1000 Digital Strategists for the Labor Movement

Before the new year I was lucky enough to attend LaborTech, a conference organized by Steve Zeltzer, a long time labor activist in the Bay Area (and other great folks!) It’s an important conference for many reasons; my favorite is that it asks everyone to imagine themselves as being in the driver’s seat. What are the big questions for labor when it comes to technology and media? How can you contribute? This is my answer to that question.

A Labor/New Media Conference to Unite Us All…

Imagine a conference called Labor Organizes Online. No, it doesn’t exist yet, don’t worry about when and where. But if it were to take place, who would show up to make it a success?

If the thirty international unions most active in organizing drives participated in full force, we’d have at least thirty webmasters, thirty online campaigning specialists and maybe thirty communications staff. Easily 100 career professionals. But what if we add key online staff from ten largest state labor federations, the top twenty central labor councils, the top thirty labor related campaigns and affiliates – from Jobs with Justice to the Social Security Campaign to American Rights at Work; from the Solidarity Center to the National Labor College to the International Labor Communications Association.) This would attract delegations from the top vendors of online campaigning software (Wired for Change, Blue State Digital), web development firms and experts (Advomatic, Prometheus, Unions-America.com) and organizations or businesses that specialize in voting (NGP+VAN), strategy (Echoditto) and grassroots mobilization (Progressive Technology Project.) And what about the Analyst Institute, New Organizing Institute, Aspiration, and all the rest? (if you don’t recognize most or all of these names – you’re a good candidate for this fantasy conference.)

We’re easily up to 300 now.

Imagine if we add to that a couple hundred organizers and campaigners not yet using online tools as they should – or as they will be a few years from now. Some labor academics from our nation’s labor studies programs. Labor journalists. Students getting a degree in labor studies. Interns working for unions. Former union staff working for media and political strategy consulting firms. Elected union leaders who actually make the decisions about budgets for training, infrastructure, and staffing.

Are we up to a thousand yet? Everyone with stories to tell, skills to learn and to teach, unafraid to admit that when it comes to online organizing, the need is greater than the supply.

Add to them our Canadian counterparts (we love Canada!). The solidarity economy experts. The non-union labor organizations like Domestic Workers United or the Freelancers Union. Worker centers. Immigrant rights organizers. Civic engagement entities. And the major online progressive organizations like MoveOn, Color of Change, Presente and Get Equal.

If this sounds like a souped up version of Netroots Nation, you’re missing the point. Netroots Nation is indeed a fantastic event. I went last year, and I’m going again this year. But it’s a primary mission is to celebrate and enhance the progressive netroots, which is why politicians and individual campaigns feature so prominently. Despite the admirable work to expand the circle and bring newbies in, NN is just a tad insular and high-falutin’ – in a good way. It’s not an alternative to an online organizing labor-palooza.

It’s a sad fact that no one is trying to gather the vertical niche comprised of ‘labor technologists active in media production, communications and organizing.’ DC based events and organizations, any sort of national, one time or annual event will necessarily fail because of the expense, time and mental energy required. Too many divisions and misunderstandings lie between the current moment and the fantasy of bringing us all together. One Big Union (of labor technologists and online campaigners) seems far-fetched.

But wouldn’t it be great? We’d be learning from each other, training newbies and grizzled movement veterans alike, exchanging notes about software solutions, consultants, best practices, online to offline, engagement politics, making the career ladder for our work recognized more widely, and getting Rich Trumka or Liz Shuler to deliver a speech we ghost write called ‘ten things labor can and must do to compete with the corporate agenda – online.’ Sweet.

Break It Down

If we could have a training event for labor  in a different city every two weeks for an entire year, it would be a massive step in the right direction. The training conference ‘Organizing 2.0’ that took place last year, and again this coming Feb. 13 in New York City, might represent examples for others. But at the risk of talking above my pay grade, allow me to define a single goal: The creation of one thousand labor movement digital strategists.

The phrase digital strategist is only one of many that could serve. It’s that man or woman that you can ask anything tech related, and if they don’t have the answer, at least they have an answer. And if they don’t have an answer, they know precisely where to go – which specialized listerv, which colleague, consultant or vendor, which plugin, software or service might solve a particular problem faced by this or that effort.

Creating one thousand new labor movement digital strategists in 2011 is a big job and can’t be owned by any single organization. It’s got to be crowd-sourced to some degree, a grassroots led and grasstops supported effort that plugs into the right sub communities. The entire effort could be financed many times over with the money not wasted on crap-tastic websites, overpriced old-school media consultants, sweetheart deals with someone’s cousin or a printing firm with a new and barely functioning ‘online arm.’

How You Can Participate

Like this idea? Set a date. Decide, right now for the training event or conference that will serve YOUR labor organization. Not all of us are the experts we’d like to become someday. But together, we can move the ball forward a great deal. There are many knowledgeable experts around the country just waiting to be asked to help.

What do you think?