“What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?” - Paulo Freire
I’ve realised that the Indestructible Union project rests on one very key assumption: a high degree of software development capacity. So rather than progressing through the membership continuum and how it relates to that most under-rated bit of union infrastructure – the interactive and participatory 2.0 website – I think I’m fairly duty bound to outline how such capacity could be made possible.
It would be charitable to say that the labour movement’s overall technological capacity is sadly lacking. Many Union websites are embarrassing. And given the internet is a space where more and more people come together for entertainment, friendship, education and key information this is a major capacity hole in the movement today. Right now. This, however, sets up a dilemma for union leaders. There is a choice between developing software internally or contracting out software development to a private firm. Developing software internally is a huge risk – most unions are simply not going to be able to afford the risk of dropping $100, 000 let alone $1 million on software that might not even fulfill the union’s core needs. Even if the software works it will become outdated pretty quickly. Even the resources of some of the world’s largest unions on their own are not going to be able to keep up with the development speeds of large-scale private corporations such as Apple, Google or Microsoft. The most talented individual in the world will not be able to keep up with the more efficient mode of development and production.
The choice to contract out software development to private firms, on the other hand, is no less problematic. First, it’s no less costly. Anything approximating a 2.0 site with basic functionality will probably set a union back near on $100,000 anyway. In addition, the union will have to continue to pay an ongoing rent to the private firm for continued website servicing. Second, it comes down to an issue of power. The ongoing technological organising ability of a union is effectively hostage to a private firm. Given the union software market is a fairly small concern (in Australia at least), there’s probably not going to be a very large number of players – it would effectively mean that any one nation’s union movement is subject to a handful of development firms. This near monopoly situation effectively means that the movement’s precious resources go towards a small group of private individuals keen to maximise their profits.
In essence, both choices are inefficient. With the first choice we have a whole bunch of union silos developing different software for the same ends without collaborating, and thereby repeating the same mistakes. With the second choice, there are less silos (theoretically any boutique firm would have a number of union clients) but workers’ capital gets diverted to private firms extracting a profit. Faced with two imperfect choices, many unions have made an even worse decision by (largely) doing nothing. And with that direct unionism remains nothing other than the fantastical rantings of a mad man (and not in a cool 1960s advertising kind of way) on this blog.
There is, however, another way. If you really want to socialise the means of production, you socialise the means of production. And in this instance, it’s almost as easily said as done. Because socialist production (and by that I mean actually worker and not state controlled) is alive and well on the internet. It’s the free and open source software movement and you’re probably already using some sort of open source software without realising it. Open source is about programmers coming together to work on source code that is free and publicly available – this collaboration around projects is a powerful way of creating free software for the end user such as Mozilla Firefox. The global union movement has made some tentative starts down this road. For instance, Cyberunions is an interesting project exploring the intersection between new technology and union organising. And union internet pioneer Eric Lee has built a union global news service with LabourStart and an international union social networking site in UnionBook. By and large these efforts have linked key organisers and activists within unions globally together.
What’s missing though is the next step (as far as I know and if you know better please tell me). The next step is a group of unions cooperating and collaborating by developing open source campaigning software that is free and ready to use. When this happens change will really start motoring. This would allow unions to build on and improve upon the investments that other unions have made – contributing to a shared commons of software that the wider and global union movement can take advantage of. It will give any union globally the capacity to start to turn into an indestructible union if it so chooses, and as soon as one union consciously makes this decision others will be forced to follow. I would forecast that this is more likely than not to happen in the near future. Why? Because it requires only one of any numerous state/provincial labour councils, national congresses/councils of unions or global union federations to pilot such a mechanism with any interested group of its affiliates. And only one of these groups needs to decide that this is a realistic way of increasing the technological capacity of its affiliate unions without necessarily spending anymore on software development. Only one of these groups needs to think this is a realistic way of responding to a crisis of union membership, or a way to wage effective campaigns against ever circling and predatory neoliberal political forces. The immediate reason for this development process may vary but the underlying necessity remains – it’s the most efficient way of building up the most effective campaigning technology.
This is the way we make the tools necessary to forge a new world.
*I’d like to thank a good friend of mine for originally coming up with this idea.