Free software is to code as labor unions are to workers and neither are revolutionary

Full Disclosure: I work full time for the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the views expressed here do not reflect the views of the FSF or my position at the FSF.

This is a point that has been stirring in my mind for some time.  In addition to my free software experience I have also spent years studying and organizing in the work place.  As I have mentioned on the oggcast, there are similarities between the labor movement and the free software movement and here I am going to expand on that a bit. It is a challenge to write this because it is not clear who I am intending the audience to be, whether it is free software activists or labor union activists. In this case I am going to try to cover both, so bear with me as we move forward.

Labor unions are to workers as free software is to code, no not
revisiting SATs, but lets explore how they are not revolutionary. What
we know about free software licenses is that it protects the code, it
prevents the code from being hidden and locked down. Labor unions in a similar form protect the workers and prevent workplace conditions from being covered up. If injustices exist in the workplace a union can bring those workplace conditions to be brought to the public or commons sometimes resulting in successful actions. When there are violations to free software, actions can be taken to force compliance, much like when there are violations to a labor contract, actions can be taken to force compliance.

Both a free software license and a union contract are documents with
specifics of what can and cannot be done and both rely heavily on
laws to enforce them. In the case of a union contract, in US and many
other countries, there exist labor laws and in the case of free
software it is copyright law. However both movements, free software and labor unions, are connected to do not require laws as there is a larger struggle in fighting for our rights. Rights are not required to have laws though many are enforced with legal backing, but the right to protest and the right to go on strike or the right to view the source code of any and all software and the right to do with that source code whatever you need or want are what we call inalienable or universal rights.

Union made gives us the assurance that the workers have some kind of protections to their rights in the workplace in having more control in determining their working conditions. Free software licensed software we know we can look at the code, research it and use it. However neither of these by their nature in fact changes the relationship in how the final product is developed.

Your boss or manager still reigns over the decisions and planning
needed to take place for their goals to be met. Their goals tend to be
productivity based, yes a unions can slow the profit gains and the
speed of productivity, but it does not change the relationship it but only changes some of the power dynamics, but the mode stays the same. Free software also changes the power dynamics instead of one company hoarding the source code, it creates openness to the availability of the source code to others to develop, but the relationship in the workplace tends to remain the same for there is a boss or manager in the workplace for that software. Granted there are some projects that lack that model and there are some workplaces that do as well, and they at the moment are the outliers but are great examples of how we can change the mode of production, more on that a bit farther, back to the point.

We can think about project management and who decides what code comes into a project, much like a union can decide which workplace changes they will accept. The point here is that if we want the movements to grow strong we need to step it up we need to go beyond a defensive position to protect and instead advance a new form of production. Just because it is free software does not mean multinational corporations are not making profits at exorbitant rates, cause they are, just like the workplaces with unions are still making tons of profits. To make these movements revolutionary we need to challenge the system at its core, that is to shift the form in which we produce. A dictator can create free software but that clearly does not fit our ideals, a dictator can also support unions but again it does not fit the ideals of the freedom we espouse.

The point is by themselves a union contract and a free software license are defending us, but we need to take from it and build the social movement which requires revolutionary changes. To garner the changes means to exercise these freedoms, we need to think about how we can actually make the substantial changes needed to alter the form in which we produce. Maybe like bringing democracy to the forefront of the production, something that would revolutionize a workplace and software projects by altering the historical forms we are accustom.

Which projects or work places can you think of that express these rights and freedoms? It is great to celebrate those achievements when and where they exist as models. Places where free software and worker power come together in forms of democracy, where the community involved decides how and what to produce.


Posted in Activist resources, Blog Post, Free Software and tagged , , , , , , , , .

Marxist. Socialist & labor movement organizer. Boston DSA Labor he/him
Bread & Roses Caucus in #DSA


  1. Interesting read and comparison between Free Open Source Software (FOSS) and labor unions. Many unions can benefit from using FOSS instead of paying the high licensing costs of software made by Micro$oft and others.

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