What’s the best way for a labor union to present itself? In 1992, two union experts, Sam Pizzigati and Fred Solowey, published an unusual book called The New Labor Press: Journalism for a Changing Union Movement . Part history and part advocacy, it’s a thorough examination of how American unions historically have communicated with their own members and with the outside world. Some union newspapers were surprisingly good, either because they did pioneering journalism about strikes, lockouts, and working conditions, or because they gave their readers a service that was hard to find elsewhere. (Did you know that the garment workers’ union newspaper Justice published a Yiddish edition until the mid-1960s, and an Italian edition until the late 1980s?)
But the bad union newspapers—and there have been many—are all bad in the same way. They become house organs for their leaders, spewing out endless proclamations, reproducing Ceausescu-like pictures of forced handshakes, and rendering invisible the actual rank-and-file. They are closed systems, speaking a private language exclusively to an internal audience that is probably not paying attention anyway.
Alas, little has changed in the digital age. Visiting the AFL-CIO Web site in search of some Labor Day inspiration is a singularly disheartening task. The primary message you get from the site is to vote for Democrats in November (thanks for the tip). An affiliate organization asks on the home page “Not a Union Member?”—which mathematically is a pretty good bet . Beyond that, though, little thought appears to have gone into making the site persuasive, or even genuinely comprehensible, to someone who’s not already part of the club. There’s some video from a recent Young Worker’s Summit and an exhortation to attend a rally in October. There are some online games that are so hamfisted (health insurance is a shell game!) they almost have camp value.
Some lists of resources, on topics like the global economy or immigration , are actually quite useful; others seem like Web graveyards that have not been tended in a very long time. In either case, it’s not clear that most people would know to visit them unless they were already on the site. There are some actual workers depicted on the site, and reasonably prominently. But they come off like political props, always presented as if the most interesting and important thing about them is their union membership.
What might an ideal union Web site look like? For starters, it could be a lot more practical, foregrounding workplace dilemmas and explaining issues to workers looking for guidance. Second, it could use the news to make the case for unionism, rather than assuming the reader already filters news through a union lens. (As it happens, Sam Pizzigati, the editor mentioned above, now runs a site about economic inequality called Too Much that does a decent job with this.) And finally, it could take advantage of the Web’s unique interactivity and become a place where workers talk to one another. Sadly, a lot of unions probably wouldn’t put up with that.