An Indestructible Union (Part 8)

“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 Even if the software works it will become outdated pretty quickly.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.


8 thoughts on “An Indestructible Union (Part 8)

    1. You could get a lot out of combining an interactive website with the main membership database. If organisers are supplied with tablets it would then allow a lot more office work to actually happen on the road.

  1. Hear, hear Godfrey. At the moment we’re trying to campaign through facebook. It has the advantage of being where the people are, but the disadvantage of being a thoroughly corporate space that increasingly wants to charge you for spreading your message. While unions can’t (and shouldn’t try to) replace existing social media – they should be able to maintain an ongoing conversation with members and activists. Many union branches see communication as what goes into an unread snail mail bulletin every month.

    1. We should be definitely attempting to maintain an ongoing conversation with and importantly between members. Going to the spaces where they are online and drawing them to our spaces. I’d argue though that across the global union movement we have the resources to create our own social spaces – and with UnionBook we’ve made a start.

  2. Politically speaking, this is more evidence pointing to class movements needing full-timers, this instance being IT specialists.

  3. This is an innovative and necessary advance for the future of union organizing via IT and cyber tools. The first element I like is your observation that “The next step is a group of unions cooperating and collaborating by developing open source campaigning software that is free and ready to use. ” I see this as needing the initiation of IT union workers. Much like masons, of the past to today, IT workers world wide have built the foundation of the world’s computers. In my view, if trades and public unions need help moving closer to using up-to-date IT software and strategies; then IT union workers need to be interested in collaborating with trade unions and public unions, globally. One of the key steps for that is to have MORE union IT workers. The Trades and the Public unions could help IT workers to unionize by supporting IT worker union campaigns in IT companies globally, as well. For example, the Communications Workers of America is organizing IBM US and Microsoft as well as already collectively bargaining for contract renewals with Verizon, AT&T. Hewlett Packard is also on the list, as well as several small IT consulting companies; such as Kamtel Communications (which sub-contracts to Verizon. Their workers are non-union and treated terribly). In other words, if IT worker’s unions could grow their numbers, theoretically they could also grow the power to force the aforementioned IT giants to slow down or grind to a halt until the company would negotiate a fair contract. If this could happen in the “four corners of the world”, the Global union movement for ALL unions would get dramatically more successful. Maybe I’m pipe dreaming here; but based on what IBM has done to their US IT workers and how low IBM’s standards for ‘customer sat’ have sagged globally, the time is right to snag control of IBM’s IT workers situation and convince IBM’s customers that IBM doesn’t care about them or the quality of the work the customer is paying for. IBM has lost several contracts (some in the hundreds of million$) recently because their Indian IT workers are poorly trained and of course, are exploited all the way around. I personally know that US IBMers (those still working there, amazingly enough!) are constantly being called to the customer’s site for emergency meetings because there is a major failure to install or maintain the systems for the customer as was promised by IBM Sales. Most of the inability to solve these problems originates in India.
    The upshot is that IT companies that have offshored to non-union companies overseas, are discovering the cost of this move is now rising significantly because they are losing contracts and suffering extremely high turnover rates…week to week. The customers suffer the most, at the end of the day. I believe that IT workers unions can return the skills, expertise and customer care to the IT companies and their profits would be ‘steady’ rather than overly dynamic in the current cost cutting frenzy of bean counter mentality that the world has somehow been ‘propagandized’ into trusting. “You may say I’m a dreamer; but I’m not the only one….”

    1. I really like your comparison of IT workers to masons. They certainly have a very strategic position within the overall system.

      1. Thanks Godfrey. I’ve thought about this for some time. I base that perspective on my past experience working for IBM in the early 1970’s. Personal computers were non-existent; as well as the rest of the commercial computer industry we have today. During those years, most programmers and hardware designers had complete control over the technical development. Management was at a total disadvantage; but may not have initially realized it. IBM revered their Information Systems staff programmers; but worked them to death with unpaid overtime. Since IBM was not a union company in the US, the programmers didn’t have much of a say about their lot in life. They also didn’t openly complain much in the beginning; because IBM’s employment policies were so far advanced for that time. IBM had modeled their workplace after union workplaces and procedures. As you may already know, IBM offered all the amenities and benefits to their employees that union shops in other Manufacturing companies offered to their union members through contracts. This is how IBM US kept unions out of their shop. However, in Europe and eventually in Japan, IBM employees DID have union and works council representation with written contractual agreements that included much grander benefit packages with virtually free medical, all paid holidays,and 6 weeks vacation. The programmers or IS workers that wrote operating programs for the mainframe boxes; were primarily based in the US. VM or “Virtual Machine” operating systems were centrally coordinated by the IS workers so that the mfg and delivery of the mainframe boxes occurred simultaneously as an international effort. My point is, that IS became IT in the early 1980’s. The new IT (then meant Information Technology) applications requirements needed an advanced set of programmers to launch the new Personal Computer products that arrived in the early 1980’s. Those IT workers already working for IBM immediately had dual responsibilities for software applications in both fields: mainframe and PC’s. By then, IT/IS programmers began to realize how much control and power potential they had…but they didn’t exercise it because IBM was still the leader in the “best company to work for” list.
        Of course, as we all know, that changed dramatically in the 1990’s. By then the programming field had exploded with college grads moving from IT company to IT company for better salary & benefits. IBM couldn’t keep the top innovators unless they could compete with other IT companies in the “royal” benefit packages arena for new hires straight from their graduation and diploma. So..programmers still had the upper hand.
        Of course, THAT all changed by the end of the decade and the US IT workers had not ever hedged their bets by organizing and unionizing earlier… they made the mistake of ‘trusting’ IBM to continue to do right by them…the rest, as they say, is history.
        This is why, I believe that IT workers are really much like masons. But, masons, over hundreds of years, became unionized and fought to keep their status of control early on. They were aware of what they could accomplish and control at the same time, long long ago. In order for IT workers to regain that footing, a global IT worker revolt is almost necessary, in my view. And I believe that other union workers worldwide must work to help the IT workers see that THEY should be unionized like their mason forefathers.

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