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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jul 22, 2010, 10:27 am

Netroots-Labor Solidarity: A Work in Progress

BY Mike Elk

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks at the 2009 Netroots Nation conference in Pittsburgh, Pa.   (Photo courtesy multi-medium.net)

Netroots Nation shuns hotel over worker treatment, as bloggers and labor strenghen alliance

"So all you skinny guys in this room needs to find a big guy and sit down and talk. And you big guys you need to find a skinny guy and get together," said United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard last year at a reception for the America's Future Now Conference. Gerard was referring to the bloggers (skinny guys) and steelworkers (big guys) getting together to form alliances to fight unfair trade practices and job loss.

The blogosphere and organized labor have not always had such an easy relationship. While there are many political bloggers that come from union backgrounds, bloggers and their readers tend come from more affluent, educated backgrounds than most of the American public, as public surveys have consistently indicated.

As a result, there is substantially more discussion in the blogosphere about cultural issues (whatever stupid thing Sarah Palin said today) important to urban professionals on the East and West Coast than trade issues important to steelworkers in the Midwest. I have heard many labor officials complain that it is difficult to get bloggers to cover labor issues. From my own experience working with labor organizations I know this is true.

Likewise, many unions have been slow to adopt social media technology and haven't shown the openness to bloggers that many bloggers demand. Political differences remain between the two camps, but like Gerard said, the two groups need to work together despite them if either expects to win. And that's finally happening.

Many key bloggers like Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake, Meteor Blades of Daily Kos, Chris Bowers (a former union organizer) of OpenLeft and Dave Johnson (a former union researcher) of Campaign for America’s Future have made tremendous efforts to reach out to organized labor. Gerard himself is blogging two or three times a week, fairly prolifically given that he's the president of an international union. SEIU has built a new media department, the innovation and manpower of which is unrivaled by just about any NGO anywhere.  

Organized labor has also been especially supportive of the blogosphere. In aggregate, labor has been the largest supporter of the yearly Netroots Nation conference for each of its five installments.  (It's meeting right now in Las Vegas.) This year, organized labor is paying 45% of the conference bill. Seven of the 13 premier sponsors of the conference are unions, including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, NEA, SEIU and AFT.

Last year, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was the closing keynote speaker of the conference. This week, several labor leaders and grassroots union activists, including Trumka, are speaking at the conference. And labor is sending more and more of their rank-and-file leaders to these conferences to get to know bloggers.

As a result, Netroots Nation is showing signs of real solidarity, rather than just networking. Netroots had wanted to hold its 2011 convention in Providence, R.I. But the owners of the Providence Westin were in the process of viciously busting hotel workers union Unite Here's Local 217. Without warning, the Westin cut pay by 20 percent and increased employee contributions to healthcare by 43 percent. The hotel refused to negotiate with its workers. When they tried to picket the hotel, several workers were fired. 

Netroots Nation issued an ultimatum earlier this year: either settle the issues with the union or lose Netroots Nation's $2 million worth of business. The online organization Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization co-founded by a former SEIU organizer Stephanie Taylor, launched an online campaign against the Providence Westin and collected almost 4,000 signatures.

Ultimately, the boycott was unsuccessful. Actually, things got worse for the union workers. The owners of the Providence Westin announced that they would be cutting 50 union jobs and would outsource those jobs to a nonunion subcontractor.

So on Wednesday, July 21, Netroots Nation announced it would not hold its conference in Providence in a sign of solidarity with organized labor.

The refusal to not hold the conference in Providence is a symbol of the progress being made in solidarity between the netroots and organized labor. While the relationship between the groups isn't as strong as some in the labor movement would like, the relationship is strengthening every day. It’s up to us in the labor movement and the blogosphere to make sure that relationship becomes as strong and effective as it ought to be.

Editor's note: The original version of this story included a reference to a contentious meeting at the AFL-CIO between pro-net neutrality blogger Matt Stoller and union representatives, from which Stoller was forcibly removed. There is no evidence this occurred. In These Times regrets the error.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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