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Review On CyberUnion:Empowering Labor Through Computer Technology

CyberUnion: Empowering Labor Through Computer Technology, by Arthur B. Shostak. Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 1999. 288pp. $24.95 Paperback. ISBN: 0-7656-0463-9.

Chris Benner, Dept. of Geography, Pennsylvania State University Many prominent researchers argue that the information economy has made unions outdated. An institutional remnant of an older industrial age, unions are seen as too inflexible to adapt to the rapidly changing economy. In CyberUnion, Arthur Shostak attempts to provide a different view, examining the ways unions currently use information technology and providing a vision of potential future uses. In doing so, Shostak attempts to make the case that unions can effectively take advantage of new technologies to adapt to the changing world of work, providing better services to their members and gaining power as a social actor.

The book is primarily targeted towards union leaders themselves, along with sympathetic academic researchers. As such, the strength of the book lies in some inspiring case studies and a wealth of references to both on-line and printed resources designed to help unions take maximum advantage of new technology.

The book, however, fails to systematically address factors that shape unions' current use of information technology, or discuss the use of computers in the context of the range of strategic challenges currently facing the labor movement. As a result, the book falls short of providing a convincing argument that "CyberUnionism" is around the corner. Nonetheless, the book provides valuable reference material for anyone interested in relationships between information technology and labor organizing.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I provides a descriptive examination of current uses of information technology in union organizing strategies and the provision of services. Part II presents a typology of unions based on their current uses of information technology, ranging from those that neglect computerization to those that play an active role in using information technology. Part III presents Shostak's as yet unrealized ideal vision of a 'CyberUnion' which is making full utilization of new technologies in innovative ways. The final section examines change agents, both in the U.S. and internationally, that are helping to push the union movement towards greater use of information technology.

The book is heavily laced with quotes from union activists, and each chapter ends with an essay from a union organizer describing concrete applications of the concepts developed in the chapter, including some inspiring case studies of unions use of information technology to build their organization. The lists of books and on-line resources at the end of each chapter are a gold mine of useful resources, and are of value to practitioners and researchers alike.

Shostak's vision of a powerful 'CyberUnion' making full use of information technology is built around four central concepts:
  1. Futuristics, which stripped of its jargon essentially refers to the ability of unions to develop long-range strategic planning skills in the context of a greater understanding of future technological trends;
  2. Innovation, which Shostak roots in developing a culture of experimentation and organizational learning in the use of information technology;
  3. Services, in which information technology can greatly strengthen the ability of unions to communicate with and provide innovative services to their membership; and
  4. Tradition, in which he envisions the use of information technologies and particularly the internet to celebrate and make more accessible the proud history of union contributions to social and economic development.

There are many nuggets of valuable information, useful references, and compelling stories scattered throughout the book. Overall, however, the book is anecdotal and full of jargon. It lacks a sustained analysis of why many unions have been slow in taking full advantage of information technology, or a systematic examination of the factors that have made some unions more successful in these efforts. The typology Shostak develops characterizing unions current use of information technology is simply descriptive and not very enlightening. Shostak is somewhat more provocative in presenting his vision of a "CyberUnion". He provides some innovative suggestions of ways unions could make better use of information technology.

His discussion, however, is highly abstract, and strangely disconnected from many of the current debates about the strategic direction of the labor movement. Information technology can clearly be a powerful tool for strengthening unions' ties with their membership, building new organizing campaigns, improving union services, and strengthening the labor movements political clout. There are many obstacles to achieving these goals, however, not simply the poor use of information technology. Furthermore, at the same time that unions are experimenting with better use of information technology, companies are using technology to transform the structure of work and employment in the broader economy, creating new challenges for unions.

Without weaving a discussion of these broader issues into his discussion of unions' use of information technology, Shostak's argument is weakened. Instead, we are left to appreciate his wealth of knowledge, references and stories, while waiting for someone else to make a more convincing argument that unions will remain a critical social actor in the information age.

Category: Work, Organizations and Markets
Word Count: 796

Arthur B. Shostak, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Department of Culture and Communications, Drexel University, Phila., PA, 19104; 215-895-2466; fax 610-668-2727.

"This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it." Ralph Waldo Emerson

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