Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Interactive Local 404: Can Labor and Management Be Facebook 'Friends'?

"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:


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.)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Red Light Means... Stop and Remember When It Didn't

Those new fangled traffic lights are quite a marvel, aren't they? At least they were 75 years ago.

Back then, Jam Handy was to instructional films what Walt Disney was to early animation. In 1937, Chevrolet hired Handy to produce a short film explaining "automated signal lights." The devices were just in their second decade of use, and there was still astounding variation from place to place. "Even now," the film's narrator said, "traffic engineers are working with safety councils toward a national standardization of the traffic signal system."

I found Handy's nine-minute movie in the Prelinger Archive after a friend shared a link to an edited version posted by The Atlantic. For me it was yet another reminder that most commonplace technologies -- the once-complicated tools we now use almost absentmindedly everyday -- were once disruptive and confounding, too. As Atlantic Cities editor Sommer Mathis puts it:

"It's easy to forget that at one point in our history, there was no national standard that red meant stop, and green meant go -— many cities operated their own unique versions of automated traffic signals, some with four colors, and others with only two."

Actually the use of red and green signal lights pre-dated traffic lights. Credit for adapting the color-coded signal system used by railroads for automated traffic management goes to William L. Potts, an inventive Detroit police inspector who also gets credit for another innovation: the first police car equipped with an experimental radio.

Will wonders never cease!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Something Just Clicked: A Date With Destiny?

"Computers and society are out on a first date in this decade and for some crazy reason we're just in the right place at the right time to make the romance blossom."

-- Apple co-cofounder Steve Jobs in 1983.

That was the year before Jobs' company introduced the Macintosh -- "the computer for the rest of us," as it was promoted at the time. The original asking price for the Mac: $2,495, or $5,440 when adjusted for inflation.

Jobs (1955-2011) "was arguably the best ambassador ever between androids and humans," wrote Linton Weeks, my coworker at NPR:

"When Jobs died Wednesday at 56 after protracted combat with pancreatic cancer, the world lost a valuable shuttle diplomat between computers and tablets and gadgets and animated robots, and the people who so desperately long to relate to them."

Linton added: "He is not gone. He will not be forgotten. His soul is in the machine."

The image above is from Jobs' presentation in January 1984, when he publicly unveiled the Mac. And the quote up top from 1983 comes from author Steven Levy's 1994 book, Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, The Computer That Changed Everything.