Facebook and the Future of Labor Unions

Tom Hayes examines the role of social media for members of labor unions:


If anyone in the world should be paying close attention to the grassroots political unrest in the Middle East, it is Big Business and Big Labor in America. The rise of self-organized groups of people toppling once-entrenched regimes is a harbinger of things to come here in the U.S. too.

For now, traditional battle lines are more immediate. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to break the public employee union there is being characterized by some as a last gasp test for Labor. It is not. The fate of big unions has already been cast. Like record stores and time-bound television, the labor union as an organizing device has outlived its usefulness: people simply don’t need intermediaries to organize them into groups anymore.

But Corporate America shouldn’t get too excited. In fact, the rise of organic self-organization–the powerful force behind social media and its massive communities like Facebook, LinkedIn, QQ and Twitter–has already changed the marketplace and is an emerging threat to all industrial-age institutions, be they governmental, commercial, political, social, or religious. When you empower individuals you necessarily weaken organizations.

While the hidebound institution of the union will become less relevant, organized labor as a force will become more powerful in years to come. Things will just happen differently. The nexus of the Internet and ubiquitous mobile communications makes collective action easier and more imperative than ever. As consumers, people have gotten a taste for their new power. They have already busted the backs of other big intermediaries, like the music industry and chain bookstores. The training wheels are coming off and soon people will turn their sites to other collective endeavors. All the same impulses that motivate people to join affinity groups for fun, shopping and hobbies will soon take a serious turn with political and economic implications. Think Groupon for social action.

Like all institutions trying to slow their decline in an age of networks, labor unions have scurried to get hip to the new media. But attempts to galvanize social network unionism through clone Facebook services like UnionBook have fallen flat. People don’t need others to tell them how to organize; they can talk directly to each other now.

Besides, the issue is much bigger than social media as a tactic. The Internet has fundamentally changed group-forming in our time. The presence of more than two billion people (and twice that many to come in the next decade) on the World Wide Web now means that for essentially every person in the developed world, and a sizable minority of everyone else, the rules of social organization have changed forever. We are no longer bound by proximity, social contract, tradition, or limited information in our selection of the groups we choose to join.

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