Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

One of the more interesting outcomes of YearlyKos was the discussion about organizing a blogger's union.  The idea was seeded by a post on Susie Madrak's blog, where she discussed her efforts to establish "a non-profit to help progressive bloggers".  The panel at YearlyKos, which I unfortunately had to miss, moved this idea a bit further down the field by discussing methods to pool together resources for health benefits, and things like that.  (Incidentally, if you were at the panel, please chime in with more notes on the panel - I'm kicking myself for missing it as I type this.)

There's been a bit of a media frenzy surrounding this idea, touched off by an AP report on the idea.  Salon covered both the right-wing's response:

And here's how Tom Blumer over at Newsbusters ("Exposing and combating liberal media bias") reacted to the affair: "Maybe I'm missing something, but when you want to form a union, isn't it sort of necessary that there be a mean, oppressive employer, or a group of them?"

... and a reasonably even-handed defense of Madrak's idea:

Susie Madrak ... understands that bloggers aren't employed by anyone, and that consequently collective bargaining wouldn't work. What Madrak is organizing, instead, is very different: a kind of grass-roots insurance pool to pay for health emergencies of progressive bloggers

So far, so good.  Madrak's idea is preceded by similar ideas housed at the Freelancer's Union, the National Writer's Union, and, coming soon, Qvisory.  It's a pretty good idea, but it's not really about unionization so much as insurance purchasing.

But it's worth thinking through the concept of unionizing bloggers.  Is it really such a ridiculous idea, or is there something to it?  More over the flip...

Bloggers and online workers
Bloggers are actually part of a much larger economic phenomnenon: the rise of online workers, composed of individuals whose primary economic output is generated by interaction with online web applications.  I discussed this phenomenon, and the challenge of organizing these workers, a few weeks ago in my post on Organizing online workers.  Although it's hard to pin down an exact definition of this group, we can approximately include within it bloggers who attempt to monetize their blogging; eBay auctioneers; super-social networkers (like Joe Anthony, who organized the 160,000-person Obama MySpace page); super-social media creators (like lonelygirl15 and Tay Zonday); World of Warcraft gold-farmers; and Second Life vendors.  We could also extend the concept to include Amazon developers, and participants in idea marketplaces like InnoCentive.  I can't even pretend to estimate the size of this group, but with a reported 700,000 eBay auctioneers in the US, I think it's safe to estimate that there are around 1 million online workers in the US.  If you include all bloggers, social networkers, and social media creators, then clearly the group grows to well over 100 million.  Anyway you slice it, this is a very large group of people, which would form a sizable presence in the labor movement if organized.

When I wrote about the idea in June, my thoughts were essentially similar to those Madrak had been floating - that online workers should form a voluntary association of individuals, who pool their resources in order to purchase health insurance and other benefits, and possibly to gain some clout in their "workplace", whether it be eBay or YouTube.  Basically, my thoughts were that it would be too difficult to create a union - both for practical/logistical reasons (online workers are geographically dispersed; there's no factory gate) and, in light of some very insightful comments on that post, for legal reasons (online workers are essentially independent contractors of their respective online environments; if they were to collaborate to fix prices, they would be violating anti-trust laws.)

However, I'm beginning to have second thoughts about some of those assumptions, and I want to think through, a bit more carefully, the concept of organizing online workers into a proper union.

What would an online workers union look like, and why couldn't it be created today?

An online workers union
To get a picture of an online workers union, let's imagine a sufficiently segmented group of online workers: eBay auctioneers who sell computer parts.  Hypothetically, such a union would include all eBay users who sell computer parts; anyone who fit that criteria would be required to join the union.  The initial organizing drive could have the same structure as an existing NLRB election campaign - that is, once the union collected union cards from one-third of eBay computer part auctioneers, eBay would be forced to hold an NLRB-monitored election.  If over half of the auctioneers voted for the union, a legal bargaining unit would be created, and the unit would collectively bargain with eBay over the terms and conditions governing the auctioneers' relationship with eBay.  The bargaining could cover any number of terms: the cost of participating in the marketplace, rules of behavior, etc.  Union dues would be drawn from payments made to the auctioneer by eBay customers, perhaps graduated to accomodate varying income levels among the auctioneers.

The concept is a little harder to extend to bloggers, since there isn't a single economic relationship which defines bloggers the way the relationship with eBay defines auctioneers.  However, bloggers who publish Google Ads could form a bargaining unit; so could bloggers who participate in hives on BlogAds, or who syndicate their content to Gather.com.  It might, theoretically, be possible to create a union for bloggers, which regulates their participation in a wide array of such publishing arrangements, somewhat similar to the way some construction unions act as hiring halls for workers.

How would the bargaining units be composed, i.e. how would the online workers be segmented?  Any way the workers want to segment themselves.  Current labor law allows any reasonably cohesive group of workers to be organized as a bargaining unit, and that clause of labor law is sometimes a crucial factor in the ultimate success of the organizing campaign.  So we can imagine a union composed only of progressive bloggers; or only bloggers from Chicago; or only fashion bloggers; or whatever.

Legal obstacles
The primary legal obstacle to this form of a labor union is the classification of online workers.  Most, if not all, online workers are not classified as employers of their respective work environments; usually, they are classified as consumers.  US labor law doesn't protect groups of consumers.  In fact, there's reason to believe that a group of consumers working together to fix prices could be prosecuted under anti-trust act.

Most online worker-workplace relationships are defined as service provider relationships; the service provider (for example, eBay) allows the worker to use some set of services; the worker uses that service, usually for free or at low cost; sometimes, the worker gets compensation.  Because the workplace is providing a service, it has a wide degree of latitude in deciding which terms and conditions to offer, and who should be allowed to use the service.  So even if groups of online workers could collaborate to fix prices, online service providers could always summarily deny service to workers who had organized.

The legal relationship between online workplaces and online workers today is in some ways similar to the legal relationship between industrial workplaces and workers in the early 20th century.  A series of stiff penalties handed down by federal courts in cases involving striking or boycotting workers cast unions as groups of independent economic agents colluding to fix the price of a commodity (labor), thereby ruling that they were violating anti-trust law.  It wasn't until Congress passed a string of pro-labor laws, most notably the Wagner Act and the Norris-LaGuardia Act, that workers gained the legal power to bargain collectively.  These documents were remarkable, because they overthrew such a large chunk of common law, and because they fundamentally redrew the boundaries of employer/employee relationships.  The Wagner Act, in particular, formally created a new democratic space for US workers, and thereby expanded the way citizens learned about and practiced democratic skills.

Is it possible to create a modern-day Wagner Act, to create new organizing rights for online workers, or indeed, for all consumers?  Would it be possible to force the hands of service providers, forcing them to respect certain kinds of bargaining arrangements about the terms and conditions of those services?  Could such an act pass constitutional muster?  I don't have anything like the legal training needed to answer this question, but I think it's an interesting puzzle for labor-friendly legal minds to turn over.

Social Obstacles
The other major obstacle to the formation of an online workers union is the social obstacle.  Perhaps due to their geographically dispersed nature, I'd have to wager that most online workers have never given a moment's thought to their relationship with their service provider.  Online workers don't interact with one another often, and they almost never meet in person.  It's hard to imagine developing an ethos of mutual aid and solidarity among such a group, let alone an agreement by which each individual in the group agreed to suspend their activity in order to bargain for better terms.  Perhaps the major exception to this rule is small subsets of bloggers, especially bloggers within a small geographic area.  Many of these groups do have dense interactions and even occasional face-to-face meetings.

Even if these kinds of social obstacles were surmountable, there is a simpler and frustratingly thorny problem which organizers would have to contend with: who is in the bargaining unit?  Depending on the way the bargaining unit is defined, it could be devilishly difficult to draw up a list of all of the workers in the unit, and thereby to determine how many union cards are needed to compel an election, and how many votes are needed to compel recognition of the bargaining unit.  More than that, the pace of account activity on online workplaces (i.e., the pace at which accounts are created and abandoned) far outstrips the typical pace of hiring and firing in the offline world.  Managing every segment of the online bargaining unit's life - card check, election, and contract enforcement - would be much more difficult than the similar tasks involved in an offline unit.  In other words, how would the business agents of an online workers union identify workers who had joined the workplace after contracting was complete, and how would the agents make sure that the service provider was duly enforcing the contract for those workers, and that those workers were in solidarity with the rest of the unit?  Clearly, some level of cooperation from the service provider would be necessary - e.g., the provider would have to provide the union with some slice of its user database.  Consequently, an online service provider would have no trouble at all busting an online workers union.

Working backward

The legal and social obstacles to creating a formal bargaining unit for online workers are ridiculously high.  I think it's fairly clear that this won't happen for a long, long time, if at all.

But does that mean that the best we can do for online workers is form voluntary associations, like Madrak describes?  I think unions might be able to do better for online workers, but that it will take considerable legal and organizational creativity.  Unions will have to work backward from the idea of a formal bargaining unit, until they have something which comes reasonably close but is able to overcome the legal and social obstacles I've described here.

Here is the kind of thing I'm thinking of.  What if someone were to form a company which hired a narrowly targeted group of online workers; the workers would agree to provide the company with their revenue, and only to work online using terms and conditions drawn up by the company.  The company could negotiate with the service provider for terms and conditions on behalf of the workers, and could purchase health insurance and other benefits for its employees, in addition to providing a steady salary.  If the service provider didn't agree to negotiated terms and conditions, the company's employees would suspend their online activity, in a kind of strike.  The online workers could then form a union within their company under the Wagner Act, or the company could be employee-owned.

The main obstacles to the creation of such a company, I think, would be the social obstacles - would the online workers agree to such a deal?  Would eBay agree to negotiate with such a company?  I'd imagine that, at best, it would be very tough to establish this kind of organization.  But if it were possible to aggregate a sufficiently large and/or important segment of online workers - say, all of the top 100 video producers on YouTube - then the service provider might be forced to negotiate.

Realistically speaking, I'd be very surprised if this idea ever saw the light of day.  But I think it's important to push boundaries, and to imagine new ways of organizing power and supporting workers.  So, if you have some feedback on this idea, or thoughts about why the obstacles I listed above aren't really so high (or that they're even higher than I imagined), or your own thoughts about organizing online workers, please, feel free to drop them in the comments.  If nothing else, it's an interesting thought experiment.

Tags: bloggers union, Blogosphere, labor movement, online workers (all tags)

Comments

20 Comments

Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

This is somewhat off-topic, but when are we going to learn the winners of the BlogPac Infrastructure contest?

by Fran for Dean 2007-08-12 12:31PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

Tuesday. I think there's a post about the delay at blogpac.org.

by BingoL 2007-08-12 01:57PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

Thanks.  I knew about the delay but I didn't remember if they ever announced a new date.

by Fran for Dean 2007-08-12 04:12PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

I was the one who put that panel together wanting a formal scheduled event to discuss the idea knowing I don't have all the answers; I wanted to hear from others.  The idea came about after conversations I had in the last few months about collectively talking to the folks at BlogAds, health insurance, and general blogger infrastructure to provide tools and support.  Some of these types of things already exist in BlogPAC, BlogsUnited, etc.   Since some of my early discussions were with folks at the AFL-CIO and in seeing how much union sponsorship was at this year's YearlyKos, I figured, let's talk with them and see if we can work together.  Some of the best suggestions ended up coming from Jonathan Tasini who helped found the National Writers Association some 25 years ago.  I'm hoping to talk more with him and local union leader here in Denver to understand how that freelancers organization works and supports them.  

One of the debates we had was in how large a scope should the organization have.  Should it be only lefty political bloggers; what about all bloggers whether they write about politics, sports, or knitting?  Should the organization also advocate for campaign workers against such for profit union busting companies such as Grassroots Campaigns Inc.  

Send me an email if you'd like to talk more,
squarestate.net, user johne.

by johne 2007-08-12 12:45PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

Thanks for the write-up!  And thanks for organizing the effort.  I wish I had been there.

In terms of scope, I would think the easiest way to resolve that question would be to create an organization which sort of self-selects for a certain type of individual, but doesn't have formal requirements.  For example, if the blogger's union was created as just another specialty within National Writer's Union, then it would tend to attract mostly leftist political bloggers, and probably not a whole lot of sports bloggers or whatever.  But if the sports bloggers want to join in, why not?

As for the Grassroots Campaigns workers, I think they would be better organized under a group like National Organizer's Alliance.  It just doesn't make sense to shoe-horn them in under the blogger's union, since their concerns and struggles are very different.

I'll email in a sec.

by Shai Sachs 2007-08-12 02:50PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

I believe a Professional Association of Bloggers could provide the benefits of group association.

A Union is an entirely different entity created specifically to negotiate with an employer or employers on contract issues involving pay and benefits.

All professions have one or more Professional Associations. The good ones aggregate the buying power of their membership and create the ability to have an entire menu of benefits.

Sorry...the concept of Union Organizing is for an entirely different set of circumstances.

by BigDog 2007-08-12 12:59PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

I was wondering about whether or not some sort of trade group or association would be possible, and I think it is, but the meta questions it raises trouble me.

Suppose we set up a group that accredits bloggers, where membership requires meeting set standards and restricts practices.  How is such a thing to be administered, and, more importantly, how would such a thing affect the democratic nature of the blogosphere by virtue of restricting entrance into paid blogging?

I'm one of the few people who can claim to have made money from blogging.  In addition to occasional online freelance writing, I've also worked as a professional campaign blogger.  Campaign staffs are notorious, especially on the Democratic side, for horrible labor practices (my usual work week was over 100 hours on my last campaign, and I usually make between $2-$4.50 per hour working campaign hours).  Are campaign bloggers going to be covered while other staffers aren't?  Are we going to mandate that campaigns hire accredited bloggers or face our collective wrath?  Are we risking making professional online outreach unaffordable for low-budget candidates?

There are a lot of possible risks in creating a professional association for online workers that need to be worked out.  But the looming question, at least for me, is "will we risk undemocratizing the most democratic medium in America?"

by Jay R 2007-08-12 01:29PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

Well, considering Democratic campaigns always always always use union printers and the like, I would think yes, they would have to use union bloggers when and if such an organization is created.  I don't know how to deal with the enormous time commitment a campaign worker has to put in.  But one great benefit to a blogger's union would be a virtual union hall for campaigns to hire those bloggers.

by johne 2007-08-12 01:35PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

Maybe, depending on whether or not other unions care to recognize us.  If the other unions don't take blogger status into account when awarding endorsements, I can pretty much guarantee most campaign managers would go with whatever provided a lower cost.

by Jay R 2007-08-12 06:51PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

You raise some very interesting points.

I tend to agree with the commenter below - Democratic campaigns always go with union printers, so why not ask them to always go with union bloggers?  In fact, why not unionize the whole damn operation and be done with it?

I don't think that we'd end up pricing out small-time campaigns.  Unionization is not just about higher wages, after all.  It's about working conditions, compensations broadly construed, health and saftey, and above all, solidarity.  Unionization makes companies more profitable; I think it would make our campaigns more efficient and effective.

I know this may seem unrealistic as hell, and in fact I've never run a campaign operation so I might be asking our campaign managers to shoot themselves in the foot.  But I think having a professional class of respected, effective and well-compensated campaign workers would be better for both the workers and the campaigns.

by Shai Sachs 2007-08-12 02:56PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

It would, but it hasn't happened yet that campaign workers have unionized, and I worry that there might be a problem if only one staffer is unionized while the others are working like campaign workers currently do.  God, how I wish we campaign workers were unionized (especially since I contracted pleurisy on my last campaign and didn't have, and still don't have, insurance).

by Jay R 2007-08-12 06:55PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

by johne 2007-08-12 01:35PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

I keep reading that unions are this or that and for the life of me I don't know where that is coming from. During my union years I never came to think of the word "union" as anything more inclusive than words like "party" or "community." Whatever this ends up as the name will be chosen by us and it will mean what we say it means. As a former union man, I like the sound of the word "union," but guild works for me, or even just association or organization.

And you could as easily call this a database, because 90% of the benefit would come in the form of knowledge. I would love to have a link to a chart comparing the features and drawbacks to all the online advertising opportunities. I'd also love to read more about selling online advertising, especially ad pricing.

Others would value such an organization for its collective knowledge of technical issues regarding various blogging platforms. It's not inconceivable that such a group might create its own blogging software.

I really can't wait for this to take shape.

by Mark Gisleson 2007-08-12 02:01PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

Just tried to email you and it bounced.  can you email me? at squarestate.net, user johne

by johne 2007-08-12 02:20PM | 0 recs
The Pixel Corps

Shai, thank you for these posts. They're enlightening and generate a much-needed discussion.

For more ideas along these lines, I'd suggest taking a look at a "guild" that computer graphics professionals have set up for themselves, called the Pixel Corp:

http://www.pixelcorps.com/overview.php

It exists less on the lines on providing healthcare and benefits, and more on the lines of providing professional development. I'm thinking in terms of what bloggers need to succeed: access to Lexis-Nexis and other media databases, connections and access to traditional media and politicians, training in the latest technology.

by Luigi Montanez 2007-08-12 03:51PM | 0 recs
Re: The Pixel Corps

Cool, thanks for the pointer!  I hadn't heard of them.  A guild is an interesting idea - perhaps somewhat similar to a trade association, which others have been discussing (see upstream in the comments.)  Maybe it'd be a good idea to compare some of these various models side-by-side, and get a better idea of their relative merits and disadvantages.  Of course, there's probably room for more than one organization along these lines to thrive...

by Shai Sachs 2007-08-12 06:19PM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

I'll compare the idea of union bloggers working on campaigns with an analogue: craft unions that do deals with studios.

First of all, film budgets dictate union rates. TV rates are based upon whether network/cable, half-hour or hour, etc. There's a complicated fee structure but it takes all sorts of contingencies into account.

And - more to the point here - if you're shooting a low-budget project, you can apply for waivers and use union talent outside their rates.

Another enticing option from the world of film/TV production:

Those working on union shows who provide their own equipment are reimbursed at a given rate. Thus, people who work for, say, the art department, are required to have a computer, but use their own equipment are paid enough of a fee to buy their computers a few times over by the end of the season.

This is not to sound greedy - just to give a range of options that other unions (in this case, the relatively luxurious Hollywood deals) have bargained for and won.

by vernonlee 2007-08-13 12:06AM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

"And here's how Tom Blumer over at Newsbusters ("Exposing and combating liberal media bias") reacted to the affair: "Maybe I'm missing something, but when you want to form a union, isn't it sort of necessary that there be a mean, oppressive employer, or a group of them?"

No, not always. The first labor unions in the US were not so much based on everyone working in the same workplace united against one boss (which you did see in the 30's), but on your particular trade. So the first unions were made up of bakers, cigar rollers, carpenters etc. They got together not to fight a particular boss as much as pooling their resources to create joint funds for health coverage and unemployment insurance and to gain some collective control over the labor market.  

That remains the basic idea behind most building trades unions, though on a much larger and more sophisticated basis. An average carpenter or electrician might work for dozens of contractors each year. They still need protection and mutal aid from their fellow workers, in addition to shaping working standards throughout the industry. Don't see why that idea can't apply to bloggers.

by alexmhogan 2007-08-13 04:56AM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

My understanding is that you can have the best of both worlds. First, create an association, then affiliate with an international union (like the Teamsters). This way, you can get around the issue of employee classifications, and could participate in either local or regional health and pension funds.

We did this with doctors in NY who wanted collective bargaining power with HMOs, and with casting directors in Hollywood who wanted more power against the studios.

Second, geography isn't an issue. You can form under a single local, even though you are dispersed across the country. This is how we handle airline mechanics, flight attendants and such. They are physically living all over the U.S., but can all belong to a single flight attendant local, or in this case, a single online workers local.

Teamsters Local 2 had done some organizing in the freelance tech sector and had worked up an HSA health care option to enable benefit portability. The local recently merged with another, however, so I'd have to get back to you on where things stand at this moment.

I would suggest getting on johne's listserv if you are interested. Then come up with a list of issues (which was discussed at the meeting). What is it you want? Then we can look at how best to address the issues.

by Teamsters 2007-08-13 06:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Bloggers Unions and Organizing Online Workers

How full time bloggers organize themselves is of no worry to me.  I am rather more concerned that the National Writers Union would so gladly approach this cause when there are thousands of salaried writers toiling away in production houses across the country with no organizing power whatsoever.  My emails to the NWU have gone unanswered.  I am not trying to troll, just trying to point out that there are thousands of writers (who don't really blog at all) already not making end's meet who could use representation as well.  

by andy k 2007-08-13 09:32AM | 0 recs

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