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Tom Dalzell

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Fifty Thousand Friends: Union Organizing On Facebook

Posted: 09/02/11 03:48 PM ET

The head of any organization -- whether it's a union, a corporation or my daughter's soccer league -- will tell you it's good to have friends. In recent years, organized labor has found it more and more difficult to make friends with average Americans. And it's not that we haven't been trying -- we've talked ears off about corporate responsibility, social justice and the rights of workers. But it's difficult to argue that we had much success -- drops in labor membership and other metrics are real, and I'm beginning to allow for the possibility that it's not entirely the fault of the Bush Administration, the Tea Party, or the Koch brothers.

A dialogue, not a speech

Last year, the union I represent -- IBEW Local 1245 -- started the Shame on NV Energy campaign to fight the utility's decision to the slash health benefits of their retirees. We made a conscious decision at the beginning to try something new and approach the campaign not as a speech, but as a dialogue.

We knew what our beef with the company was -- a broken promise to protect the healthcare benefits of their retirees. But we decided to ask people what they thought of the company -- not just tell them what we thought. When we asked and listened, we uncovered a deep well of dissatisfaction with NV Energy's shoddy customer service and sky-high rates -- something we hadn't anticipated. From Day One we made common cause with the customers of the utility, talking to them, not at them, about the company's failings. We provided them something of value -- a forum to share their experiences, horror stories and ideas. We did what we were trained to do as organizers -- we listened.

This week, Shame on NV Energy notched its 50,000th member and became the largest organized labor site on Facebook, dwarfing the national AFL-CIO, SEIU and AFSCME. 50,000 friends isn't just a number -- we've engaged our members to sign petitions, show up at protests and put public pressure on the company. And we've helped secure some real concessions, including a key change to the company's bylaws through a shareholder resolution.

Lincoln Brigades vs. Linkin Park

The Shame on NV Energy campaign taught us that the wonderful thing about social media is that it forces us to be social. After years of operating in an increasingly isolated labor movement, it's nice not to be talking to just ourselves anymore. Not surprisingly, it turns out that lecturing about the Lincoln Brigades is generally less engaging than discussing the social justice messages of Linkin Park.

Some of us will never be cool. But social media is forcing the labor movement to be current. And that means a friendlier -- and stronger -- voice for America's workers.

Tom Dalzell is the business manager and financial secretary of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1245, which represents utility workers in the state of Nevada (excluding Las Vegas) and Northern California.