XXX.2 March - April 2023
Page: 48
Digital Citation

The Cyberunion 20 Years Later

Vera Khovanskaya

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Twenty-one years ago, the second edition of The Cyberunion Handbook: Transforming Labor Through Computer Technology, a volume documenting the promises, challenges, and "from the trenches" experiences of unionists seeking to bring the labor movement into the Information Age, was published. The stories in the book, edited by sociologist and labor scholar Arthur Shostak, describe how unions first began to build an interactive online presence and adapt digital communication technologies to further labor's cause. Many insights from Cyberunion still resonate. For example, amid the high optimism about ICT's potential to revive the labor movement, Shostak was keen to point out that technology is also "costly, complex, and demanding, only as reliable and effective as the humans in charge" and must work in concert with one-on-one organizing and other tactics [1].

back to top  Insights

VC-funded union organizing platforms pose a threat to the labor movement.
Unions have to make calculated decisions about how to allocate limited financial resources to get the most from data tools while trying to minimize the potential harms.
Academic support for labor organizations in developing and maintaining movement-building technology requires further inquiry into the broader economic context in which current tools are materialized.

Many of the most complex and demanding tools, and ones that pose the biggest financial and infrastructural challenges for unions today, are membership and organizing databases. Rarely visible externally, these data tools play an important role in coordinating communication and targeted outreach to new and potential union members. Leading up to a union recognition vote, data tools are used to sign and keep track of union cards, map levels of support for the union, calculate routes for activists to visit workers at home, and map activist structure within union campaigns (i.e., who will contact whom leading up to union actions). After the union is recognized and collective bargaining contracts are negotiated, more data tools are needed for tracking member dues and member grievances (complaints or disputes concerning the interpretation or breach of contracts), as well as for sending membership data throughout the union (i.e., to the national or international offices) and the broader labor movement (e.g., to the AFL-CIO).

The data tools behind tracking organizing, membership, dues, and grievances are unfortunately given little attention in the 2002 Cyberunion. A brief mention of unions' use of software to address "traditional business needs such as accounting and bookkeeping (dues and benefit records, payroll data, and so on)" is relegated to the "Cyber Naught" subsection, as an example of the most uninspired, bare-minimum requirement of entry into the age of computerization. Instead, the Cyberunion model tends to focus on unions' use of websites and tools for communication, especially those that support two-way communication between membership and union leaders. Similarly, while Cyberunion warns of the potential recurring maintenance costs of different software, there is little acknowledgment of the impacts of software funding (except to generally urge unions to become educated in open-source options). In a manner that reads almost quaintly to contemporary audiences, the most that the 2002 Cyberunion wonders about business models is to ask whether the AFL-CIO's future website portal will be able to curb the tendency toward "brassy ads for goods and services…even at a loss of revenue" [2]. If only the presence or absence of ads was our biggest problem!

The 2002 Cyberunion model did not anticipate the pragmatic challenges of some of this perhaps at the time more banal and straightforward-seeming software. While online presence and messaging continue to be important for unions, the affordances of these behind-the-scenes data tools (e.g., in their price models, how they store data, and their integration or lack thereof with communication tools and other software) shape unions' organizing strategy by dictating what is easy and inexpensive to do versus what is more tedious and more expensive.

Most research on digital unionism continues to follow Cyberunion's focus on unions' use of websites, social media platforms, and communication tools (i.e., virtual meetings and messaging). This work is important, but it misses a parallel universe of technical expertise and strategic decision making on the part of unions to contract or insource the development of customized tools and modifications of existing software to address union-specific organizing and membership-tracking goals. A perpetual challenge that unionists have come up against in this effort is the unavoidable fact that the design and maintenance of digital tools is resource-intensive, specialized work, which often presents a financial burden. While Cyberunion continues to be a classic text that captures the hopes and reservations of the labor movement going digital, plenty of work remains to be done to account for the full software ecology of the cyberunion in 2023.


back to top  Venture Capital in the Labor Movement

One solution to the challenge of how to finance labor movement—supporting software has come under recent scrutiny in the online labor community. A Los Angeles Times article featuring Unit of Work ("Unit"), a new technology company that promises tools and support for people organizing their workplace, highlighted the seemingly counterintuitive role of venture capital (VC) behind the company's operation [3]. Unit aims to intervene in the "hodgepodge of software" that people currently use to organize in their workplace. It is important to note that for Unit founder James Earl White, VC funding is not part of the "long-term economy" of the company, but instead presented the shortest route to financing it. The company's goal is to eventually buy out its investors as part of what White calls "exit to community." The "exit" language here refers to the typical paths of "exiting" in VC-funded technology start-ups, in which a company is either acquired or goes public (i.e., listing its shares on a stock exchange, making them available for purchase by the general public).

The data tools behind tracking organizing, membership, dues, and grievances are given little attention in the 2002 Cyberunion.

In addition to its VC-backed funding model, two things are interesting about Unit. First, it offers consulting on organizing strategy, communications, and legal advice to new union campaigns, areas of expertise for which activists typically turn to national and international unions. And second, Unit already assists unionization campaigns without having developed any of its own software yet. Providing consulting in addition to (eventual) software support is an explicit part of the current business plan for Unit, as it seeks to sell not only the software but also union-organizing expertise "as a service." The company does so with the goal of building a sustainable revenue and eventually buying out its investors. For this to happen, it needs to collect money ("dues") from members of independently formed unions after they negotiate their first contract. Although Unit employees are quick to point out that the campaigns that start organizing through their service are free to eventually affiliate with national and international unions, Unit's eventual dues-paying unions are unlikely to be ones that choose to affiliate since they would instead be paying member dues to their national or international affiliate, not to Unit. This means that the company's business model likely depends on drawing revenue from independently formed labor unions. This is worrisome news, especially since one of Unit's prominent sources of early-stage VC funding explicitly hopes to "decentralize" the labor movement by taking down "big union." Unit's business model, if successful, poses a threat to national and international labor unions by suggesting there is a possibility to access necessary expertise, legal counsel, and organizing tools without affiliation.

While the wager that union campaigns could, or perhaps ought to, bypass national or international union affiliation may be unique to Unit, the challenge that the LA Times article raises about financing the development of data tools in the labor movement has existed long before Unit came on the scene. While much of the negative reaction to Unit has to do with the potential harms of taking VC funding, it is important to note that many unions already use VC-funded and private equity-acquired software. As a result, the labor movement already faces some of the downstream effects of VC-based approaches to technology funding. For example, an imperative toward growth and scalability in VC-funding models can lead to a prioritization of feature and customization requests from larger user groups (use cases that promise to either scale or align with the needs of bigger contracts). This means that for data tools where unions comprise a minority subset of users—unions often use the same software as electoral parties, nonprofits, and progressive organizations—VC funding's growth and scalability imperatives could lead to niche, union-specific customization requests losing out to the needs of more highly valued, scalable use cases. Another impact of VC-based approaches to software funding is that unions must manage the after effects of a company's exit. Since the exit plan for most VC-funded companies is acquisition, unions are left to deal with the changing business models and integration issues that arise when software companies are acquired by other companies. Finally, if a VC-funded company fails and is liquidated, there is a threat that, if no protections have been put into place, organizers' personal data could be monetized as part of the software company's asset-liquidation process, which poses a potential security risk to the labor movement.

Unions' use of data tools also means that unions already absorb the recurring costs of software-as-a-service contracts. Even when unions decide to build software in-house instead of contracting with vendors, they still pay for the expert labor of data workers to build and maintain the systems, which they do in addition to employing other professional experts such as campaign strategists, communications experts, and lawyers. It is important to note that unionists have used ingenious and painstaking tactics to work around the financial challenges posed by the software they use, but there is no way around the fact that the design and maintenance of the data tools is specialized and resource-intensive work. Unions are therefore required to make calculated decisions about how to allocate limited financial resources to get the most from data tools while trying to minimize the potential harms.

Unit's business model, if successful, poses a threat to national and international labor unions.

There are a couple of things unions are doing in this vein that are worth highlighting. First, some unions have the ability to consolidate their software-buying power through labor federations such as the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO has collaborated with software vendors including the nonprofit Action Squared and EveryAction/NGP-VAN, which is owned by a private equity firm, to design union-specific software that the AFL-CIO then makes available to its affiliated national and international unions at no cost. This an imperfect approach, as many unions are not affiliated with a labor federation, but it evidences a pragmatic response to the financing challenges that unions face. Second, some unions have started to provide data training and facilitate pathways for technology professionalization for union organizers (e.g., through grants and data training). This move reflects a belief that better software decisions will happen in the labor movement when people whose perspective is rooted in real, on-the-ground labor-organizing experience have access to the technical know-how and professional legitimacy needed to be influential in decision-making conversations about technology adoption, design, and maintenance.

back to top  The Role of Expertise

Running through many of these conversations about how to best navigate the ecology of union data tools is the underlying question of whose expertise should be valued when unions design technology or make plans about its adoption and maintenance. In software design, we recognize that people bring their own experiences. In the labor movement too, the role of personal background has been important in sociological studies of union professionals since at least 1956, when Intellectuals in Labor Unions, by Harold Wilensky, was published. In the book, Wilensky offers a complex taxonomy of experts who ascend unions' leadership structures, distinguishing, for example, between "true" rank-and-file experts (i.e., those who become staff experts through a series of elected and appointed union positions) and synthetic rank and filers who already have specialized expertise and briefly venture into union-organizing work to build credibility.

More recently, conflicting narratives have emerged about whose expertise prevails in decisions about technology. On the one hand, there is concern that labor is perpetually behind the technology-adoption curve (compared to electoral and nonprofit sectors) because unions are devoted to hiring leaders from within their own rank and file, and thus end up with people who have limited technological expertise or interest. This anxiety is contradicted by longitudinal study data suggesting that unions today "pay more attention to recruiting individuals meeting college, technical, and professional qualifications" [4]. On the other hand, and perhaps to make up for the deficits of the supposedly nontechnically savvy leadership, unions recruit data expertise externally by hiring professionals who not only have formal qualifications but also have sharpened their teeth on data tools through past employment in electoral work or in progressive organizations and nonprofits. These professionals can be a valuable source of expertise on different parts of the movement-building software landscape (especially since, as mentioned above, many of the same movement-building tools used by unions are also used elsewhere). At the same time, there is still an acknowledgment, at least by some unions, that professionals who come up through the ranks of union organizing might have better insight on how union data tools work on the ground and may be better positioned to navigate the unique challenges of union organizing and data strategy (when compared to political party and nonprofit use cases). Commitment to this belief is evidenced through the strategies discussed above of supporting codesign of data tools through the AFL-CIO and through unions sponsoring organizers to receive training in data tools. This suggests that unions are already taking up the questions of expertise, even as they are perpetually characterized as technologically behind.


back to top  The Way Forward

Academics and practitioners in HCI and CSCW can play a strategic role in supporting labor organizations as they navigate the ecology of available union data tools. Most of us do not have the resources to fund, build, and sustain alternative tools directly; however, many of us are trained in evaluating potential data tools. To apply this training in the union context, we must first take stock of what data tools unions currently use, which people are empowered to make decisions about how the tools are used, and what challenges they face.

Next, if we take Unit founder at his word that venture capital funding really is the most readily available path to financing movement-building tools, then another role academics can play is to provide more-specific guidance about the potential impacts of differing configurations of VC-based funding. Recent work in HCI and CSCW has already drawn attention to the impact of venture capital on technology design [5,6,7]. Understanding the nuances of return-on-investment thresholds and board-control expectations of different VC funds can help us offer labor organizations better insights about which software providers are more likely to meet union-specific needs. Finally, if the exit strategy that Unit is courting also becomes prevalent, we must understand what technology companies need to do and how they should structure themselves so that they can realistically "exit to community"—understanding what this requires [8] will put us in a better position to say whether companies like Unit are doing it. In summary, there is a role for academics to play in navigating this landscape, but to do so effectively requires updating our understanding of how unions make decisions about data tools and the broader economic context in which those tools are currently brought into being.

back to top  References

1. Shostak, A.B. The Cyberunion Handbook: Transforming Labor Through Computer Technology. ME Sharpe, 2002.

2. Shostak, A.B. Organized labor's best bet? CyberUnions! WorkingUSA 3, 4 (1999), 120–133;

3. Dean, S. The organized labor movement has a new ally: venture capitalists. Los Angeles Times. Aug. 12, 2022;

4. Whitehead, P., Clark, P.F., and Gray, L.S. Adapting union administrative practices to new realities: Results of a twenty-year longitudinal study. Advances in Industrial and Labor Relations, 2017: Shifts in Workplace Voice, Justice, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution in Contemporary Workplaces. Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018, 155–184.

5. Lampinen, A., Light, A., Rossitto, C., Fedosov, A., Bassetti, C., Bernat, A., Travlou, P., and Avram, G. Processes of proliferation: Impact beyond scaling in sharing and collaborative economies. Proc. of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 6, GROUP (2022), 1–22.

6. Tandon, U., Khovanskaya, V., Arcilla, E., Hussein, M.H., Zschiesche, P., and Irani, L. Hostile Ecologies: Navigating the Barriers to Community-Led Innovation. Proc. of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 6, CSCW (2022), 1–26;

7. Dym, B., Pasupuleti, N., and Fiesler, C. Building a pillowfort: Political tensions in platform design and policy. Proc. of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 6, GROUP (2022), 1–23.

8. Alleyne, M., Canon, C., Evans, A., Feng, Y., Schneider, N., Zepeda, M., Dana, C., and Magnuson, S. Media Enterprise Design Lab, University of Colorado Boulder;

back to top  Author

Vera Khovanskaya is a postdoctoral computing innovation fellow at the University of California, San Diego. She studies the role of data tools and technical expertise in workers' advocacy organizations. Her recent work has examined how unions used workplace data in the past and how contemporary data tools affect current union organizing. [email protected]

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