An Indestructible Union (Part 7)

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to blog about it does it make a sound? A working website is now the most important piece of infrastructure a union has. As I’ve stated earlier the heart of the union is the conversations that occur between members – this is what brings workers to stand together. The website has an important role to play in bringing workers together across geographically disparate areas who might otherwise be critically linked by employer, industry or supply-chain connections.  There has been some background debate over the last few years whether the rise of the online world and social media has made organising easier or harder. For the purposes of this post, that debate is besides the point. It would be like arguing whether the printing press had damaged the aesthetics of book publishing, the world has moved on and the point now for those of us who are primarily interested in changing it is to adjust to a new reality.

I finished off the last post outlining the main points in the continuum of direct Union membership. The first step towards being an active unionist on the continuum is becoming a campaign subscriber (note I’m not arguing that under a fully functioning direct unionism model that workers would necessarily move through the continuum sequentially). The direct Union’s homepage is the permeable membrane that non-members first pass through on a journey towards eventually taking control of the production process.

The main purposes of the direct Union website at the campaign subscriber level are twofold. First, on a global scale it is about data collection. The website as a tool is about building up a database of workers in the union’s industries. This puts direct Unions on the starting blocks to at least begin the process of organising the working class as an entity. The workers’ experience is to sign up for free to gain information that has clear utility for their job. This might mean that information that is currently readily available becomes only accessible after a worker has input their email address and industry of work into an online form. An example of such information might be fact sheets and quick guides to injuries at work, electing safety reps, unfair dismissals/dealing with disciplinary procedures, collective bargaining, or summary guides to wages/conditions in a particular industry (to name but a few key topics). In addition to this, the direct Union would have to put out regular e-letters that would include links to articles, images and podcasts. These updates would be tailored to the campaign subscribers’ nominated industry. At this point in time, you may note that I’ve been writing about “campaign subscribers” without mentioning any campaigns.  It would be vital that the industry e-letters would have to include campaign news as well. However, this also leads onto the second purpose of the website.

Second, as well as addressing areas of immediate need for workers the website is about raising consciousness. This is where the campaigns come in. Becoming a campaign subscriber is about participating (at least in an admittedly slactivist manner) in campaigns that result through some sort of collective action in making a difference for a group of workers. The point is to counter the dominant consumerist model by providing concrete (read online at least) experiences of strength through worker unity. Such campaign activities (over and above getting an email) might include sending emails, uploading photographs, agreeing to participate in a real world event or asking friends and family to become campaign subscribers as well. What a campaign subscriber gets is partial access to an online community of workers – and it’s absolutely key that the subscriber is made aware of what further access there is for upping their level of commitment to that community.

A good example of what a direct Unionism website might look like initially to a campaign subscriber is Working America, and their I Am Not Your ATM campaign. Working America is a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO with approximately 3 million members in the US. It provides an interesting model on building up a database of activists who are deeply unhappy with the US’ broken economy. What it leaves us to grapple with, however, is how to translate this into strong collective action across workplaces, industries and in the streets.

Working America's "I am not your ATM campaign"

In the next post, I will outline how website functionality further expands for the next level of membership – the community member, after which I will elaborate on probably what should be the most important organising role in a direct Union – the trainer. After all, direct Unionism is the vehicle through which workers come to understand, build and express their collective power in order to build a just and fair future for all of us.

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