Bottom up vs Top down renewal

In looking at the potential of ICTs for union renewal and revitalisation, we need to look at unions as both collections of people, and as organisations. Which part of the union are we seeking to revitalise?

The interests of these two groups are not necessarily the same – in fact, they can be diametrically opposed at times. Michels explains this with his ‘iron law of oligarchy‘, stating that in any organisation – and trade unions in particular – practical constraints stop the great mass of members taking an active role in the day to day running of the organisation. These tasks are left to relatively small groups of specialists, who soon develop their own sets of interests that they need to protect. Without robust mechanisms to check this tendency of oligarchies to form, the interests of these groups can rapidly diverge: as one union official put it to me,

“this job would be great if it wasn’t for the members”.

Let’s consider the potential of ICTs from both these perspectives: the ‘bottom up’ strategies of ordinary members and workplace activists attempting to use new technologies to make the union machine more accountable, to act in accordance with their wishes, and to create a more dynamic and responsive organisation at workplace level; and the ‘top down’ strategies, where the union leadership attempts to build or consolidate power through the use of technology.

Bottom up strategies

Hogan and Greene consider specific examples of bottom up campaigns to make unions more accountable to members, specifically the case of, where a website created by a lay member of the union MSF was used to expose fraud committed by the general secretary, hold him accountable and rid the union of corruption. In this case, detailed information about the union’s finances was made available to members, who had the opportunity to comment, vote in online polls or participate in other ways. This had the clear effect of undermining an oligarchy, and the presumed effect of encouraging rectitude among future leaders. Several trade union mergers down the line, the website still exists, now in the form of, where it continues to provoke ire. This shows the potential of ICTs to hold the leadership of the trade union movement to account, to act as a counter balance to the development of oligarchies and to facilitate transparency.

Lest we become too excited, however, Roger Seifert shows that new technologies can have a destructive impact on workplace struggle. He claims that the unofficial 30Kfirepay website undermined the leadership during the strike of the Fire Brigades Union in 2002-2004, was infiltrated by the security services, helped to divide the strikers and contributed to the defeat of the strike.

It should be pointed out that, while ICTs have a tendency to facilitate transparency, they are not de facto more democratic. Despite the ‘democratic deficit’ that exists in unions, trade unions structures are, for the most part, at least technically legitimate: members in a workplace elect shop stewards and other activists onto branch structures, who in turn elect regional committees, a National Executive Committee and so on. While this process differs from union rule book to union rule book, for the most part leaders are freely and fairly elected. Therefore it would be quite possible for an unrepresentative group of disaffected members, with no mandate, base or constituency, to have a disproportionate effect on union decision making due to technical skill, innovative use of technology, or the use of smear campaigns.

In the Roger Lyons/Dear Unite example above, it is worth noting that there are established ‘counter-hegemonic’ forces within the union, in the form of United Left – an organised group of Left activists campaigning for lay democracy. To what extent does Dear Unite engage with this structures? Member-led dissident websites should be viewed from this perspective.

While Michels argues that the ‘incompetence of the masses’ precludes them from full participation in the life of an organisation, due in part to a lack of sophistication and education, Hogan and Greene feel that new technologies are educational and provide an “up-skilling process”, and that technologies are getting easier to master. While this is almost certainly true – especially with the development of Webs 2.0 and 3.0, and the ubiquity of mobile phones that can access the Internet – it remains the case that the more ‘tech savvy’ are likely to have disproportionate power.

In practical terms, this means those working in white collar and technical jobs in the knowledge economy. Are we not, therefore, in danger of replacing one oligarchy with another, of yielding power to a cyber elite? Clearly, proactive strategies to bridge the ‘digital divide’ are necessary.

Some unions are embracing this challenge, recognising that the full participation and empowerment of their members lies in their being able to participate fully in a society that is increasingly dominated by technology. Like many unions, Unite has a lifelong learning strategy that includes providing free, accredited courses in ICTs to union members, delivered at the workplace by union tutors. My personal experience of facilitating ICT learning for Unite members is that many find it personally empowering and are inclined to view the union favourably as a result. Workplaces with these learning programmes have tended to show increased membership participation as branches grow in confidence and become more dynamic.

It is worth pointing out that very many of the most significant and prominent bottom up strategies do not confine themselves to the boundary of union-as-organisation: most ‘cyber-activists’ are organisationally promiscuous and much of their activity is designed to bring together activists from different unions, as well as social movements and wider society.

Top Down

For many trade unions, new technology offers an unprecedented opportunity to spread union propaganda. Unfortunately, this is mostly one way communication: most unions seem to use Twitter, for example, only to publish press releases, and don’t use it to engage with their members and the wider public. I believe they are missing a crucial ingredient, and that the key to using new technology for renewal is to surrender some of the control of the union’s message to activists, in much the same way as the Obama campaign allowed local activists to create and share their own content.

Union activists need to be given tools, in the form of training and software, and trusted to use these appropriately. Ideally, unions should give branch secretaries a content management system, with union branding, and integrated RSS feeds and social media, to create websites for their branch.

Posted in Crisis and Renewal, Theory.


  1. Web 3.0? Eek, I’m still trying to catch up with 2.0! Seriously though, excellent article. A couple of thoughts if I may:
    Firstly, this freedom of access versus control of content issue is inevitably a conundrum for unions and I think will remain so. Clearly, the technology can be empowering and democratising, especially for those members who won’t, don’t or can’t normally have a direct input to debate. Quite apart from putative democratic imperatives, at this point in time unions can ill afford to stifle any means of re-engaging members with such old-fashioned notions as collectivism, solidarity and indeed “ownership” of their union. But, as you point out, there are a range of competing interests at play here. Those who are, let’s say of a more controlling inclination, feel their interests may be threatened by such a free-for-all approach.
    I can’t help feeling there’s an element of bureaucratic paranoia involved here though and I know of at least one union that shut down elements of its online presence on the basis that it might possibly be used by “malcontents” trying to “undermine established democratic structures” – without any apparent evidence of this happening, we might interpret that as a pre-emptive strike against any criticism of the top brass.
    Seifert’s position on the unofficial firefighters’ site is no surprise. I do accept that it’s easier to be a “malcontent” remotely and online presences do not always facilitate arrival at a consensus position. However, it seems patronising to suggest that members cannot differentiate between genuine arguments and misinformation online that they would be able to in an open meeting.
    I think perhaps there is also a secondary concern at play – namely that unofficial, open access sites attract more participation than those official and perhaps more closely moderated facilities.
    Secondly, I think the point about disenfranchisement of the non tech-savvy is a real issue. I’d agree that unions need to do much more to address this point through their education programmes. However, based entirely on my subjective experience rather than anything more scientific, I think that this issue is less linked to employment sector than we might think. I come across lots of reps from all industrial backgrounds who are hooked up with far more technology than me, even if they aren’t always using it for trade union purposes.

  2. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » U-Cubed: A new model for occupational networking? (+ labor, unions and internet recap)

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