February 23, 2007

Expanded Use of Internet and Email Leads to Increased Democracy in Union

Research by Charles R. Greer

The growing use of information technology by labor unions - via emails and media-rich Web sites - carries the potential of significant benefits both for the unions and their members. One of the major effects appears to be a rise in union democracy.

So finds a study entitled "E-Voice, the Internet, and Life within Unions: Riding the Learning Curve," by Greer and Charles D. Stevens of North Dakota State University, which appeared recently in WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society .

The research reveals that electronic methods are providing better communications for unions, both internally and externally, than do traditional means such as mailings and phone calls. Among the study's results: More information is being disseminated to union members and the public, members have greater opportunity to express their concerns, and members are receiving increased value and improved services.

"Our main findings were a steady increase in the use of the Internet and email by unions to provide enhanced services to members, communicate with members and make them aware of ongoing issues, and allow more communication by the membership with union officers," says Dr. Greer, a professor of management and an authority on labor relations at TCU's Neeley School of Business

"Members are able to quickly and easily convey their concerns by email, directly and unfiltered. It's important for members to feel they have a say in how things are done in unions. The ability of members to communicate with their unions and the responsiveness of union officers to members' concerns and grievances is a measure of democracy," he says. "Increased communications mean more democracy."

However, this is "a double-edged sword," he says, in that while undemocratic unions may pay little attention to members' concerns, too much democracy leads to factions and instability. "It's vital for unions to find the right balance of addressing members' interests while maintaining efficient operations," Greer says.

He and Dr. Stevens analyzed the Web sites of 63 major national unions and interviewed a sampling of union communications professionals for further insights into the Web data. They studied site content on officers' and members' issues, invitations for members to run for union office, turnover of officers, requests for member input on negotiations and union governance, information about new contracts and ongoing negotiations, and the existence of confidential members-only sections.

The results were compared to those of a 2001 study by Dr. Greer that used many of the same measures. New to the recent study were measures of site content in languages other than English and electronic links from national union Web sites directly to local union chapters, with both of these aspects representing the potential for facilitating member input in decision making.

Two of the most significant changes that occurred in the time between the studies were a much higher proportion of Web sites devoting substantial content to members' issues, up from 70 percent in 2001 to 80 percent in the recent study, and a striking increase in the proportion of Web sites offering confidential members-only sections, jumping from 23 percent in 2001 to 44 percent. Both changes indicate a desire on the part of unions to place greater emphasis on members' concerns.

"Additionally," says Dr. Greer, "the Web and email provide unions with the previously unavailable opportunity to fully present their perspectives to the public."

"Media coverage of unions typically is negative. The public generally only hears about demands and strikes, and seldom anything about resolving safety concerns or unfair terminations. Now through the Web, unions can tell their side of the story, which may not be available to the public through any other media," he says.

According to the study, unions hope that enhanced communications between unions and their members, and unions and the public, will help slow or reverse the global decline in unionization. As unions continue to become more sophisticated in their use of Web sites and email, information technology may well prove crucial in striving for this goal.

"It's clear the Internet is providing efficiencies in communications that were not previously available. The Internet and email are efficient and inexpensive methods of contacting people, and are particularly effective in communicating with those who are geographically widespread," says Dr. Greer.

"Some unions have very sophisticated Web sites that can be instantly updated with new information as needed," he adds. "The Web is a really important tool for unions."


Elaine Cole
Public Relations Manager
Neeley School of Business at TCU