Unions and online technology from the 1980s to COVID-19

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Image: Martin Lopez/PXHere and Petr Kratochvil/PublicDomainPictures.net

Derek Blackadder went to his first union meeting in the 1970s, and since the 1980s has been involved in multiple ways in shaping how the labour movement has made use of digital communication techology. Scott Neigh interviews him about that long history of experimentation, debate, and action with online tools, and about what social movements can learn from it today, as they scramble to figure out how to organize, mobilize and act in the face of the wide ranging restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over Blackadder's many years as a union staffer -- for over two and a half decades with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and for shorter periods with other unions -- he was centrally involved in the ongoing process of the labour movement taking up and adaptating to new information technology. As well, for 20 years he has been a volunteer with LabourStart, an international project that is a source of labour news from around the world and that does regular online campaigns in support of workers' rights. And he is the "web work" columnist for Our Times, an independent Canadian labour magazine focused on workers' rights and social justice.  He is also involved with RadioLabour Canada Report, a podcast on rabble.ca.

In the 1980s, Blackadder was invited to an LGBTQ conference in Toronto where activists were talking about using dial-up modems and text-based bulletin board systems as a way to connect with, support and organize with queer youth in isolated parts of the country. This, it seemed to Blackadder, could be adapted to labour purposes. He convinced his union to set up a bulletin board system, which was then used by union locals and even individual members in different parts of the country to connect, to share information and to coordinate with unprecedent ease. Even more, he said, it allowed for the development of a sense of community and of being in concrete relationship with other workers beyond just your own committee or local.

The technology and the uses to which unions have put it have, of course, evolved a great deal over the decades. From bulletin boards to their own intranets, from custom-built websites on a newly accessible internet to social media and smart phones, from basic information sharing to large-scale coordinated campaigns, it has been a constant process of adaptation and change. Certainly not all of the changes have been for the better, but each stage has offered new opportunities to the labour movement.

Blackadder says that figuring out ways to use technology in movements requires a willingness to experiment and to get it wrong. Looking back over his many years of writing on this topic, he can identify all sorts of incorrect predictions, misdirected enthusiasms and now-embarassing positions. And in pushing tech forward in practical ways within unions, he and the rest of the small network of folks dedicated to doing so had to try a lot of different things to find the ones that worked.

Though he sees great risks in our growing dependence on platforms controlled by giant corporations, he also sees a new kind of opportunity in the current moment. Before the late 1940s, union activists had to collect dues directly from workers, and that often involved visiting them at home, hearing their concerns, and talking about the issues of the day. But since automatic dues payments became a reality, unions have had much less access to workers outside of the workplace and particularly at home. Ubiquitous social media is already changing that. The need to move everything online in the current moment, though it is for terrible reasons, provides an opportunity to change it further. Blackadder has no magical answers about what exactly unions should be doing, particularly given the risks posed by Facebook and the like, but he speculates that custom-made smartphone apps may be one promising approach.

Ultimately, he says, while it is important to understand the pros and cons of different online tools, and what each can and cannot be expected to accomplish, in many ways the main task of labour activists is not much different today than it was for their predecessors putting up posters in the 1850s or making use of the new phone network in the 1920s. Whatever tech you are using, the key is having an analysis of how power works in the workplace and in society, and figuring out what workers can be doing collectively to change that.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Martin Lopez/PXHere and Petr Kratochvil/PublicDomainPictures.net

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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