Saturday, August 7, 2010

Avatars of the World, Unite!

Published by Straight Goods in 2007.

The effective use of the Internet by unions has long been a subject for discussion inside the labour movement and amongst labour-friendly academics.

The debate just took a big, fast, sharp left turn with an announcement last week from the union representing Italian IBM employees.

With the decline of trade union density in the face of globalization and new forms of work organization (home work, telework and such) in the North, the Internet seemed to offer at least a partial solution (where access was relatively easy) to retaining members and recruiting new ones.

To some segments of labour movements in crisis, particularly that of the US, the internet took on the role of a life raft. Unions, this school of thought went, were to be judged on the extent to which they effectively used the net. Those that did well by these criteria would survive and grow; those which didn't, were likely to continue to decline.

But even amongst the most fervent of internet advocates, within the labour movement there was a recognition that certain kinds of very basic organizing and action would require, demand really, face-to-face contact and communication between workers.
Last week those nay-sayers may have been proved wrong.

Rappresentanza Sindacale Unitaria IBM Vimercate (RSU), has, announced online (naturally) that sometime this month its 9,000 members, employees of IBM, will mount a job action, an information picket designed to inform the public (but especially IBM clients) about the company's employment policies — online.

They won't be refusing to touch their computers. This isn't really a strike. To the contrary, union members will probably be spending more time at their keyboards than ever, when the action starts.

What the union is organizing is a picket of IBM's "island" on Second Life, the online alternate world.

The RSU's statements indicate absolutely nothing odd or unusual or groundbreaking in what the RSU members are looking for from IBM:

"While IBM is one of the companies with major profits," said the RSU, "its employees are receiving very few fruits of this big mountain of money. (sic)"

What is unusual, to say the least, is the choice of Second Life as the place to confront IBM.

Second Life is an immense computer game (for lack of a better word) in which something like nine million users adopt cartoon characters called avatars which they then direct, (anonymously if they wish), though an online existence. The avatars shop, eat, buy, sell, work, paint, talk, romance and vacation.

Second Life is one of several current flavours of the month when it comes to social networking websites. Corporations (and some governments: you can get investment and tourism information for several countries at their Second Life "embassies") have been quick to see the advantages to having a presence there.

You can take your avatar shopping and buy stuff for your avatar to use within Second Life, or buy merchandise for use by the real you in what Internauts call "meatspace".

There's been some use of Second Life as an alternative to tele- and video-conferencing, but for the most part corporations see Second Life (and other sites like it) as one big advertising/retail tool. IBM has made what most observers agree is a large commitment to its corporate avatar or presence on Second Life.
So, on the face it, it only makes sense for RSU to follow IBM onto Second Life and fire something of a warning shot by having a small army of avatars inform the Second Life population about the their employer's behaviours.

The job action would be no different than picketing a store or a meeting or a conference and handing our leaflets, right?

Yes. But there are a few added dimensions to this effort that have the potential to add some new items to the workers' toolbox.

First, the action involves 9,000 people (or their avatars) converging on one location (albeit virtual). Something that, if it happened in the real world would take a lot of time and resources to organize and execute.

More importantly perhaps, this is an action that can literally take place at a moment's notice, which makes it much harder for an employer to react to.

Second, and the RSU itself recognizes this, this is the kind of action which could unite IBM employees around the world:

"The high offices of the company are worried, because this action will spotlight the creation of a global union alliance — that is, engaging the unions from over 16 countries worldwide, including the new IT boundary: India."(sic)

While technically the dispute is between IBM Italia and RSU, there's nothing to stop IBM workers around the world from expressing their unhappiness with the corporation by joining in.

International solidarity is nothing new to the labour movement, but this is something remarkable: focussed, simultaneous, potentially global and, quite possibly effective in drawing in workers who are not (yet) unionized. To date, non-union workers have been largely left out of actions like these. As well, international actions are almost always an afterthought and are effectively time-delayed and step-removed from the target employer (eg, dockers refusing to handle struck goods).

Third, the labour movement globally has had huge difficulty in organizing home workers generally, teleworkers in particular.

Unlike in a factory or office, teleworkers don't have routine, non-task-related communication amongst themselves. There is no lunchroom, no after-work beer for these workers. They don't, in other words, have informal opportunities to organize amongst themselves.

In addition, teleworkers tend to perceive themselves as "professionals", a term used by their employers to distinguish them from "workers". The Second Life job action presents an unusual opportunity for contact, communication and organizing among and between the IBM workers.

Lastly, this is an action and a venue for that action that speaks the language of the workers themselves. It is a high-tech picket for high-tech workers aimed at a high-tech employer.

Unless IBM changes its tune, sometime later this month we'll see just how effective an action like this can be.

On paper — er, on screen — this looks like it may mark a significant shift in the way unions in some industries can effectively confront employers, all while organizing workers in industries with traditionally low union density.

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