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Goodbye Union Handbills, Hello Net

October 11, 1999|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping to bring more of its 13 million members online, labor giant AFL-CIO said it is creating its own Internet service provider, called Workingfamilies.com

The service--due to launch Dec. 1 at a cost of $14.95 per month--will allow unions to mobilize members at Web speed in legislative and political campaigns, organizing drives or product boycotts, federation officials said.

"The handbill that was given out in front of the factory has given way to using this technology," said Morton Bahr, president of the Communication Workers of America. "I can tell you from the experience of my union's organizing at IBM, the power of the Internet can be awesome."

Workingfamilies.com will provide standard Internet services, such as e-mail and news updates, and can be accessed through other ISPs, such as AOL.

Hundreds of union-based Web sites already exist, including one run by the AFL-CIO itself. But most of these sites are tied to specific campaigns or contract negotiations. The new service would link those sites and allow for speedy comparison of strategies.

The site will also include a shopping area that identifies the labor policies of the manufacturer or retailer. "We will identify, reject or even protest products made in sweatshop conditions," Bahr said.

The labor federation, which represents 68 unions with thousands of locals, also plans to offer discounted computers to members with full financing, starting at $600, Bahr said. "The goal is to bring union families online for under $30 per month," he said.

IBelong, a Waltham, Mass.-based company that specializes in Internet communities, is creating the site. The federation is still negotiating with computer makers for the hardware and is likely to offer a range of models.

The announcement was made in conjunction with the AFL-CIO national convention, opening today at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

According to AFL-CIO research, union members already have a slightly higher rate of computer ownership and use of online services than the overall population.

About 57% of union members own a computer, and 81% of them have the ability to go online, compared to 54% and 70% of American households.

Bahr said members of his own union at IBM used the Internet to quickly launch a massive protest against proposed changes to their pension plan.

He envisioned an even larger mass action to protest labor policies of the World Trade Organization when it meets in November. "Can you imagine," he said, "being able to instantly ask millions of union members to refuse to buy products or bombard an elected official with protests?"

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