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.

Next Up Young Workers Summit

From the Wisconsin state capitol to Egypt´s Tahrir Square and all throughout America´s labor movement, young workers are making a difference.

Join hundreds of young organizers, student activists and leaders who will come together in Minneapolis Sept. 29-Oct. 2 for the second annual AFL-CIO Next Up Young Workers Summit. This year´s summit will focus on educating, empowering, and mobilizing young workers for a just 21st Century Economy.

Participants will have the option to choose between 30 different trainings and plenaries ranging from state battles to the attacks on voting rights, all while developing the tools to build strong coalitions between community and youth groups across the country.

Register online before September 1 at to benefit from the reduced registration price of just $25.

Let´s take this opportunity to come together as young workers and organizers to build the kind of future we want.

The World Wide ILCA

The International Labor Communicators Association (ILCA) is having its biennial conference in Seattle this week, September 21-24. I’ll be attending for the first time and invite all those who care about or work with the labor community to catch up on the work of this important organization.

The first thing to understand about ILCA is that once upon a time it was ILPA – the International Labor Press Association. The labor press has a grand and storied history in the United States. There was a time when newspapers produced by and for union members competed successfully with the establishment press. Labor journalism wasn’t simply about labor struggles, it was the entirety of journalism, covering all fields of human activity – but from a class conscious perspective.

For many of us on the front lines of progressive organizing, the importance of the labor press might not be readily apparent. The fact is, there has been a decline of the labor press for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that the labor movement is in crisis. But for union staff, grassroots leaders and the engaged rank and file, newsletters and magazines published by the union are sources of great pride. That said, print publications were mostly founded long before unions members had access to the internet. We know what the internet did to regular newspapers; perhaps the same process is taking place in the labor press.

I first learned about ILCA in 2009, while working for the Working Families Party in New York. As an online organizer, I wanted to know: what exactly is a ‘labor communicator’ in the 21st century? Does it include bloggers on labor issues like Laura Clawson and other Kossacks? Does it include webmasters who manage content without producing it? What about those who draft emails, or use online communication tools for organizing?

My answers to these questions come from private conversations I’ve had with ILCA members and leaders. Let’s remember that ILCA was built around labor print publications, and membership was often related to the specific publication and how many copies were circulating. That said, the folks in charge weren’t ignorant of the rise of the internet, the shift of content to the web, the rise of self-produced video and audio content, and the reduction in budgets for print publications. An example of how they are adapting can be seen in the annual awards programs they run, which include categories for websites and use of social media.

The last few ILCA conferences featured a website devoted to the host city, with content created by the conference delegates. This is the Pittsburgh Media Center, from 2009. This is the New Orleans Labor Project, from 2007. After next week, you’ll see the Seattle effort, with a mix of stories chosen by the conference organizers and assigned to attendees. This activity is a great way to highlight the role of labor journalism and gives members a chance to showcase the great work they can do.

Digital Challenges
While celebrating the role of labor journalism, it might make sense this year to have a broader conversation about the future of labor communications. I asked the folks at to send me data about job descriptions in which the word ‘communications’ was mentioned. Looking them over for the past few years, it’s clear that a number of job categories are changing.

First of all, there is greater need for more technically skilled staff to work directly within union departments instead of as consultants or with vendors. Producing video on a regular basis using flipcams is different than hiring someone to make a well-produced video for a specific purpose. Is the union member using flipcam video as part of an organizing campaign a communicator? What about the staff member who distributed 20 cameras in the first place?

Second, email, web and social media communication channels are being used across departments and for different purposes than newspapers. While there are fewer jobs devoted to writing stories about labor, more and more have to engage in story-telling and mass communication as part of their job.

Third, we have the rise of a new function, not yet well integrated into the structure of the labor movement. Call it ‘digital strategy.’ In the good old days, important campaigns might have had access to ‘strategic campaign consultants’ who focused on messaging, and to a lesser extent press relations and advertising buys. But today, as important as those functions are, their practitioners are often absent when decisions have to be made about responding in real time to social media, adopting new technologies, implementing tools across staff roles, and keeping in close contact with those outside the labor movement working in the same professional space. There’s a reason why SEIU created a new department for New Media that was separate from the pre-existing Communications department.

It is probably true already that the number of webmasters, videographers, email campaigners, web content producers, bloggers, and digital strategists working in the labor movement rivals the number of those involved in print publications. Do they see themselves as ‘communicators’? Does ILCA see them as future members? ILCA’s website doesn’t actually define what it means to be a labor communicator, but just about everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that it has meant ‘content producer’ in some form or another. Print, video, graphic and audio content. It has not, traditionally, meant the kind of union employee who graduates from an online organizing training, or who is managing their local’s Facebook page and Twitter stream. Most of the staff performing those functions have never heard of ILCA.

The upcoming conference’s keynote speaker is Nation correspondent Jon Nichols, who reports often on labor issues. But they will also have Scott Goodstein of Revolution Messaging, a mobile phone campaign vendor, and Jason Mann, the producer of a recent series of training videos for labor folks using social media. It seems that a shift is underway, but the parameters of it are closely held. We know that a conversation about it exists, but we can’t read about it in advance, and there isn’t any space for discussing it online in advance.

I can’t help but wonder what an ILCA conference would look like in two years, and who will be attending. What fraction will work with or for print publications? How many will be primarily organizers? Will the emphasis remain on content production, or move in the direction of digital strategy? As an associate member who doesn’t work for a union, I’m not sure I have any ‘shoulds’ to offer. ILCA should be whatever it wants to be. But I’m very curious about what the current executive members and delegates think. Do you want to be different than what you are? Who do you think you need that isn’t already in the mix? Is that a conversation you’d like to have using new media where it would be transparent, interactive, and outside of your control?

What do you think? I’d love to hear from labor communicators of any stripe.

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? [Read more...]