Small groups of workers can use communication tactics to agitate for democracy, transparency and fighting spirit within their unions, according to the new book “We ARE the Union: Democratic Unionism and Dissent at Boeing” (University of Illinois Press, 2011) by Dana Cloud, associate professor of communication at The University of Texas at Austin.
Focusing on 1989 to the present — with the 1995 strike as a crucial turning point — “We ARE the Union,” which was published in November, weaves together three stories: Boeing’s history of pressing workers in the name of competitiveness; entrenched union leaders who urged concessions in the name of job security; and the unionists who gave voice to the rank-and-file upsurge against Boeing and against their own union leaders who urged concessions and quietude.
Based on nearly 10 years of interviews, Cloud argues that rank-and-file reform groups offer a vision for ultimately achieving a more powerful labor movement.
“Union representation and strength in the U.S. is currently at an all-time low,” said Cloud. “Understanding how rank-and-file workers can challenge their leaders and command their own futures — through storytelling, organizing and action — has become much more important today with the world economy in free fall.”
Scholars of U.S. labor history and communication will learn from this research how ordinary working people have and continue to exert control over the conditions of their lives through effective communication. Storytelling in workplace organizations, such as aircraft maker Boeing and inside institutions such as the International Association of Machinists, plays a key role in organizing people collectively to exert economic leverage over their employer.
“As we have also seen in Egypt, in Wisconsin and across the U.S. in the Occupy Movements, ordinary people can and do take their futures into their own hands,” she said.
Cloud researches rhetoric and social movements, representations of race and gender in the mass media, and the defense of historical materialist theory and method in communication studies.