Hoping to wire millions of union households nationwide, the AFL-CIO yesterday announced plans to start a new Internet service that it hopes will give organized labor a high-tech power tool for boosting its political and lobbying clout.
Starting in December, the labor federation plans to offer a low-cost Internet service called Workingfamilies.com to active and retired union members, a potential universe of 17 million households. Union members also will be offered low-cost computers. Non-union members would not be eligible for the service.
Union members would pay no more than $14.95 a month. The goal is to provide Internet access and the cost of buying a computer for no more than $30 a month.
AFL-CIO officials said the $14.95 a month was about one-third less than America Online charges for similar services.
Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America, said the program was aimed at closing what he called the "digital divide" that separates low-income workers from more affluent users of the Internet.
A new Commerce Department report found that households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more are 20 times more likely to have home access to the Internet than those at the lowest income levels, Bahr said. The report also found that most people who earn less than $25,000 a year cited cost as the primary reason they didn't have Internet access at home. There were no annual income figures available on union members, but many members make substantially less than $75,000 a year.
The service would allow the labor group to bring the power of the Internet to its political and organizing activities, Bahr said. It said he thought it would be particularly helpful in efforts to organize workers at such companies as Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines Corp.
"This is the language of the high-tech worker," Bahr said. "If you're going to organize them, you have to speak their language." He said contacting high-tech workers on the Internet was the same as hand-billing other workers in a traditional organizing campaign.
The Internet service is being provided by the AFL-CIO's Union Privilege benefit program at no cost to the federation or its 68 member unions.