I HAVE been on many picket lines in my time, but until recently they have all taken place in the real world. 27 September saw the first ever strike and picket to take place in virtual reality. Second Life allows you to create a virtual person (or avatar) and go around doing the sorts of things you supposedly do in your normal life – like going on strike and picketing.
Italian workers for the computer multinational IBM, members of the international union federation UNI, have been in dispute with their employers, who, after they demanded an increase in pay, responded by cutting their performance bonus. IBM has traditionally been a paternalistic and anti-union firm and it refused to negotiate with the workers’ representatives. IBM profits have been soaring and they have just spent $10 million on building sites on Second Life. So someone had a bright idea… Why not supplement a day’s strike and picketing in Italy with a similar protest in the virtual world?
So the word went out across trade union websites and e-lists, the organisers created virtual placards and t-shirts and started signing people up, ending up with over 900 from 18 countries. They also launched an online petition at. www.unionnetwork.org/uniindep.nsf/ProtestIBMSL-en?openform .
After a bit of wandering around with my placard, I eventually met up with a couple of groups of protesters from round the world. Everyone sorted of milled around chatting — I don’t know if anyone has worked out how to chant slogans in Second Life. However IBM certainly knew we were there, as one protester tells:
Remember the IBM Business Center I was telling you about? The one that closed down some parts so protesters couldn’t enter anymore?
Well I don't know what miracle happened, but my avatar got in... to a real staff meeting!
They were discussing the corporate website's new functionalities, it seems. So since I managed to get in, why not call some of my protester friends?
Minutes later, some 20 participants and staff teleported to crash the meeting. We had people saying slogans, some beeping sounds and jumping up and down with our banners and flying fish... It was the most disrupting event I've witnessed so far...!
The poor IBM staff were quite confused and asked us to protest outside. We, in return, demanded to speak to IBM management to put forward our requests.
They ended up canceling their meeting.
It is unclear from reports on the web whether the protest had any direct impact on IBM, but it certainly served to bring together trade unionists from around the world. Subsequently workers at Dutch call centres run by KPN, who have undertaken a number of wildcat strikes, have also staged a naked protest at KPN’s head office in Second Life.
PS: Avatars can fly, giving a whole new meaning to the term flying pickets...