Boots Online: Digital At #AFLCIO13

The advance of online tools and digital strategy is very much in evidence at the AFL-CIO Convention. Some data points:

  • The listening sessions conducted for many months included robust online conversations.
  • There is now a Digital Department that has had thousands of participants in online webinars and offline training events.
  • A number of well-regarded netroots pros have been hired over the last two years.
  • Quite a few advanced software projects have been rolled out, or will be soon, including the Labor Web’s replacement and the RePurpose election tool.

So it was a pleasant surprise, though not a complete shock, to see that the most prominent booth display at the convention was for the Digital Dept., complete with an amazing “Boots Online!” sign.

Jessica Morales of the AFL-CIO Digital Dept.

Jessica Morales of the AFL-CIO Digital Dept.

It’s also been great witnessing a robust conversation on the official hashtag #aflcio13. One journalist present even suggested that part of the program – dozens of 90 minute action sessions – were “designed to give the proceedings the trendy buzz of a Netroots Nation conference.” Sounds good, right?

We’ve been advocating since 2009 that unions take digital strategy more seriously. This requires a number of things all done at the same time, including:

  • Strong, public support from the top for this direction.
  • Changes in job titles, duties, and the mix of staffer specialties in communications and organizing departments.
  • Actually organizing the digital aspects of unions with metrics and evaluations.
  • Finding ways for the digitally savvy to exert what we might call ‘expertise based influence’ that does not derive from how long they’ve been employed, who they know, or their spot on the pecking order.
  • Pushing change to the edge of the labor movement – the locals – and assigning appropriate resources to make that happen. (As opposed to merely having a decent team at the International working on strategic campaigns.)
  • Working with a wider array of capacity building partners and encouraging more local connections between unions and capacity building opportunities outside the union- or labor-movements. (Like NTEN, local alternative media conferences, and of course Organizing 2.0.)
  • Setting a goal of training 1000 digital strategists inside the labor movement – and making it easy to find out where they are.
  • Helping locals evaluate the cost and quality of digital communications services that they purchase.
  • Launching a Circuit Rider program that creates jobs for social media and digital strategy freelancers to work with multiple locals at the same time, as part of a coordinated, managed and sustainable effort to help every local – not just the strong ones.
  • Collecting case studies across a wide array of situations and make them available for inspiration, with an appropriate taxonomy. Include both successes AND failures.

The union movement is clearly on the right track when it comes to integrating online and offline organizing, and this convention sets some very positive precedents for that work. But in the rush to celebrate accomplishments, it’s easy to skip over the need for an accurate map of the terrain. The labor movement is weak and it needs as much help and as many allies as it can get. AFL-CIO President Trumka has made it clear that he wants to open-source the labor movement, creating programs, tools and campaigns that everyone can join, modify, and share. Those of us excited about how new communication tools can make a difference for the labor movement have a duty to accept that challenge.

[Got ideas and feedback of your own? Offer them here or on Twitter!]

Live Blogging The AFL-CIO Convention (Part 1)

Organizing 2.0 is here at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles. We hope to cover some topics of interest to the broader labor movement and investigate some of our favorite topics. If you’re just getting started in all things AFL-CIO Convention, consider starting with Josh Eidelson at The Nation and Labor Notes’ collection of ten great articles. If you just want the short version, this might be it:

Unions are in decline. Past efforts to organize more workers did not reverse the trend. Have we reached the bottom of the trough? Is there enough pain to force enough labor leaders to think and act differently? AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is proposing new kinds of relationships with environmentalists, civil rights groups and others; but the devil is in the details, and we simply do not know how these initiatives will pan out.

Meanwhie the alt-labor sector is generating a lot of attention. Is the future of labor to be found in worker centers, community-labor alliances, fast-food workers, domestic workers and others traditionally outside the union movement? Will minority unionism or direct action unionism stage a comeback? We just don’t know, but increasingly, such efforts are being prioritized by various unions – especially SEIU (fast food) and UFCW (OUR Walmart).

This is what most of the ink spilled will be about. My own interests are a little less macro and meta, though it’s unclear if I can learn much about them at this convention.

  • The last big push for organizing (in the 90′s) has a spotty record. Even when large unions took the plunge and spent big in an effort to organize the unorganized, it just didn’t add up. The cost per new member was too high. At a time when organizing is prioritized (again), we should be asking: how and why will this be different? Do unions have new, proven and cost-effective organizing strategies and tactics waiting to be rolled out? Or are we in the verge of another experiment that might fail?
  • The average age of a union member continues to go up. The chances of a young worker belonging to a union are in decline. What does the ‘young worker movement’ mean for the vast majority of young workers unlikely to ever see the inside of a union hall?
  • Organizing has changed dramatically as a result of new communications technologies. But the tools of online organizing are only rarely well integrated with the tools of offline organizing. To a large extent, the changes that the new Digital Department seeks to implement across the labor movement are in their infancy. What is the state of this transition?
  • The vast majority of workers in America don’t belong to a union. To the extent that supporting the labor movement is an attractive political or social opportunity, unions have not been very good at creating them for non-union members. Working America is the largest ‘labor solidarity’ organization meant to address this need. But actually, there are many labor solidarity efforts built by and for individuals who want to play a role in the labor movement that does not correspond to their day job. What is the future of this sector? How is it perceived by labor leaders? Can we expect increased attention paid to groups like Jobs with Justice, 99 Pickets, Brandworkers and Occupy related efforts?

If you have questions – or answers – please add them below or tweet me @organize20.