I had a chance to talk with Sam Fratto today about IBEW Local 363’s innovative use of an anonymous blog in organizing 164 employees of an InBev can factory in the Hudson River Valley. Sam is a dedicated lifelong union organizer and a passionate speaker, and IBEW’s use of the anonymous blog in helping these workers organize is really innovative and impressive. The ability of workers to talk about dynamics in the workplace, and discuss issues around the union drive, anonymously without fear of reprisal, sounds like it was a really critical part of the campaign.
This experience contrasts a bit with many other stories about the power of social media in social movement organizing, in which the increased visibility–and lack of anonymity–has been important. The case that came to mind today was that of Newark youth protesting budget cuts, in which a facebook site became an important space where potential protesters could see their friends’ opinions, and experience rising levels of commitment to participate in open demonstrations. Here, as in the democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt, the on-line community helped build on and expand pre-existing social networks, expanding solidarity that led to increased action.
Of course, it is probably an over-statement to say that the people contributing to the IBEW blog were truly anonymous–the particular individual making a comment may not be identifiable, but the context and the content of the postings are clearly linked to a real community of employees in a workplace, and the blog was able to help strengthen solidarity in that community while protecting people’s livelihoods. And many pro-democracy ‘facebook activists’ in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere are discovering that they need to take on-line anonymity and security more seriously , though of course the solidarity built in part through the facebook communities was an important part of building the protests.
The term anonymous typically means someone who’s identity is not known, but it seems that what is powerful in the IBEW case (and I think has elements in common with other successful organizing efforts in contexts of the potential for real reprisals) is the combination of individual anonymity and community identity. Maybe we need a new term for this…. Anon-unity? Anonunity? Any comments? You heard it here first….
By the way, still one of the best books I’ve ever read about building solidarity in the midst of political struggle is Rick Fantasia’s Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action and Contemporary American Workers. Anyone have any other more recent recommendations?