Strategic use of ICTs can revitalise trade unions

The potential offered by ICTs to revitalise unions is vast. Internet culture tends towards egalitarianism, and ICTs facilitate iconoclasm, which can undermine oligarchies. Secondly, ICTs facilitate autonomous organising by allowing activists to communicate directly with each other (and members) without the mediation of the union machine. Both are essential to renewal.

ICTs have the potential to profoundly transform unions, and to permanently do away with their tendencies towards oligarchy, labourism, ideological conformism and narrow protectionism. However, to make effective use of ICTs for renewal, unions first need to commit themselves to a path of uncomfortable organisational change, and allow ossified structures to be challenged. Attempts to perpetuate the status quo by using ICTs will not succeed, as they are not technologies that lend themselves well to central control by union politburos. A clear strategy needs to be developed: this would include making software tools available to activists without attempting to control their use, bargaining collectively for access to ICTs at the workplace, and providing training in their use for reps and members.

Despite their potential, ICTs are not a panacea for the movement. There are no quick fixes, no easy ways out of the crisis unions find themselves in. The use of ICTs needs to augment renewal strategies which are grounded in the organising model, and which actively seek to recruit and represent the groups of workers identified in the literature as being key to renewal. My personal experience with using ICT to organise is that members and activists will be strategic in their use of technology: they will only use tools that demonstrably make their roles easier. Technology needs to serve the needs of activists – not the other way around. An ICT-facilitated ‘open source’ unionism is not the answer either: recognition agreements, collective bargaining cover and political influence are what is needed, as are dynamic workplace branches with high degrees of autonomy.

The evidence does not show that embracing ICTs will automatically result in increased worker militancy and engagement. A conscious and deliberate strategy by union activists is required, as well as much experimentation. Caution is urged: do we not face the danger of real struggles being relegated to cyberspace, of activists too lazy to leave their computers and take to the streets and workplaces? Are we not in danger of fostering a cyber elite who eschew action in the real world for the easier option of engaging in cyberunionism?

Trade unions also need to come to terms with the FOSS movement, and the ideological implications of distributed production. This means two things: firstly, taking policy decisions to promote the use of FOSS, and secondly understanding the culture of openness they facilitate: there are many lessons here from the Obama campaign. The election was won not just by the innovative use of technology, but by running an ‘open’ campaign that supporters could contribute to and feel involved in. To be able to reap the renewing benefits of ICTs, trade union leaders will need to relinquish some control.

Trade unions – and union activists – need to embrace ICTs, because the renewal potential of these technologies is so great. But there are no technological solutions to union crisis: any use of ICT needs to be grounded in a solid strategy for rebuilding the union from the bottom up, member by member and workplace by workplace.

Posted in Crisis and Renewal.

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