Open source trade unions

Is Open Source organising the way forward for trade unions? Some people seem to think so, but are we even sure what it means?

Trade unions in the West have been in decline since the late 1970s. This is because the capitalist crisis of the early 70s was caused in part by a powerful labour movement, and to solve the crisis capital disciplined labour and instituted a wage repression that has remained with us for a generation.

Nowhere has the decline in union strength been more dramatic than the US; and yet  it is from the US, among the most vulnerable and unorganised groups of workers, that new organising forms have emerged.

This article gives a really good overview of the model developed in the Justice for Janitors campaign.

New forms of shared strategy and campaigning are taking on the worst effects of fiercely competitive neoliberal service economies. Globalization from above can be fought and resisted effectively by processes of globalization from below

It’s an important piece that’s worth reading. The author argues that by sharing tactics unions are embracing an Open Source methodology, and creating communities of resistance to neo-liberal globalisation.

It’s a very good summary of this organising model, which is considered best practice by many unions, including the one I work for. It is successful because it begins to realise that autonomy is a powerful mobiliser, and that by giving activists ownership over campaigns in their workplaces, you build confident and dynamic local structures that are able to respond fluidly to complex and shifting circumstances. The industrial relations landscape is changing rapidly, and hierarchy and bureaucracy are the death of innovation. This organising model creates some free space for new activists to find and develop a voice.

However, I am not sure if it’s accurate to describe is as Open Source – I think the feature of fluid structures and sharing good practice is typical of social movement unionism.

I have worked with our organising department using technologies and there is an intuitive understanding that for organising to succeed, hierarchical structures need to be removed and local activists given ownership over activity at their workplace.

Dissonance comes after the organising phase, when the workplace, with newly signed recognition agreements, has to fit into the existing union structure, which is still hierarchical. Unions have not yet applied the principles of networked organising to the rest of their structures.

The article would be useful if it was more explicit about how Open Source principles can be applied to union organising. There is an existing Industrial Relations model called Open Source Unionism, developed by Freeman and Rogers.  In my view it’s nonsense – it removes the organising function from unions and uses technology to service members cheaply:

At essentially zero marginal cost, unions can communicate with an ever-expanding number of new members, and they can deliver all manner of services to them through the Internet.

Why would anyone join a union that was little more than a bot? It is workplace structure and collective bargaining that make the difference.

The real problem with this Open Source Unionism is that it fails Blackburn’s Unionateness Test. While the value of Blackburn’s test is contested, it is useful to measure whether an organisation is a union, or merely a workers’ social club or online network. A crucial feature of trade unions is representing workers collectively: signing up members in non-recognised workplaces and providing generic advice over the Internet gives absolutely no bargaining power or ability to coordinate action.

While it would be interesting to measure the dynamic between Barbrook’s  ‘network community’ and a more formal trade union structure, this model seems to defeat the purpose of trade unionism. It might appear to be a quick fix for boosting membership numbers, but the servicing model is widely considered to be a failure, and there is no substitute for building strong workplace structures. Informal online developments should augment rather than attempt to replace other forms of trade unionism.

For what it’s worth, I also think the authors use the term ‘Open Source’ without understanding what it means, as a synonym for ‘unstructured’ or ‘loosely organised’. Genuine open source developments are highly structured, due to the need to organise the work of thousands of volunteers. Open Source trade unionism would be structured, but transparent.

An alternative, networked organising model needs to be developed.

Posted in Open Source, organising tactics, Theory.


  1. Pingback: Open source trade unions (via Cyberunions) | Social Network Unionism

  2. Walton, You are right about Open Source Unionism ala Freeman & Rogers being nonsense and in doubting Richard Barbrook’s Utopian notion of anarcho-communism.

    The SIEU’s method of organising workers across workplace/industry lines national borders breaks the mold imposed on unionised workers by the capitalist class and its laws, but otherwise retains traditional methods of union organisation, which is very much based upon worker to worker relations and collective physical action.

    If information technology is to play any meaningful role here, it would be in facilitating the publication of movement news, information about meetings, rallies, statement of policies, description of disputes, etc.

    It could also be a means for instataneous electronic communication between union branches, activist and allies but with the NSA and GCHQ surveillance which has been revealed, I would strongly advises against the Internet being used as a medium for organising, planning actions and discussion of confidential matters.

    As for Open Source Unionism and Anarcho Communism, in my over 19 years of writing about the information and communications technology, I have nothing but utter contempt for such cyber-Utopianism which believes that online activism and loosely organised mobs can effectively fight the capitalists and their exploitative system, their police, courts and their military.

    History has shown that all revolutions throughout history, including Gandhi’s policy of passive resistance tn India’s struggle for independence, all had a centralised leadership and a heirarchical chain of command.

    Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, some people actually believed that smoking pot would bring down the establishment system and usher in world peace and fraternal brotherhood/sisterhood between peoples of the world.

    I wish they were right but the world today is worse off in terms of economy, racism, religious bigotry, war, human misery, etc., than in the late 60s and early 70s.

    I’ve argued the likes of a certain “Ben Seattle” over the Utopian nonsense on his website since the late 1990s.

    He or this group seems to expect masses of workers sitting behind computer screens to become radicalised and somehow come charging out of their homes and offices onto the street to fight capitalism.

    It’s bad enough if such nonsense was promoted by a pot head pixie from the planet Gong but coming from someone who purports to be a Marxist-Leninist (on pot, LSD, alcholised or otherwise) is shocking.

    My respect for Richard Barbrook’s article on the Hi-Tech Gift Economy has somewhat dented respect I’ve had for the artcile The Californian Ideology, which Barbrook co-wrote with Andy Cameron.

    However, a key possible reason for the reconciliation of the youthful rebels in America with capitalism and big business in the early 70s was the ending of conscription (the draft) and the risk of the relatively privileged, white, middle-class youth being sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam.

    From its ending, “At the end of the twentieth century, anarcho-communism is no longer confined to avant-garde intellectuals.” it appears that Barbrook wrote this piece during the 1990s, before the dot com bubble burst and 9/11 happened.

    I use Linux and support the Open Source movement’s ethos of sharing but with over 3,000 Linux distribution around today and with many easy to install and use Linux distributions for end users, still, Net Applications estimates that Linux had a mere 1.56% worldwide share of desktop PCs versus 90.75% for Windows 7, XP, 8 and Vista combined, whilst OS X has 7.55%.

    IMHO, that is because Microsoft and Apple have well organised and directed marketing and promotion efforts, like an tight-knit army versus a disparate mob. Simply put, the “cathedrals” have trumped the “bazaar,” to paraphrase the title of Eric Raymond’s book.

    Likewise, workers unions such as the SIEU are like an army of exploited workers, unlike comfortably off petty bourgeois academics such as Freeman, Rogers and Barbrook, who most probabably are comfortably tenured in their positions.

    Anyway, how many Black hippies were there, when most Blacks, Asians or Hispanics cound not afford luxury lifestyle choices such as to “turn on, tune in, drop out” as advocated by countercultural hero Timothy Leary.

    This anarcho-communism is just a continuation of the countercultural Utopianism of that era.

    Now anarcho-communism seems to have metamorphosised into anarcho-capitalism – ala Bitcoin, an “alternative” crypto-currency which is taking on the characteristics of mainstream currencies, such as a developing Bitcoin derivatives market, etc.

    Bitcoin may solve an individual’s financial problems but it’s not going to save the world, bring world peace, end wars, end racism, facilitate the “brotherhood of man,” solve the economic problem or anything like that.

    Point is that the SIEU still is a traditional labour union which operates accordidng to new rules, whilst the others mentioned here are privileged academics

  3. Correction:-

    Richard Barbrook’s article on the Hi-Tech Gift Economy has somewhat dented the regard I’ve had for him and Andy Cameron from their joint article, The Californian Ideology.

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