Social Media and Internet-Mediated Organizations Can’t Replace Unions.

It’s been fascinating to watch the Wisconsin protests unfurl over the past 10 days.  Governor Scott Walker has chosen to stuff his budget repair proposal full of Trojan horse provisions, including “emergency” power to sell off state assets through no-bid contracts to his favorite corporate backers and an end to collective bargaining rights for all state employee unions who didn’t endorse him in the last election.  That’s not hyperbole on my part.  The governor is being exactly that crass.  Readers who are interested in more information on the topic should check out Stephanie Taylor’s excellent essay at Slate.com.

Social media has played an augmenting role in these protests.  There’s the pizza orders, which are pretty cool.  There’s the twitter- and blog-based information diffusion.  There are the solidarity events planned around the country, occurring throughout the past week and also this Saturday.  There’s the $300,000 raised by DailyKos, DFA and PCCC to support the “Wisonsin 14.” And of course there are the “mundane mobilization tools” used to coordinate events themselves.  But in general, whereas the focus on social media in the Arab protests has been so intense as to border on self-parody, no one has really spent much time talking about the internet’s role in this saga.  Nor should they.  The story here is pretty simple.  Walker is trying to destroy the central organizing structure for working class interests.  This isn’t about reduced benefits – the unions have already agreed to cuts – it’s about power, plain and simple.

The new generation of internet-mediated organizations can achieve a lot of things.  They’re optimized for the new media environment, both in terms of organizational overhead, staff structure, membership communications, and rapid tactical repertoire.  But they can’t organize workers in a specific industry or location to increase salary, working conditions, or benefits.  MoveOn isn’t going to sit across from management at the negotiating table.  Your local Meetup group sure doesn’t have that capacity either.  This is the most obvious space where “organizing without organizations” comes up short.  You need to build power if you’re going to confront power.

What’s more, MoveOn, DFA, PCCC, DailyKos, Living Liberally, New Organizing Institute and the rest of the netroots are fully aware of this.  Professional organizers, old-school and new-school, understand that the Wisconsin fight is about power.    Take away the unions, and the super-wealthy will be the only interests in America capable of aggregating massive resources to affect policy change.  It looks an awful lot like a coordinated, multi-year strategy to knock out every significant organization of the left (first ACORN, now Planned Parenthood and the Unions).

I feel the need to point this out because the short-version summary of my research is “the new media environment is transforming the interest group ecology of American politics.  We’re experiencing a ‘generation shift.’”  I want to be absolutely clear about this: what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about digital media or about generational displacement in the advocacy group system.  It is a coordinated Rightwing assault on the rights of citizens to organize in the workplace.  Internet-mediated organizations are doing all they can to support the unions in this fight, because they know full well that the unions fill a niche that internet-mediated issue generalists, online communities-of-interest, and neo-federated organizations cannot.  I cannot think of a single serious online organizer who believes otherwise.

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