UAW finds info age messy

October 21, 2011

UAW finds info age messy


Evidently too much information too soon is too much for the United Auto Workers, now working toward ratification of its third national contract with a Detroit automaker.

In a surprising turnabout, the union removed the voting results of three Chrysler Group LLC locals from its Facebook page. The explanation: “We will not be posting results until all of the locals have reported. This contract is to be ratified by the entire UAW-represented Chrysler membership, not one local at a time.”

Admirable sentiment, that. Respectful, even, given the fact that public disclosure of trends in early voting effectively disenfranchises those scheduled to vote later — not unlike the now-forbidden practice of East Coast-based television networks calling presidential elections before polls close in California.

But here’s the problem: The UAW spent the better part of the past month boasting about its 21st-century union chops. Its top leaders embraced openness. They called unprecedented news conferences to tout tentative agreements. They posted contract “highlighters” online, and they used powerful social media tools.

Message to Solidarity House: Once you unleash the transparency-turned-Facebook genie, you can’t put it back in the proverbial bottle. Expectations skyrocket. Media and members, Wall Street and company employees, all quickly become conditioned (in less than 30 days) to a newly modernized institution whose grasp of the real world allegedly extends to any computer screen near you.

Until it doesn’t. Information is like water — once it starts to flow, it will find its level. If union officials pull Chrysler voting results, locals will post them on their own websites. If the union cites late voting to defend its decision to withhold results, unhappy members will complain about censorship because, well, they didn’t censor the results of the down-to-the-wire ratification at Ford Motor Co.

What changed? A couple of things, most likely, each revealing limits to the union’s ability to adapt to fast-moving change and information-savvy members.

First, the pressure to ratify the Ford agreement pushed union officials to mount a running public relations campaign via Facebook. And Ford PR never missed a chance to share the union’s Facebook posts:

“We wanted to be sure you saw the latest figures as posted a short time ago to the UAW Ford Department Facebook page regarding ratification voting of the UAW-Ford tentative agreement,” a Ford spokeswoman wrote in an email Monday. “The new totals include today’s voting results from the Dearborn Research and Engineering Center, Rawsonville and Parts Depots in Kansas City, Washington and Atlanta.”

As much as that kind of information (intentionally?) helped build a tide of inevitability about ratification, the transparency also produced an unintended consequence: Was the union whose president, Bob King, frequently extols the UAW’s “democratic” culture undercutting its own democracy — and hearing about it?

Second, information is power. The timely distribution of contract details and voting results, however well-intentioned and arguably necessary in today’s world, essentially challenges the union’s culture of control. Former President Steve Yokich, who assiduously avoided the news media, liked to say he’d communicate with the membership when he had something to say.

King is a different cat, partly because he needs to be. His vice presidents understand the need to inform members before they can be persuaded. His members know enough to know they can get the low-down from enterprising reporters if they can’t get it from the international, the local or the guy down the line.

The predictable reaction to Solidarity House’s move to withhold the results of the Chrysler voting? Cry censorship and label the guilty parties control freaks. Another reaction? King’s UAW is trying, just as in its contracts with Detroit’s automakers, to embrace the world as it is, not as they want it to be.

They may not get it exactly right, but they’re moving in the right direction. And that means something.

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