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Will Facebook Replace Labor Unions?

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If anyone in the world should be paying close attention to the grassroots political unrest in the Middle East, it is Big Business and Big Labor in America. The rise of self-organized groups of people toppling once-entrenched regimes is a harbinger of things to come here in the U.S. too.

For now, traditional battle lines are more immediate. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker's attempt to break the public employee union there is being characterized by some as a last gasp test for Labor. It is not. The fate of big unions has already been cast. Like record stores and time-bound television, the labor union as an organizing device has outlived its usefulness: people simply don't need intermediaries to organize them into groups anymore.

But Corporate America shouldn't get too excited. In fact, the rise of organic self-organization--the powerful force behind social media and its massive communities like Facebook, LinkedIn, QQ and Twitter--has already changed the marketplace and is an emerging threat to all industrial-age institutions, be they governmental, commercial, political, social, or religious. When you empower individuals you necessarily weaken organizations.

While the hidebound institution of the union will become less relevant, organized labor as a force will become more powerful in years to come. Things will just happen differently. The nexus of the Internet and ubiquitous mobile communications makes collective action easier and more imperative than ever. As consumers, people have gotten a taste for their new power. They have already busted the backs of other big intermediaries, like the music industry and chain bookstores. The training wheels are coming off and soon people will turn their sites to other collective endeavors. All the same impulses that motivate people to join affinity groups for fun, shopping and hobbies will soon take a serious turn with political and economic implications. Think Groupon for social action.

Like all institutions trying to slow their decline in an age of networks, labor unions have scurried to get hip to the new media. But attempts to galvanize social network unionism through clone Facebook services like UnionBook have fallen flat. People don't need others to tell them how to organize; they can talk directly to each other now.

Besides, the issue is much bigger than social media as a tactic. The Internet has fundamentally changed group-forming in our time. The presence of more than two billion people (and twice that many to come in the next decade) on the World Wide Web now means that for essentially every person in the developed world, and a sizable minority of everyone else, the rules of social organization have changed forever. We are no longer bound by proximity, social contract, tradition, or limited information in our selection of the groups we choose to join.

In the years to come, we citizens of social media will continue to use our power to reshape one traditional institution after another--Big Government, Big Business, Big Religion, and Big Labor--then turn around and self-sort ourselves by our affinities, obsessions, passions--and professions. Thanks to the power of our new communications technologies these new groupings may range in size from a handful of people to hundreds of millions globally. They may disappear in a matter of minutes like flash mobs or endure for decades. And they may briefly coalesce around a momentary issue or may explode into a massive social or political movement.

The billions of people who have already joined one or another social media platform proves we can organize ourselves online; now if people prove they can act together in common cause it will create a force for change the likes of which we have never seen before.

The idea of workers using a social media site like Facebook to organize themselves is completely plausible. In fact, if the National Labor Relations Board deems that use of such direct communications is protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, expect thousands of new labor nodes to be launched--groups that may behave in new and novel ways--like cross-networking with other related stakeholder groups to wield even more influence.

So, before corporate chieftains cheer the demise of the public employees union in Wisconsin--or organized labor in general, take notice of the gathering clouds. The conditions are now ideal for the workers of the world to link up, sync up and meet up. The post-recession economy has left many folks profoundly hurting, while amplifying the yawning wage and wealth differentials between classes of people in our nation.

Trust in institutions is at an all time low. This dynamic is exacerbated when the very same big banks and businesses that tanked the economy in the first place were so quickly made whole and fat again on the backs of the commonwealth. Thanks to the Internet, people now know what transparency looks like--and what it doesn't look like. We should soon see that point made clear when WikiLeaks begins publishing top secret corporate and banking documents.

Most importantly, people now realize they aren't powerless. Thanks to their ability to connect, communicate and coalesce with other like-minded people anywhere in the world, the power dynamic is flopped. One person can make a difference; a network of people can make a revolution. As the impetus for group forming matures from Justin Bieber fan clubs and funny kitty videos to more serious-minded groups of craftspeople, office workers, skilled laborers and temp workers, watch out.

No, there should be no glee in boardrooms across America about the events in Wisconsin. In a post-union world, Corporate America may no longer see the same old faces across the bargaining table but rather something much more frightening: brand new combinations and permutations of self-organized employees, customers and shareholders wielding more collective power than any institution in history ever has.