Wikipedia tells us that “unions are an organisation of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals”.
By Matthew O'Driscoll
In this definition organisation means collectivism, not bricks and mortar establishments that people pay fees to. There’s nothing in this definition about buildings, councils, affiliations, committees, cities, countries, or continents – just workers coming together.
So why do we workers belong to unions that have fixed abodes, head offices, affiliations, capital expenditure and a whole lot of other costly overheads that don’t relate to our reasons for joining?
Tradition, I guess. But as times move, tradition shouldn’t be a reason to standing still. We’ve gone from the pony express, to postal services, to the telegram, to the fax, to the email. For many the post office has become irrelevant, it’s a place where they don’t go and a place that they don’t think of, and we are seeing the same attitude towards brick and mortar unions.
Mark Latham, in The Spectator Australia, writes that the Left has excessive union influence when over time the ties between them have become less clear. Left-leaning parties in the United States and Europe are also re-evaluating their ties to the labour movement. They say that their voters don’t see unions as a relevant part of their lives but what does relevant mean?
Werner Haas, a freelance writer, posted an article on yahoo titled: ‘Labor Relations: Are Unions Still Relevant?’
In it he quotes The New York Times, "Millions of workers...are ripe for labor's [sic] message because of stagnating wages for ordinary workers, declining benefits, growing insecurity on the job, and a sense that the haves are leaving the have-nots further behind”.
Haas also puts forward some arguments about why union relevance may be waning; one such example is the influence large corporations have. They have too much profit to lose from having unions anywhere near their workforce so they do their best to keep them away.
Simply put, unions are still relevant when it comes to workplace issues, it’s just getting into those workplaces that is the problem. Unions need to be innovative and come up with strategies to overcome this barrier, otherwise they will lose members.
Luckily work is already being done on this, in part, by an online movement called Cyberunions.
Cyberunions, started by Glasgow-based trade unionist Walton Pantland, was born out of a dissertation: Cyberunionism, from the perspective of union renewal. In it, Pantland considered how new technologies could renew and revitalise unions by reaching out to new groups of workers, challenging hierarchies and using grassroots activists by experimenting widely, rather than the slick and expensive campaigns designed by marketing.
Cyberunions explores where trade union organising can be done. It sees technology not as tools but as another space. One where people ‘live’ in all senses of the word: where they play, where they work, where they are entertained, educated and, more importantly, where they engage.
Cyberunions champions complementary collaborative tools and approaches to work and life. Whether that’s the creative commons movement, open source software, online peer-to-peer production, or decentralised political movements.
By embracing the opportunities offered by a networked world, and building an open-source labour movement, we can breathe new life into our unions and reach out to a new generation of activists.
Unions may have failed to seize the opportunity that technology offers, but it’s never too late to catch up.
A non-profit organisation devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share.
Open source software
Computer software that is available in source code form that permits users to study, change, improve, and at times also distribute the software.
The free cooperation of equals in view of the performance of a common task for the creation of a common good.
This article is from the June 2012 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.