- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

One of the country’s largest unions is taking its organizing to the Internet, creating a new, virtual labor organization that isn’t tied to a work site or dependent on employer recognition.

The Service Employees International Union’s new affiliate, called PurpleOcean.org, was disclosed yesterday at the union’s convention in San Francisco. The union’s trademark color is purple.

The new group “is a radical new way to think about organized labor,” said Andy Stern, president of SEIU, the largest union under the AFL-CIO umbrella with 1.6 million members.

The union, which endorsed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for the Democratic presidential nomination, is drawing on his campaign’s extensive Internet network of supporters to build the new group. Mr. Dean raised millions of dollars on the Internet and mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters.

Mr. Stern was inspired by the effort and began to write a Web log about the labor movement, its future and its challenges. The virtual union idea came next, with a goal of 1 million people to support SEIU’s campaigns.

The labor movement needs “to draw strength from the new forms of community that are developing because of the Internet, which is connecting millions of people who want to take action and get involved,” Mr. Stern said. “We need those people to be part of our movement.”

Union membership is at an all-time low, with just 12.9 percent of the work force belonging to a union last year, according to the Labor Department. That’s down form 13.3 percent in 2002. In the private sector, 8.2 percent of workers were union members last year.

“Organized labor needs to reach into the bag and look for as many different ways to reach workers and speak to their needs as possible,” said Bob Bruno, an associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The decline of unions is sparking fierce debate in the labor movement about remedies and the future. Mr. Stern is one of a small number of union leaders unhappy with labor’s organizing efforts under AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whose term ends next summer as the federation celebrates its 50th anniversary. They have formed a coalition called the New Unity Partnership and are pushing for big changes, including a realignment of unions into broadly defined sectors.

“John Sweeney has proven that the problem is not who captains the ship, but that the ship was not built to navigate the storms of the modern world,” Mr. Stern said Monday in his opening convention speech.

He called for a transformation of the AFL-CIO, or to “build something stronger that can really change workers’ lives.”

He said yesterday that he “definitely, 100 percent will not” challenge Mr. Sweeney, who has said he intends to seek another term. “And you can bank on that.”

“John Sweeney is a man of both patience and wisdom, and he’s not been able to accomplish all the changes he had hoped. I lack both,” Mr. Stern said. “So I hope to be a change agent, but will never be a candidate.”

Mr. Sweeney, who headed the SEIU before becoming AFL-CIO president, addressed the convention yesterday, saying, “When we’re honest, we know we have to change faster and fight smarter and work even harder.”

The AFL-CIO has created a new organization similar to PurpleOcean.org, but it is not Internet-based. Called Working America, the group is targeting people supportive of the labor movement and its goals, but who don’t have access to unions at work.

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