Saturday, August 7, 2010

Evaluating the Virtual Picket Line

Published by Straight Goods in 2007.

Four weeks ago in this space, we looked at the announcement of an impending "virtual strike" by the Italian union RSU against IBMs establishment in Second Life, the online game/social-networking site.

The announcement alone generated a lot of interest, albeit in fairly restricted circles. But for most trade unionists and observers, the protest (which went ahead on 27 September) didn't exactly send shockwaves round the world. While union strategists debate how many participants would be an impressive number, this was a rare opportunity to walk a picket line alongside a giant banana.

Run a Google search for IBM Second Life strike, and you'll see a lot of ho-hum commentary, and a smaller but louder group hailing the protest as the end of strikes as we know them.

This tepid response is reminiscent of other early computer efforts. In 1985, Marc Belanger at CUPE brought something called SOLINET online. At the time it didn't get much (perhaps not any outside CUPE) attention. For perhaps a decade SOLINET was something of an underground phenomena in the global labour movement.

Only years later did SOLINET win recognition as a landmark event for unions and their members: the creation of the first online discussion forum that connected union members around the world at low (or no) cost. Now long gone, the network and Marc are honoured for having pioneered the use of computer-based communications for unions and between union members.

There's a distinct possibility that the IBM protest of last Thursday will be similarly recognized twenty years from now. But for the moment it isn't getting the considered attention it very likely deserves.

The virtual strikes effects still are not clear. At the senior leadership levels it generates some mild curiosity; amongst union propellorheads there's a tendency to see it as heralding the end of the real life picket line, at least for workers in high tech industries.

On the down side, there are clearly some bugs to be worked out, and some thought required before applying the virtual protest elsewhere.

Some minor glitches last Thursday appeared to be due to the increased traffic to the picket locations, which is not necessarily a bad thing, if frustrating for those affected.

There were also problems you certainly wouldn't have to worry about on meatspace picket lines like one picketer teleporting onto a picket line only to land on another picketers head and deciding to stay there. Or picketers appearing as giant bananas, looking for IBM execs to throw rolls of toilet paper at.

The protest wasn't, and wasn't intended to be, a strike. It was more like the information picket that you might see outside an office building or a retail outlet. Any discussion of its success of failure suffers from the assumption that it was intended to be a strike.

Union members regularly picket retail outlets or hotels before a strike in an effort to inform those using the picketed location. This is an early job action, as a warning to the employer, a demonstration of their solidarity.

With a hefty investment in its Second Live operations (rumoured to be around $100 million US), IBM is certainly taking its presence there seriously. Inevitably, anything happening in or near that investment is going to be taken equally seriously.

By any standard that makes IBM in Second Life a juicy target.

There aren't many retail stores out there, which cost $100 million US to build.
For the computer workers' union to ignore IBM's facilities in Second Life would be like the food workers union ignoring Safeway's biggest and newest and best-publicized store when ramping up for a strike against the grocery chain.
No union can afford to overlook the employers largest operations. If it did, the union might do more than lose an opportunity, it might send the message that there some things it's not capable of doing.

Another crucial point is that the protest was merely one component of a more complex campaign.

Christine Revkin (interviewed on a picket line as UNIglobalunion Oh) of UNI spelled out the major components of the RSU bargaining campaign, which included traditional approaches as well as the novelty angle:

1. Second Life — the hype and accessible to fast computers with good internet and graphic cards.
2. Traditional email protest.
3. Real Life (RL) protests at IBM plants.

Clearly, the organizers of the Second Life online action see it as a tool, a tactic as part of a larger campaign — not necessarily a campaign-wining strategy, even for high-tech workers like the folks at IBM Italia.

Numbers are important on picket lines. They send a message. And a virtual picket line is no different. Trouble is, while everyone enjoys debating the importance of the numbers, no one really knows how many would be enough. This is a first.

Organizers and others are still trying to figure out how to measure success and failure.

UNI, the global union that worked with RSU to organize the protest, is saying that just under 1900 people participated. Is that impressive? When was the last time 1900 people were on one picket line?

But if the potential participants include every union member around the globe with access to a highspeed internet connection, perhaps 1900 isn't so many. Further, UNIs count includes only those folks who joined the protest by going through UNIs access point. Many didn't. Perhaps the total participation was even higher if only there was a way to track all participants.

The anonymity of the participants is an even bigger problem. Though UNI provided access to a petition for participants (and those who couldn't or wouldn't join Second Life), keeping in touch with and organizing those supporters in future is impossible if they are and remain anonymous.

At least the online debates about the protest aren't about whether it was successful in moving IBM from its bargaining position with RSU. The trade unionists in the discussion know better. Only time or IBM itself will tell us if it helped push the company into a more reasonable position. And IBM isn't talking especially if the answer is yes.

Of course, the protest organizers may have some thoughts on the question sometime soon.

UNIglobal union Oh: So we will analyse this protest and hopefully bring the results to other unions, which might help them in their own initiatives. Also, I hope by the time of the next UNI Communicators' Forum in April 2008 — Cape Town, we'll have other people's experiences in Web 2.0 campaigning and organising to bring together.
Whether IBM feels the heat or not, the lasting effect of the Second Life protest may turn out to be the discussions it is generating. Not only about the efficacy of virtual picket lines, but about the role of global union federations like UNI in directly organizing workers to take action on a global scale.

However it all shakes out in the end, union leaders and activists are out there examining possible new tools in their collection. That doesn't happen every day.
And for that, as much as for the opportunity to walk a picket line alongside a giant banana with an Italian IBM employee on your head, the folks at UNI and RSU deserve our thanks. They may just have started something.

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