I've been reading the first blog ever written from a strikers' picket line. The picket line is outside several San Francisco hospitals, and the strikers are 800 health care workers from the Service Employees International Union's local United Healthcare Workers West. They're demanding that their employers provide them with better training and a way to resolve disputes through third parties. Members of the SEIU-UHW are mostly lower-paid hospital workers like nurse's assistants, janitors, and, as union rep Thea Lavin puts it, "the people who keep you and your room clean while you're in the hospital." Their grievances are all too familiar, but their method of organizing is not.
"Strikers are using text messaging to communicate on the picket lines," Lavin says, "and picket line leaders are coming home at night and describing what it was like that day." Workers on the lines are struggling to figure out what's going on in the hospitals during their absences, and they're constantly fighting the fear that they'll run out of money and be forced to take other work before the battle has been won. They're also struggling quite literally with Healthcare Contingency Staffing Services' scab guards, a gang of modern-day Pinkertons who have been terrorizing strikers (and, in one case, actually beating them, according to an Oct. 13 police report).
For anyone who has ever been on strike -- or just driven by and honked the horn in solidarity -- the blog at sutterstrikers.blogs.com is a reminder of the often tiring and confusing experience. It features regular entries from strikers like Emily Stone, who was happy that one of her regular patients came to chat with her on the picket line during a visit to the hospital for kidney dialysis. Tom, another strike blogger, talks about how he's worried about the welfare of patients he'd normally be attending.
Many entries are just plain, simple calls for solidarity, reiterating why the workers need to stand together. Sal Rosselli, president of the SEIU-UHW, wrote an exultant post the day Jesse Jackson came out to support the strike at a rally. And Stone reports how, after being arrested, she kept up her spirits by chanting with her fellow prisoners in the paddy wagon, "I'm tied up! I can't take it anymore!" -- a reference to the union chant "I'm fired up! I can't take it anymore!" Rosselli says the local union leadership was inspired to start its blog by the Howard Dean campaign. "This is my first blog," he says. "We're learning as we go along. But the Sutter Health fight is a national story, so we wanted to communicate with folks nationally over the Web."
Traditionally, labor organizers have communicated with their membership on the picket lines via newsletters or at meetings. The idea of starting a strikers' blog is a break with this tradition because it gives rank-and-file strikers the chance to talk to the world -- and each other -- without going through their higher-ups. If strike blogs catch on, they will offer a chance for the public to get a very personal look at why people go on strike and why unions are still crucial for protecting workers' rights.
What I'm hoping to see in coming years are people organizing unions on blogs. Federal labor law protects people engaging in union-organizing -- if you're in the process of organizing a union and get fired for it, you can sic a bunch of mad-dog labor lawyers on your ex-employer's ass. That's why union blogs may be some of the safest places on the Web to talk about workplace grievances. Mark Jen, the guy who was fired from Google for blogging about his life at the search megacorp, would probably still have a job today if he'd been blogging about forming a union of Google serfs.
So here's the lesson, brothers and sisters and others: If you want to blog about your workplace, the best thing you can do is start forming a union right now. I'm willing to bet you'll improve conditions for your colleagues in the process.