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Unions, it's time to join the information age

It’s time for unions to embrace the information age and develop an online, global, networked social movement unionism
Walton Pantland
27 May 2011

Across the world, the default trade union position on new technology is Luddism 2.0. Anecdotes abound of a Life on Mars world where trade union officials get their secretaries to print out their emails, or use their computer screens for post-it notes. This luddism is not entirely irrational: technology has a long history of putting people out of work, as well as monitoring and controlling them. Some trade unionists seem determined to avoid entering the 21st century at all costs.

However, the success of new technology in Obama’s election campaign, and more recently in organising student protests and the wave of democracy that has swept across the Middle East during the Arab Spring, is slowly changing attitudes. Some trade unionists have realised that “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”, as Ani DiFranco puts it.

ICT as tools for engaging a new generation:

Unions in developed countries face an aging membership and struggle to recruit young people. Technology is seen as a panacea for recruiting a new generation of activists, and some union staff are keen to grasp the communications potential of new technology to turn around decades of decline. They have added new technology to their toolbox, and many are experimenting with innovative campaigning websites. Unite and the RCN, among others, have hired Blue State Digital, the company that developed Obama’s online campaign. Unite uses text messaging and phone banks to speak directly to their members to canvass their opinions and develop campaigns and policy.

However, unions have largely failed to understand that cyberspace is a space, where people work, organise politically, are entertained and educated, and engage in many fields of human endeavour. For the most part, unions see technology as a communications tool, for broadcasting union messages to members and the wider public. For instance, union twitter feeds typically consist of links to press releases, and it is rare to find senior trade unionists engaging with people through social media. They haven’t fully grasped the cultural implications of new technology: that the internet encourages iconoclasm, and new technology favours horizontal rather than hierarchical organising. The Creative Commons movement, Open Source software, the growth of online peer production and decentralised political movements mean that the world is changing fast, and that arguably a new mode of production is being born in cyberspace.

New organisational forms:

A new organisational form is developing – in the worlds of work as well as activism – that is decentralised, networked and transparent. It’s an organisational form that is challenging, and overcoming, rigid, hierarchical structures everywhere. This poses a challenged for unions, which are often centralised, hierarchical organisations, sometimes with a paranoia about relinquishing control. The iconoclasm of online culture is at odds with the centralised control of trade union structures.

The problem trade unions face is that their organisational form is out of date. Unions formed in the late 19th and early 20th century as a response to the industrial revolution and the Fordist manufacturing model – industrial armies of workers organised in great factories.  In developed countries, they reached their peak power in the late 1960s. In the great war between capital and labour, capital responded to union strength by increasingly casualising the workforce. 

Unions have struggled to adapt to this change, and to a workforce that is increasingly casualised, young, female and migrant. Agency work, temporary contracts and the ephemeral nature of the work makes them extremely hard to organise. A more fluid organisational form, facilitated by technology, could make all the difference.

There is a need for structure in trade unions, because they are representative organisations – fluidity would make collective bargaining difficult, and the UK’s restrictive labour laws mean tight organisation is essential for conducting binding ballots. The challenge to unions is to embrace openness without losing structure.

An Open Source labour movement:

There has been a shift towards pluralism in a number of trade unions, including Unite and the PCS, and a realisation of the need to build coalitions to resist the cuts. Partly this is a result of leadership changes and responses to crisis – the left wing Len McCluskey winning the Unite leadership election has changed things in that organisation, for instance. McCluskey has set a precedent for a once conservative trade union by reaching out to campaign groups like UK Uncut.

While unions have been in decline in the West for a generation, they have grown in countries in the global South, such as Brazil and South Africa. Instead of protecting narrow sectoral interests, the industrial relations model in these countries – Social Movement Unionism – explicitly situates unions in a wider ecosystem of political activism. A networked, global, social movement unionism would prove a powerful adversary to multinational companies. LabourStart has run international campaigns for years, but the movement still has some distance to travel. 

It is important for unions to engage with social movements fighting to keep information technology in the public sphere – the global commons. Unions have largely failed to understand where the class line runs through the information wars, and net neutrality should be an important trade union issue. This includes using  Creative Commons to share good practice, and supporting Open Source software projects, which would provide free tools to trade union activists. Open Source software like the Debian GNU/Linux operating system is produced democratically in what is effectively a global workers' collective. Ideologically this should be very appealing to a trade union movement keen to celebrate alternatives to multinational capital, and yet I am only aware of one union federation that uses Open Source: the CGT in Spain runs Debian. The rest seem satisfied with putting money in Bill Gates’ pocket.

What does the information age mean for union organisers?:

There has been a failure of imagination on the part of unions, and the best exploration of trade union organising in the information age comes from the world of science fiction. Cory Doctorow’s For the Win outlines a campaign by the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web – the Webblies – to organise cyberspace. For the Win is set in the internet cafes of South East Asia in the near future, and tells the story of workers in online video games earning points to sell to lazy Western players. When their gangmasters crack down, the start an in game union organising campaign. 

The challenge for trade union leaders is to realise that the situation we face requires decentralised organisation, and to let power pass gracefully from their hands to their activists. Activists should be encouraged to experiment with technology, and to build horizontal networks. By managing the shift to more open and decentralised organising structures, the new breed of trade union organisers will be radical facilitators, rather than tub-thumping militants.

The age of mobilising industrial armies is passing. The information age needs a networked trade unionism that builds a swarm of activism around workplace rights and popular campaigns, and acts as the industrial muscle in a world-wide struggle for social justice.

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