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.