E-mail for Organizing
By Harry Kelber, LaborTalk, 29 August 1999
By a stroke of a finger on a computer keyboard, an employee organizer was able to send a union message with electronic speed to 2,000 Pratt & Whitney engineers, using the company's e-mail addresses. After a number of such mailings, the company found out about it and suspended the two top officers of the fledgling independent union, the Florida Professional Assn.
The union charged that the suspensions were an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act, while the engine company insisted that using its mailing addresses was illegal. After two years of wrangling, a settlement was reached last month under which the union would withdraw its unfair labor practice charges, in return for which the company pledged that it would allow a limited use of its e-mail addresses for union messages.
The Pratt & Whitney incident undoubtedly will inspire unions to explore new ways of using e-mail in their organizing campaigns. For example. a company's pledge of neutrality in an organizing drive might include the use of its e-mail addresses for union messages.
The e-mail issue will confront the National Labor Relations Board with new policy problems in cases that will be brought before it. Employers will argue that the use of its mailing addresses is an invasion of its property rights. It is also illegal for employees to be reading such e-mail messages on company working time, they maintain.
Unions will rely on freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that e-mail messages to employees cannot be considered trespassing on company property. NLRB rulings on e-mail cases will be eagerly awaited by both employers and unions, and there probably will be numerous appeals by dissatisfied parties.
Even if unions are denied the use of a company's mailing addresses, e-mail is an excellent organizing tool, especially in targeting large firms whose employees are scattered at different locations. An e-mail message provides huge savings in printing and mailing costs, as well as in staff time. It enables a union to respond almost instantaneously to new developments at the organizing site. It ensures quick feedback from pro-union employees in the workplace. It results in better coordination between union headquarters and field organizers.
With a well-kept, growing data base, a union can be in immediate e-mail contact with specific groups, such as new members, retirees, shop stewards and workers in various job classifications.
There has been an explosive increase in the number of people on the Internet and a corresponding rise in the use of e-mail. It's the communicating tool of the future. Unions should find ways to take full advantage of it.
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