Apps for Organizing and Social Change

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.13.28 AMNew Orleans   Marching solidly on the trailing edge of new technology innovation, I want to make it clear that I’m no hater, I just want it to work for all of us. And, hey, maybe there’s some hope out there that some of the apps are coming our way and might be tools for social change.

In Taiwan for example, a free protest app available through the Apple Store named Bingela, after a Taiwanese phrase associated with overturning a table in rage, was downloaded 260000 times in a two-week period by users who wanted to determine if a product was associated with Ting Hsin International, a conglomerate at the center of a food safety scandal last year involving cooking oil. Now that’s interesting, and what a great tool to assist the difficult task of organizing a consumer boycott in these days when big corporations can so easily show one brand somewhere and hide others everywhere.

I’m not sure that the organizing was done with an “app,” but an interesting phenomena on the other side of the digital divide seems to be happening in Seattle as well with the organization of something that almost seems a contradiction in terms: the App Based Drivers’ Association or ABDA. It seems that Uber and Lyft drivers who work in precarious terms at the beck and call of smartphone and computer apps for these high-flying ride sharing services have organized in Seattle with the help of the Teamsters local union there to resist the downgrading of pricing in the city which has cut wages for some of these so-called subcontractors by as much as 50% in recent months. They have organized and gone to this very progressive City Council asking the council to establish a procedure allowing subcontractors to unionize since there is no provision for them to do so under federal labor law. Needless to say, the companies are saying no-way, but still for the rest of us the message may be that in the same way that apps can disrupt us, there may be ways and means for us to use apps to disrupt them.

Tunde Obazee, formerly the longtime public affairs and empowerment radio broadcaster with our “voice of the people” radio station visited with me recently in Los Angeles where he is now the IT director for UCLA’s Family Clinics in Venice. Sitting in front of his computer bank in the quiet of the clinic closed on a Saturday he showed me how I might be able to use a free application called U-Stream on a smartphone with an internet connection to broadcast remotely from the phone directly on the air. It was amazing. I can hardly wait to try this myself. Meanwhile, Tunde is finally going to walk me through how we can develop a separate internet radio capacity for ACORN International.

I have a Skype call this morning linking tech-perts in the USA, Abu Dubai, India and elsewhere to discuss how to develop a membership recruiting video that could be shared with or without the internet for organizing in India. My daughter just sent me a link to the podcast on Serial about the soldier’s dilemma in Afghanistan. All that says there’s hope for all of us if we can just develop somewhere between a cadre and a crowd of folks who can listen to us closely and then take us by the hand to be able adapt technology to the needs of organizing and social change.

Maybe they’ll help us develop an app for that?

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Organizing Strategy Based on Solidarity and Power

1ilwu1-1024x768Houston   Thinking about various strategies to rebuild the labor movement is a painful pastime for many organizers, but talking to Peter Olney, the organizing director for the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union, the fabled 60,000 West Coast dockworkers’ powerhouse, on my weekly radio show recently was a good primer on the basics for holding your own and moving forward.

Another painful footnote of labor’s troubles was inescapable in the run-up to the AFL-CIO’s convention in Los Angeles with the release of an impassioned and sharp tongued letter from the President of the ILWU to Rich Trumka, the federation’s president, disaffiliating the ILWU from the body after 25 years of membership. The issue for the ILWU was essentially the lack of solidarity.

Solidarity is so rare in the modern dog-eat-dog, struggle for survival, last-man-standing labor environment that it almost felt nostalgic to hear Olney express so clearly this essential, but too often forgotten, fundamental principal of labor.   The old adage of “an injury to one is an injury to all,” like the fight for an 8-hour day, harkens to an earlier day for labor it seems, where storied unions like the ILWU could talk with some credibility of how a “general strike,” like the great effort they led in San Francisco is still possible.  Part of the ILWU’s last toss of a brick through the window of the house of labor spoke to a series of disputes that they had experienced with other unions, most notably the Operating Engineers, where they felt the toothlessness of the AFL-CIO had isolated their members to fight on their own to protect their work and classic jurisdiction.  In a labor movement torn asunder by the defections to the Change to Win alternative federation, the SEIU and HERE disputes within C2W and in northern California and with their own local union, and a host of other discouraging debacles, a simple plea for more solidarity from a union that has often led the way in showing the huge strength of solidarity in supporting the efforts of farmworkers to organize, South Africans to end apartheid, and a score of other efforts, has a surprising amount of power and resonates as a potential source of strength.

In talking about organizing, Peter and I could easily agree on the critical need to focus on distribution plants in organizing Walmart, despite the fact it is hard work with fewer headlines.  In looking at the organizing strategy for ILWU, Peter was clear that he starts his strategic analysis from an obvious, but often forgotten cornerstone, by looking at where his union has power that they can leverage to organize additional workers.  Certainly, this was the key to the ILWU’s historic drive inland from the strength on the docks to the warehouses where their loads were taken from the ship hulls.  Now moving from their pocket of power on the docks, they are looking to organize hazardous materials workers who clean the ships and surrounding areas.  Makes sense doesn’t it, but it’s surprising how often even the best organizers forget the fundamentals in trying to look at future targets.  We found ourselves talking about the plight of independent truckers that are servicing the major ports and the efforts to organize them by the Teamsters and others that has now been stalled by court action.   Peter is too much the diplomatic ambassador of labor solidarity for me to have asked him the obvious question about whether or not the ILWU power on the Pacific docks might not be the critical factor along with community support in any successful, future organizing effort by these abused drivers.

Solidarity may be an increasingly distant dream, but moving forward from even the shrinking islands of strength that we have in the growing ocean of the unorganized are lessons from Peter Olney worth remembering for all organizers.

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