These days there are many new ways for people who are not members of a labor union to participate in the labor movement. In addition to working with existing unions people can become members of Working America or join the OWS offshoot 99 Pickets. If you work in the sector they represent you can join the Freelancers Union, OUR Walmart, Fast Food Forward or one of the many new worker centers like the Restaurant Opportunities Center. or Retail Action Project. Unions as well as these newer entities are all making calls for solidarity from the public in the form of petition signatures, help with picketing and demonstrations, boycotts, and help spreading the word on social media. But with rare exceptions, they do not have a structure for engaging with skilled volunteers – what many are calling knowledge donors.
Managing volunteers can be a challenge no matter what; but managing knowledge donors is a step beyond that. Organizations that have relied on groups of interchangeable supporters to show up at a certain time, perform an action, and then go home aren’t always able to handle individual volunteers with a specific skill. This can be complicated even more with tensions around volunteers who don’t represent your core constituency. What do you do with someone who isn’t even a member, might not come from the same community, and has a generational or class difference from the people they are trying to help? No wonder you won’t find many examples of knowledge donors in the labor world.
Organizing 2.0 is launching a new effort to recruit skilled volunteers who will be in service to labor and community organizing struggles. We’re looking specifically for digitally applicable skills, including social media proficiency, writing for the web, graphic design, online video, web development, trainers in digital tools and online advertising. These are the skill sets that (we observe) many union locals do not have. Even very large union locals are sometimes configured in such a way that staff are unable to run a real digital media campaign.
We have seen many cases where union locals go on strike — an action they have been preparing for for weeks or months — but don’t have a plan for social media outreach or any online communications. It’s only once the strike is imminent that they realize that they want additional support from the broader public and see the internet as a means for getting it and of putting pressure on the employer. However, the union local doesn’t have a plan for how to get that support or relationships with people who can help them. Sometimes they come to Organizing 2.0 for help at the last minute. We want to be able to do that at a larger scale. In particular, we want to help those who ‘don’t know who or how to ask.’
Our plan is to look for both knowledge donors and labor or community organizing fights that can benefit from them. By connecting and applying our knowledge and understanding of both labor and digital strategy, we can make a difference that is both meaningful and visible.
Of course, questions remain. Will we be able to recruit, train, manage and retain skilled volunteers? Will we find willing partners interested in their help? We think so but we’re not sure. As an organization run entirely by volunteers, everything we ever do has a certain question mark over it. But we do have a track record of training and engaging thousands of people at events over nearly four years. We’ve built an amazing Advisory Board (details coming soon!). And a great many of our peers working in the labor movement have offered encouragement and support for this new direction. Plus we’ve already done this on a micro scale for a few locals.
We can’t wait to find out. Meanwhile, everyone reading our post is encouraged to help us figure this out. Please – offer your suggestions and questions below, and sign up if you a)have skills and b)want to contribute them to help workers win labor fights.