Remember Edwize? It was a blog started by the United Federation of Teachers in 2005 as an effort to engage the then-burgeoning education reform blogosphere on equal terms. One of the first posts informed us “that teacher unions are democratic institutions, and that we consider dissent a necessary component of democratic conversation.”
Of course various forms of social media have largely supplanted blogs as interactive methods of communication, but if NYC Educator hadn’t posted about it who would have even known Edwize was gone?
Teacher unions’ use of the Internet has much improved over the years (remember OWL.org?) AFT president Randi Weingarten has been tweeting 1,000 times a month for five years and has 53,000 followers. But they still fail to fully embrace two-way communication with their own members – a problem that predates blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
Back in 2002, three NEA staffers wrote an article for the Journal of Labor Research on the union’s experiments in cyberspace. They concluded, “With modern cyber software, in short, content creation can be decentralized and democratized. Members can be empowered. But first, of course, members need to be trusted. A top-down union, comfortable with command-and-control internal information-sharing processes, might be unnerved by this prospect. A top-down union, uncomfortable with anything but command-and-control, will likely never succeed in cyberspace.”
Sigh. All NEA can think about is how cyberspace will help it get members to do something. Completely unexamined (perhaps even unimagined) is what if cyberspace helps members to get NEA to do something? What if members share internal information not previously filtered through the communications staff? What if they decide to support or reject legislation not included in the union’s legislative program? What if they become unhappy meeting once a year in a group of 9,000 and would prefer a different arrangement? A membership truly engaged in NEA’s workings might make it a stronger union, but it would be a fundamentally different union from the one that exists now, and in ways utterly unpredictable to those who hope to harness that power.
Even 13 years later we haven’t reached that point, but we’re closer to it than we have ever been.