Labor and bloggers join forces at Netroots Nation

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - 'We are using technology to go beyond our traditional organizing efforts,' Eric Russell, from the United Steelworkers union (USW) communications department, told workshop attendees here at the Netroots Nation conference August 13.

'We're using new technologies to grow our union, learn from our members, educate, and inspire action. This is all about communicating with the members and the general public,' Russell added.

The USW, like many other unions, has began the process of merging its traditional organizing efforts - work-site fliers, mail pieces, phone-banking, rallies, events and canvassing - with emerging technologies.

Russell runs USW's 30 station predictive dialer, which enables the union to communicate quickly and directly with the membership through live-calls, patch-through calls and robo-calls.

'Ninety percent of our members in battle ground states got union mail and literature during the 2008 elections. Eighty-four percent got phone calls. And twenty-five percent were visited by a door-to-door canvasser,' said Russell.

By merging traditional and new organizing techniques USW activists were able to generate 'hundreds of thousands of votes in battle ground states,' Russell added.

The USW isn't just using the predictive dialer to mobilize its own members. They are also working to mobilize allies on working-class issues. For example, they have committed over 400 dialer hours to the fight for the Employee Free Choice Act by calling over 11,000 Sierra Club members, which generated over 650 patch-through calls to Senator Spector's office. The Employee Free Choice Act is organized labor top priority.

According to Connie Madin, the USW is using 'online activism to augment our strength, our boots on the ground.'

Madin talked about Union 2.0 and the steelworkers' website redesign as a 'way to empower the members, to make our online work an extension of their grassroots activism.'

In another workshop Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, emphasized grassroots activism and urged bloggers, journalists and tweeters to 'break into the discussion.'

He said, 'our trade policy defined by Wall Street and forced in back-room deals has destroyed the middle class. Fundamental changes to our economy needs to be made,' he added. 'And you need to be a part of making that change happen.'

Congresswomen Donna Edwards placed the blame for the current economic crisis squarely on the table. She said, 'we're fighting the same battle with the same corporate interests. The same interests that caused the economic meltdown, caused the decline in manufacturing and depressed working people's wages. And they are the same interests orchestrating the fight against health care reform,' said Edwards. 'Their interest is in moving money. They don't care if it is here, France, Bangladesh, or elsewhere. We have to put the brakes on the corporations because they aren't gonna do it on their own.'

Speaking on the decline in manufacturing, Steelworkers president Leo Gerard said, 'We have to blow up the myth that manufacturing is a declining industry. It's not the rust-belt. It's the industrial heartland. We can't fall into the trap that industry is a thing of the past.'

Additionally, Gerard urged policy makers to support a domestic industrial policy that puts people back to work creating the jobs of the future. 'Steel is the most recycled product in America. The steel industry is a green industry,' he said.

Emphasizing the use of new technologies, Gerard said, 'The progressive blogosphere is in the front lines of changing our society. We certainly can't count on the mainstream media. We need to get our industrial policy message out beyond the traditional base.'

He also challenged China bashing in the steel industry and said, 'We shouldn't blame the Chinese. They are doing what we should be doing. They have an industrial policy. They aren't stealing our jobs. Our trade policies are giving them away.'