The Cyberunions Podcast: Episode Ten

This one’s for the Tech Workers: Part Two

Tech workers can organise?

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Summary of last week’s show – we are discussing issues raised by Cory Doctorow’s For the Win.

3:00 Labor 101 Part 2

  • The UNI Global Second Life strike
  • Communication workers of America WashTech local
  • Collective Bargaining is fundamental to trade unions – some UK Government info
  • Union density – proportion of eligible workers who are members of a union. Union density in the UK is under 30%. In Scandinavia, it is around 80%
  • Bargaining unit – the group covered by a collective agreement. The bigger the better.
  • Final Offer – a great film about collective bargaining
  • The Take – film about factory occupations
  • The Android Developers’ Union

18:50 Possible unions for tech workers

30:00 Feedback

Let us know your ideas and issues. Contact us by leaving a comment, on identi.ca or twitter, or by emailing Walton or Stephen.

Music: After the Revolution, by David Rovics

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14 thoughts on “The Cyberunions Podcast: Episode Ten”

  1. I would like to stress, as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, that we shouldn’t discount one of the most important resources we have as workers, one that trumps all other resources if effectively utilized, and that would be the resource of our labor. 

    Where “business” style unions may have more resources in terms of federation affiliations and the money that comes with it, the effective of indpendent unions shouldn’t be dismissed. 

    The IWW aspires to organize outside of traditional contract, business labor collaboration, using a strategy called ‘solidarity unionism’ and the IWW in particular, organizing Industrially, could see workers in any given industry on a localized level, instead of forming and organizing thru traditional work place unions or  “general membership brances”, forming Industrial Unions, like IU560 that you mentioned in the show.  They could set their own dues structure and do with those dues what they want, form networks with other workers in their industry local and internationally, build alliance with community allies, internationally and locally, and develop new ways of redefining the workspace a lot of people in these industries work in.  They would essentially provide a network of workers within their industry that supports them, on their terms. 

    For example a lot of workers in IU560 either work freelance or for a large corporation.  The large corporation serves as a proxy for their labor and the needs of that corporation.   The corporation provides the space and easy access to the network and they provide you with a generally above average pay check, but it is still a fraction of what the company is making off you, and you have very little say in the substance of the product you are developing for said corporations. 

    Even when dealing with customers as a freelancer, you are still treated as an employee and not as a partner, with feelings or ideas.  There are always exceptions, but generally you are desperate and need the work, because piece work is essentially what pays the bills and just like any other industry there are slow seasons you have to pay for. So often times instead of telling the customers to suck it, you bite your tounge and do what they ask, even if it goes against your ethics or is something you wouldn’t put on your resume.  Also, i understand that it’s hard to get paid on time! 

    So how can a Union provide some relief?  Well for one, a real labor union, like the IWW for example, would welcome the outside of the box organizing such as organizing workers who currently work in proxy’s to start gradually moving towards freelance work, but not just any freelance work, co-operatively shared workspaces, maintained by the workeres themselves which serves as an independent proxy, that comes with all the resources found in a corporate proxy, but actually provided by the workers themselves.  This is just an example, but imagine a worker run co-operative space that had independent but equally motivate and unified workers who provide different skill sets and could take on large projects and split the workload and share the profits? They would have their own set of bylaws and code of ethics, and would be able to collectively demand and afford to force their customers to pay it forward when the project is complete. 

    This is something that some of us have been thinking about… 

    1. Thanks for the comment, which is interesting and useful. Thanks also for explaining IWW structure and strategy, which might be new to a lot of people.

      I agree that we need to not just be defending jobs in the current economy, we should be trying to build a different kind of worker-managed economy. It disappoints me when mainstream unions identify with the success of the companies they work in. While this is important to maintain quality jobs, it’s very short termist.

      However, I don’t think it’s helpful to refer to mainstream unions as “business” unions. It comes across as sectarian, and it reinforces the popular right wing narrative that unions are just businesses that are in it for the money.

      Mainstream unions certainly have their limitations, and they need to be challenged, but they represent tens of millions of workers world wide and make a real difference to terms and conditions.

      I think there is place in the labour movement for different kinds of trade unionism, and that the radical solidarity unionism you describe can co-exist alongside and within mainstream unionism.

      Thanks again for taking the time to listen and comment.

      1. Good point, on the sectarianism.  However, ‘business union’ refers explicitly to unions with a top down structure, as opposed to a horizontal directly democratic model, and sometimes appointed officers, as well as it’s complacency with ‘contract unionism’. Where it may seem like a sectarian term, you sometimes need to call it how it is.  And I think you will agree that most unions today due to a lack of rank and file engagement, are on the defensive and find themselves collaborating with the businesses more and more in order to stay relevant as an organization.  The organization then takes on the roll as a business partner, rather than  a liberating arm of the working class.  But I am enjoying this show, and am happy to see there are some people who identify with trade unionism our there who wish to radicalize the rank and file within it. 

        1. So let me pose a question… How can we radicalize the rank and file, and encourage them to engage more with the labor movement from within their local trade unions? 

          Recently there was a threat from, I think Chicago’s Firemans Local Union, who said that they will no longer fund the democrats campaigns with their membership dues.  What an amazing thing that would be if trade unions stopped spending time and money on lobbying dc and instead organized their members and other working class people! What if they put their dues instead towards training organizers, either in their industry or another one. 

          The UFCW has a history of only taking on campaigns that had enough potential members that would make organizing worthwhile for them, ie. they will ignore or turn down any campaign of a small chain less than 200 workers.  But recently they have been hiring staff to educate rank and file members on their rights as workers, training them in the ways of collective bargaining, teaching them how to organize in a non-union workplace, etc.  These are the kinds of ideas that could lead to a more educated rank and file labor movement that would be able to take on campaigns in small chains, even fast food environments like the IWW has. 

          So what do you all at Cyberunions and your comrades want the trade union movement to look like? 

          1. Thanks for the debate.

            Cyberunions very consciously straddles the divide between official trade unions and workers who aren’t formally organised but want to take collective action.

            We make no judgement on where people choose to be active – radical independent union, conservative craft union, or somewhere in between.

            We focus on providing tools for union activists, and hope that this helps give them a stronger voice where ever they are.

            I understand your criticism of mainstream unions, but even unions that aren’t great can have a massive positive impact on terms and conditions if they win the right to bargain collectively across sectors. I think collective bargaining is the single biggest reason for raised living standards in Europe after World War Two. While this might be ‘reformist’, it makes a massive difference to the lives of working people.

            Within the mainstream unions, it is certainly possible to make a difference. You can work within the political structures to get the rule book changed so that reps and branches/locals have more autonomy. Autonomy is a great motivator, and it helps members become activists.

            I have seen unions change in this way and it makes a big difference. I can’t speak for MV, but personally I’d like to see a strong left wing political ecosystem where there is a lot of cross over and sharing of resources (and activists) between official and alternative unions, social movements and community organisations. 

            I think it’s up to each of us to decide where we can be most effective as activists, and to respect other people’s choices as well. 

            At Cyberunions we hope to provide ideas and tools and encourage people to find their own political path.

          2. ‘Collective Bargaining’ has no-doubt improved the lives of working people on the short term, but collective bargaining doesn’t always have to lead to a contact based union agreement. 

            Within the IWW, we don’t formally ebrace ‘collectibe bargaining’ or ‘NLRB elections’ or ‘contracts’, but if the workers decide that’s what they want to do, we at least make sure they understand the concept of ‘solidarity unionism’ as a living, breathing, contract of based on direct action, as opposed to binding language that can often compromise and weaken the rank and files ability to react quickly and effectively to certain  situatuations.  If they still decide that they want to pursue a NLRB election and contract with the employer then we’ll walk them through the process. 

            A lot of the times too, once the workers secure a contract, they then feel like there is no need to stay militant, that they can allow the elected officers to make the decisions for them and that’s that. 

            So, not suggesting the complete obliteration of trade unionism, what can we do to have the best of both worlds?  How can we introduce revoluitonary unionism tactics in a trade union setting?   

            Trade Union’s that I’m aware of that are pretty radical are the UE and the International Longshore Workers Unions.  How have they stayed so militant over the years?  Is it because of good leadership, their history, their ideals, thier identifying with the working class, all of the above?  Why doesn’t that same militancy exist in the AFL-CIO unions? 

          3. With Collective Bargaining, I am not just referring to recognition agreements (company contracts), but sector wide bargaining.

            I imagine this is rare in the US, but it happens a fair bit in Europe, South Africa and other countries.

            Unions win the right to bargain with employer representatives for conditions across a whole industrial sector. This is fantastic as it means the best union negotiators from the most organised workplaces negotiate agreements that cover everyone, even the most vulnerable,

            This can have the effect of decreasing militancy, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in South Africa and France, where workers come out into the streets to defend collective agreements.

            Also, sometimes the Global Unions are able to negotiate international collective agreements that also cover supply chains. These are called International Framework Agreements. They can have a massive impact in raising labour standards in developing countries.

            While I will always support workers’ self-activity, strong collective agreements create the space and structures for activists to engage with.

            I have personally been active in both solidarity and mainstream unionism, and while I like solidarity unionism more politically, in my experience engaging with mainstream unions has had a greater impact.

          4. Ah, well that’s pretty interesting.  I think we’re pretty far away from having that sort of collective bargaining in the u.s..  The way our states are governed, some having collective bargaining rights, some not, right to work states vs. closed shop states, and then on the more political side some states are common wealth, and in general a strong policy to protect the “rights” private property and business.  It would take a pretty strong working class movement to force those changes, and I think that’s where ‘solidarity unionism’ and dual card unionism may play a part in building working class consciousness and awareness of how unionism works in countries. 

            I look forward to hearing more about these movements on your show! 

          5. I apparently missed this discussion yesterday, so forgive me for jumping in late. As Walton said, Causticcastle the cyberunions is dancing along a divide between the ideals we seek and the reality of where unions currently are, though i would make one alteration to the explanation of what we seek, it is in part to offer tools but more importantly to encourage labor unions to engage and be part of the open source communities and vice versa. We have mentioned this in the shows, so forgive the redundancy, but we see in many open source communities a structure of democracy, a structure that is lacking especially in the US with the exception of a few locals, the IWW, the UE (United Electrical Workers) and the efforts of the TDU (Teamsters’ for a Democratic Union) as well as the TWU (Transit Workers Union in NYC). So there is no ideal audience we seek, but more like all in the movement whether that is the labor movement or social movements we seek to encourage all to join each others communities and not remain

            It might help to give a little back ground, much like Walton seeing the change occur with in labor unions is monumental, now autonomy is a bit of a challenge in the US with say the big unions (i.e. SEIU, Unite-Here, UAW, Teamsters’, UFCW, etc) but those unions are the place for member agitation so to speak. I am deeply familiar with TDU having a number of friends involved. I think in the US context a good place to have the discussion of ways to change the labor movement are through outfits like the Troublemakers’ School and in fact the IWW. I welcome and like the idea of dual membership and encourage it as TDU is a similar concept members pay dues to the national but also to their sub group that seeks to change the national (or international for that matter).

            The way the Longshore workers have stayed militant is partly historical and partly economically they still maintain a tremendous amount of power by stopping their work and have built a strong solidarity structure in their union. The UE, also historically was radical and was one of the few that fought against the Taft-Hartley bill they did not abide by the rule of requiring their union leaders to say they were not or have not been or attended a communist party meeting. However the AFL-CIO built the IUE to steel members, which clearly is back stabbing to our brothers and sisters. However, they began to do things differently too, a very well member driven union with democracy at the center, but also taking parts of the NLRB to protect workers in right to work states. Though I agree the NLRB at the time may have been a big mistake (as a revolutionary the potential for the revolution may have been stronger without the NLRB), but there are ways to utilize it outside of the intended process. Say “minority unions” are a great example in North Carolina that is what the UE members are making use of, instead of gaining a 50% +1 majority they exercise collective power protection by remaining a minority of the workforce. It is very effective in building a stronger community and not face the same anti-union tactics of management. Any strategy that brings the members together as a collective instead of top down structure is what I seek personally in labor movement. Any sense of a lack of democracy and transparency in the decision making process bothers me tremendously. Anyway enough about that, thank you for the discussion and listening. Both Walton and I are always up for the discussions and in the same manner of offering tools and a community to be a part of there is identi.ca where you can find me or Walton and of course the show Cyberunions

  2. I’m an IWW fellow worker of Caustic Castle and a software developer who runs his own business. I’m very interested in organizing IT workers, but for many of the reasons you listed and other reasons as well I think it’s difficult. I don’t know how this applies to other IT sectors, but in software development there are some interesting factors.

    First, working conditions, while varied over the industry, are often very good. Many of the leading employers understand that they have to treat workers well in order to get creative thinking out of them. That’s both a good thing in the short run and a kind of counterrevolutionary situation in the long run.

    Second, much of the formal process involved in software development has been around methodologies like “agile” which in many ways try to de-factoryize the workplace and put an emphasis on sustainable pace of development. Worker empowerment is, for many developers, not a distant ideal but an everyday phenomenon.

    Finally, one of the reasons it’s so important to unionize workplaces in other industries is because the means of production – the capital goods needed to do the job – are monopolized by the capitalist class. That’s often not so in software, since the means of production are readily available for comparatively little, if any, capital. Perhaps unionizing, while important, is not the emphasis we should be placing on the labor struggle in this sector. The more radical and meaningful move here would be forming our own IT shops run by us for us, perhaps as cooperatives. This kind of entrepreneurial labor movement would challenge capital on its own terms and question the very existence of the managerial monopoly capital holds over IT workers’ heads.

    In my town I’m trying to baby step to something like that by starting a coworking group for freelancers and people who work from home, to get us used to working together. I wrote an essay about this matter here.

    Thanks for the great program. Solidarity!

  3. Jeremy,

    Thank you for the insight into some aspects of the industry and specifically the ways employers seek to divide workers and attempt to keep them happy. The casualization of the work is not uncommon and in the online worlds outside of programmers but in the case of educators (the university of phoenix as an example) similar casualization of the industry exists. Coop or Collectives has been a brief discussion we touched on and plan to expand on in future episodes. Namely we are looking into one example from a manufacturing perspective of Mondragon and the agreement they have with the United Steel Workers. But developing worker run enterprises is something we encourage, the larger issue is connecting the workers and what as well as where is the collective are important issues to reolve. Please keep up with the feedback…I did send an email to the head of the US IWW tech contact but had not heard back.

    MV

  4. BTW the IBM SL strike was indeed successful, as well as a lot of fun. The dispute was over a long term bonus payment that had been withdrawn – about €1000 for most of the staff at an IBM HQ in Italy. The company had refused to negotiate on it with the union for a year, and it wasn’t going anywhere. Staging a protest locally wouldn’t have had much effect, but by taking it into Second Life, the union were able to embarass the multinational much more. At the time, IBM were putting $50m a year business through SL, and were holding meetings and showrooms for external clients at their sprawling campus in virtual reality. We had over 1800 people (mostly supporters rather than directly affected workers) join us over the 24 hours of the demonstration, which made for a very visible protest – in many cases filling the sims and blocking company access. IBM are a company who value their reputation internationally as a good place to work, so this helped in showing up misdeeds at an otherwise remote outpost. Very quickly after, the manager blocking progress in Italy left, and negotiations were opened with the union and the bonus returned. Of course though this could only have happened at a company with such exposure to virtual worlds – a demo at T-Mobile’s low-traffic marketing space in SL for example would have had next to no impact.

    There was a second action the following year, which was less dramatically successful, but also interesting. About 500 people, which this time included many more directly affected IBM workers from Italy, France and Turkey attended (IBM were actually training thousands of their staff in how to use SL, so it meant it was a good place to meet and co-ordinate workers). It was protesting a couple of bad outsourcing deals, moving out IBM staff in support functions in many countries. What was interesting here, was more like what you might get from a Google+ hangout – A purposeful event that was also a chance for people to drop in and exchange solidarity and network around a theme. I think it was particularly useful for Turkish workers, who made good contacts from other countries for support in their ongoing recognition campaign.

    I’ve not been into SL for a while now, and we closed the international union HQ there last year. It didn’t have any other IBM scale headline successes, despite a bunch of very nice smaller scale linkups, but whilst it lasted it was a pretty interesting insight into some ideas that might be now growing more for unions in more “traditional” social media.

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