"Machines were, it may be said, the weapon employed by the capitalist to quell the revolt of specialized labour." -- Karl Marx, 1847
A New York Times story about the United Auto Workers challenges that particular Karl Marx analysis. Reporter Nick Bunkley describes how the autoworkers union has been using social media to communicate with members during recent contract talks with Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. And it even points to ways that tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter may help management and labor communicate more effectively with each other.
"Through Facebook, autoworkers at plants in Kansas City, Mo., or Kokomo, Ind., have been able to voice concerns and ask questions directly to the bargaining teams, something they could not do in past years. Facebook helped workers at a Chrysler factory in Dundee, Mich., gather support before voting last month to join the national contract; they had previously been covered by a separate agreement that provided less job security."
When a UAW website crashed after it posted new Ford and G.M. contracts, the union turned to social media to get details to its members:
"While the U.A.W. worked to repair its Web site last week, it posted a summary of the Ford contract on Facebook, and received more than 500 comments in response. Since ratification meetings started, the moderators of the U.A.W.'s page for Ford workers have been busy answering requests to clarify sections of the contract language, sometimes responding within minutes."In several instances, the union used Facebook to rebut rumors being disseminated on plant floors or in the news media, rather than allowing them to spread unchallenged."
One section of the Times story focused on Art Reyes, president of UAW Local 651 in Flint, Mich., who described his active Facebooking during the contract talks as a generational imperative:
"Mr. Reyes represents a G.M. parts processing plant staffed entirely by entry-level workers, many of whom are in their 20s, new to the bargaining process and more likely to engage one another online than at the union hall."'They're used to expressing themselves on Facebook or on Twitter. Getting real-time answers is something they have an expectation of,' [Reyes] said. 'Nothing feeds the rumor mill like a lack of information.'"
And it seems the automakers took a similar view. In G.M.'s case, the company and the union actually joined forces to communicate with employees via Facebook. As Kim Carpenter, a G.M. spokeswoman, told the Times:
"There's a lot of different filters out there, and this enables us to communicate directly with the membership, and we think that's a good thing."
Having been at the table as a management representative for my employer during contract talks last year, I can't help but see -- and believe in -- the potential of greater labor-management collaboration. But that kind of collaboration can play both ways with different constituencies. The comment threads I scrolled through on the UAW-G.M. Facebook page seemed to be dominated by remarks, many in all-caps, from UAW brothers and sisters who were unhappy with parts of the new agreements -- especially frustrated retirees like the person who wrote this:
"JUST A NOTE TO ALL RETIREES,IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY WITH THE WAY YOU WERE LEFT OUT OF THE NEW CONTRACT,YOU CAN HAVE YOUR VOICE HEARD BY CANCELLING YOUR UNION DUES, CONTACT YOUR LOCAL UNION FOR INFORMATION ON HOW TO DO THIS. THANK YOU"
Or this one:
"It is a very sad time when retirees have to worry MORE about what the UAW will do to their pensions & benefits than the company!! They are supposed to protect the things we worked for rather then sell us out."
So, can the machines be employed by specialized labor to quell the revolt of specialized labor?
Providing a forum for unhappy constituents to share their unhappiness, and then actively responding to those comments and engaging the commenters is a social media tenet.
Another social media tenet is that the line between and among institutions and individuals is thiner and fuzzier than ever. That's as true for a union, a company and their members/employees as it is for, say, a government and its citizens, or a media company and its audience.
Whether that results in cacophony or symphony has more to do with the players than the instruments.
In the end, a machine ain't nothing but a machine.
(Photo up top was taken by John F. Martin on an assembly line in Flint, Mich. Chevrolet is the photo's copyright holder.)