Technology, Electoral Politics, and the Rank and File

This article by Kati Sipp at New Labor Forum argues that organized labor, to its great detriment, has been “a late adopter” of things like social media, clever subject lines, database management, and “digital organizing” in general – “if they have adopted them at all.” Sure, unions could probably be better at these types of things, but it seems to me that that the author places way too much hope in the power of technology. In many ways, this article is very much like a report by the Century Foundation that acted like “a virtual labor organizing platform” was basically the best thing since sliced bread. Waging Nonviolence had the appropriate response: “It’s not as if, however, more workers aren’t unionized because they simply don’t have the right apps.”

Sipp notes that she “spent a good chunk of my work life straddling the intersection of the labor movement and the electoral world” and this is definitely reflected in her opinions. She basically wants unions to be run like political campaigns, even though she acknowledges that the two exist in different environments and have different needs. Nonetheless, she thinks unions are behind the times because if she wants to “use my member data for routine political organizing,” it’s “clunky” to go from a regular old database to something like VAN, where it would be easy to find each member’s legislative district. I find great irony in this. If you’re concerned about how to best organize workers, maybe that’s what you should be spending your time doing? Organizing is not rocket science, but a lot of effort does have to go into it. Technology can help, but that’s all it can do. Despite what Sipp thinks, finding workers is really not that hard and putting a list of workers together is actually a good exercise for organizing committees. On the other hand, if you’re sending out your staff and members to knock on doors for politicians during election season or doing turnout for their events or putting on a show just for them – you’re not doing the work of organized labor, you’re just shilling for a political party. Any time that unions spend on promoting or lobbying politicians is time that isn’t being spent to organize workers, and an organized workforce – not a mildly friendly politician – is where unions’ strength lies.

There’s one other thing about this article I’d be remiss not to mention: no one should be advocating for less rank-and-file control of unions. According to Sipp, “In addition to seniority, some unions are devoted to hiring from within their own rank and file—a noble practice, when it comes to ensuring that business agents and organizers are deeply in touch with the concerns of the members—but a potentially limiting one, where expertise in use of technology is required. It should not surprise us that a person who has spent her life learning to be the best kindergarten teacher possible, for example, is not also an expert in programming SQL databases.” This is the lamest excuse for taking even further control out of the hands of workers I think I have ever seen.

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