about C$4 an hour per employee.
"It was a joke," says Gord Slater, an order- taker since 1990. "Every day
when we came to work, there were fewer of us."

In August 1992, the company informed the remaining workers that the room
they worked in would be closed, supposedly because there wasn't enough
work for them.  The union found out about the use of the independent home
workers and went on strike. 

The dispute was resolved a year later. Van Helvoort and 25 others agreed
to work from home as unionized employees for the much lower wage of C$7 an
hour, or 1% of gross sales plus 10 cents per call, which-ever is higher in
a given week. Pizza Pizza retained the right to use independents and now
employs 75 non-union home order- takers. 

Van Helvoort feels she won the war but lost the peace.  Aside from her
unhappiness about working at home, she thinks her situation undermines the
union. "If someone needs me immediately to discuss a problem, I can't be
reached," she says. "I want other home workers to know there's somebody to

Whether permission to communicate with other employees will be granted is
an open question. Though Van Helvoort believes that a loophole in her
contract permits it, she still wants to work out an agreement with Pizza
Pizza.  The UFCW is trying to arrange a meeting with management.  "We will
encourage the company to allow workers to use the terminals to access a
bulletin board or network," says Bill Richardson, the UFCW representative
in charge of dealing with Pizza Pizza. 

How far will the union go to defend what it sees as a right to
communicate? Will the outcome create a precedent for the private use of
corporate equipment in the home? 

Stay tuned.	--M. M. I.

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