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As a national representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Derek Blackadder has walked many picket lines.

But until last month, he'd never encountered the problem of having a fellow protester affixed to his head.

Of course, this was unlike any picket he'd joined before.

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The unseemly incident occurred during a virtual strike against IBM within the online community Second Life. Mr. Blackadder, of Cobourg, Ont., was marching to show support when an IBM Italy worker materialized on top of him.

"I speak a little bit of Italian, but we were communicating by keyboard and I don't think he or she really understood that he or she was standing on my head," Mr. Blackadder said.

The Sept. 27 demonstration, organized by IBM's Italian workers after the loss of an annual €1,000 ($1,375) performance bonus, was the first strike to take place on Second Life.

Despite the occasional mishap - like the one Mr. Blackadder experienced - organizers believe it won't be the last.

As companies increase their presence in the virtual world to bolster their branding, marketing and other business activities, unions are realizing they, too, can use the technology to recruit and mobilize.

"It certainly is a new channel for trade union protest," said Gerd Rohde of the Swiss-based Union Network International, which helped organize the IBM workers' strike.

Mr. Rohde estimated that 1,800 people from 30 countries participated in the virtual demonstration - including representatives of UNI's Canadian affiliates, such as CUPE and the Canadian Auto Workers Union, who were keen to test the new protest medium.

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Users interact in Second Life by creating digital characters, or avatars, which they can alter to look and dress however they wish.

During the 12-hour online strike, avatars of all appearances turned up on IBM's "islands" - the Second Life equivalent to websites - where they raised placards and shouted demands through bullhorns.

To prepare less tech-savvy picketers, UNI created a guide on its website to instruct first-timers on how to use Second Life, and it mobilized participants through website notices, e-mails and by word of mouth.

CAW national communications representative Angelo DiCaro joined the demonstration from Mississauga. He was impressed by how the protest brought people together from across the world quickly and economically.

"Being able to do it in this alternate reality, it was fascinating," Mr. DiCaro said.

There are other benefits to the virtual strike. There's no fear of being physically harmed during a virtual protest. So, for better or worse, traditional etiquette and codes of conduct for protesters aren't necessarily followed.

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"If you have [an avatar dressed as]a giant banana running around, throwing rolls of toilet paper at managers, no one's going to get hurt," Mr. Blackadder said.

The anonymity provided by avatars also offers a sense of security to workers who might not normally join union actions for fear of repercussions from their bosses or authorities.

But for CUPE, whose city workers have been on strike for weeks in Vancouver, the technology is currently of little use. Mr. Blackadder said the protest medium appears most effective when employers already have a strong presence on Second Life.

Mr. Rohde said Second Life was "a logical place" to hold the Italian workers' protest - IBM has established numerous islands throughout the virtual community.

Mr. Rohde said the picketers successfully blocked some of the company's islands, many of which have a maximum capacity of only 40 to 70 avatars.

In addition, they were able to generate an international buzz about the workers' demands.

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Still, IBM has not reacted to the event, and the labour dispute remains unresolved, Mr. Rohde said.

Contacted by e-mail, IBM media relations director Fred McNeese said the company would not discuss the Second Life protest, other than to say no disciplinary action was taken against participants.

"There was no effect on IBM's business operations," he added.

Some skeptics had predicted the company's lack of response on Internet postings.

"This is just silly," one reader wrote on the blog of New York-based tech magazine InformationWeek. "They might as well just all threaten to hold their breaths until they pass out. That would be more effective."

But Mr. Rohde said the Italian IBM workers were undeterred. UNI is polling members to determine what to do next.

John Weir, director of organizing at the British Columbia Federation of Labour, said unions and activist groups have already begun using social networking technology, such as Facebook and listservs to communicate with members and the public.

He considers Second Life simply an extension of those tools. "I don't know if it's a revolution as much as it's evolution ... in terms of how people communicate and activate," he said.

But he admitted he did not attend the IBM virtual strike. "I don't even have time for my first life," he said.

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