On September 27, 2007, the world experienced its first virtual strike. In response to a wage dispute, IBM workers in Italy organized a picket outside their company’s “corporate campus” based in the 3-D virtual world of Second Life. According to a report in the Guardian, workers “marched and waved banners, gate-crashed a [virtual] staff meeting and forced the company to close its [virtual] business center to visitors…. The protest, by more than 9,000 workers and 1,850 supporting ‘avatars’ from thirty countries,” included a rowdy collection of pink triangles, “sentient” bananas and other bizarro avatars.
While the strike was playful, it was also buttressed by careful planning and organization. Workers set up a strike task force, developed educational materials in three languages and held more than twenty worker strategy meetings. The hard work paid off. According to Christine Revkin of the UNI Global Union, which was involved in the strike, the online protest led to new negotiations and a better deal for the workers. Twenty days after the initial protest the Italian CEO of IBM, Andrea Pontremoli, resigned. (Here’s a video from the strike.)
Stories like this offer a glimpse into the powerful potential of the emerging Web 2.0 world, a place where workers and others use social networking tools to quickly reach across national and workplace borders, outflank bosses and politicians and wield collective power. But right now, the type of virtual solidarity seen in the IBM strike remains more promise than reality. People are willing to sign petitions, donate money, trade information and join in political discussions online, but translating these activities into solidarity built on trust and a willingness to take economic or physical risk on another’s behalf is exceedingly rare.
As a result, political action online has been largely relegated to electoral politics and tepid humanitarianism: it’s been great for raising money for tsunami relief and mobilizing voters, but pretty flaccid when it comes to wielding social movement power. (One exception is organizing around highly repressive regimes, where workers, students and others have successfully used mobile phones, Twitter, etc. to organize escalating protests and to free jailed activists.)
This tension around the pros and cons of online organizing has spurred a healthy debate in the social movement community. Earlier this year Eric Lee, the godfather of the online global labor movement, posted “How the Internet Makes Union Organizing Harder,” an article that drew a flurry of responses. More recently community organizers in the United States have been debating on DailyKos the merits of an article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, entitled “Real Change Happens Off-line,” written by Sally Kohn, senior campaign strategist at the Center for Community Change.
As labor activists we have been experimenting with online strategies for more than a decade, spurred by our work in the 1990s building a large but informal network of contingent workers, and now running Global Labor Strategies (GLS), a resource center for the global labor movement. We come to the problem as longtime chroniclers of social movements interested in the underlying forces at work online, how these forces can help or hinder social movement building, and how they challenge existing union and social movement structures.