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Unions get connected

By Chris Davison, The Standard, 7 November 2000

"Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers. This union is helped by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another."
- The Communist Manifesto (1847), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Marx and Engels don't come up much in conversation about the new economy; they just don't sound right in the same sentence as stock options, bandwidth and flexible labour markets.

Nevertheless, the Internet - acme of the new economy - is doing more to revive labour internationalism than any number of leaflets, banners or placards ever could. It is energising trade unions. And for the first time it is giving them the means to coordinate globally in the age of the multinational corporation. What a rich irony that the Internet - responsible for what is certainly one of the most frenzied episodes of capitalistic speculation since Marx died nearly 120 years ago - should also be seized upon by the trade union movement as the best opportunity in generations to reorganise itself.

Steve Davies is a senior research fellow at Cardiff University and has spent much of his professional life working in the trade union movement. On May Day 1997 he set up his Cyberpicket Web site, the first resource in the world to link trade unions to one another through the Internet. It now has more than 2,000 links and receives as many as 200 new submissions every month. If activists in South Africa want to know what's happening in the Philippines, they can find out in minutes.

"The Internet represents as big a change for unions as it does in every other aspect of life," says Davies. "It makes the world smaller and it's a powerful communication tool. It reinforces the older tradition of internationalism, which had really withered on the vine. It has democratised access to information."

British Petroleum workers in Azerbaijan, for example, can now find out what the company is doing elsewhere in the world not just through BP's official channels but from union sites. Such sites keep them much better informed about their own position in the company, about pay and conditions, the company's strategy and the wider industry prospects, says Davies.

The Internet has allowed trade unions to build an international community where their contacts are horizontal as well as vertical. This means new alliances - not just within the trade union movement but with other non-governmental bodies.

Then there's the Internet's organisational potential. Scholars of the history of trade unions' relationship with electronic media are quick to stress that it didn't develop from nothing. Eric Lee - author of The Labour Movement And The Internet - dates unions' use of computer networking back to 1981, when the British Columbia Teachers Federation in Canada first used portable computers to organise its activities. By the mid-1980s, Canadian unions had built Solinet, a nationwide network, and some of the international trade secretariats were talking to one another electronically.

The subsequent influx of unions on to the Web has not quite matched the explosive enthusiasm of these pioneers, but it is gathering pace in line with the growth of Internet penetration around the world. Now activists in the labour movement are using the Internet to address not only other trade unionists but a public that in the past has had to rely on the often-indifferent mainstream media.

"The exciting thing about the Internet for unions is the effect of alternative media. That's what's been mustering support for protests at World Bank meetings and the World Trade Organisation. There are now a lot more possibilities for alternative media to get around the traditional media," Lee says.

He has set up a Web site called LabourStart to publish precisely the sort of news that trade unions around the world want to read but have not, until recently, had access to. They toyed with the idea of a shortwave radio station in the past but it wasn't until the Internet became commonplace that they really felt they had the right medium. Now LabourStart has a global network of volunteer correspondents updating headlines throughout the day and publicising issues that the other media are ignoring, says Lee.

And it works. Lee mentions the events of December 1999, when South Korean police detained 17 trade union leaders, including the general secretary of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). The KCTU international secretary, who escaped detention, immediately e-mailed a message for help. It was picked up by LabourStart and run as a news item. Unions around the world were quick to respond, building an international wave of protest. Within days, the government had released the unionists, who put their swift escape down to the effectiveness of the international protest campaign and to LabourStart's initial publicity in particular.

Third industrial revolution But while knowledge is power, it is not always powerful enough. A global voice, loud though it may be, is still not the solution to every trade union problem, as Lee acknowledges. There could be no better example than the long-running Liverpool dockers dispute - one of the biggest trade union confrontations in Britain for more than a decade.

The two-and-a-half-year showdown was triggered when more than 300 workers at the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company were sacked in 1995 for illegal secondary picketing - refusing to cross a picket line that was organised to further someone else's dispute. The dockers' struggle did not attract the media attention it might have done a decade earlier, but it initially won a broad base of support and became the first example of large-scale Internet usage in a British labour dispute.

Around the world, wharfies - as the dock-workers were known - showed their support. Ships coming out of Liverpool began to have trouble finding docking spaces in Japan, Australia, the US and Europe. Web sites kept the international community regularly updated with news about the dispute and provided a forum for discussion.

But for all the external organisation and support, the dockers eventually capitulated. The Internet and all the friends it afforded them around the world could not make up for lukewarm support from their own trade union or change the laws of the land.

The Internet may even turn out to be something of a Trojan Horse for the trade unions. While it is indisputably a powerful communication tool and force of good for those who dream of building that longed-for internationale, it is also a threat to the long-term survival of trade unionism.

Revolutionary changes in communication and information technology are radically altering the structure of the labour market from which unions have traditionally recruited. These are still very early days, but it's already clear that both workers and the workplace have changed. And the trade union movement has its work cut out to respond. Peter Skyte - a regional secretary for the British Manufacturing, Science and Finance trade union - is uncompromising about the urgency of what needs to be done. "We know that we are living through a third industrial revolution and there isn't really a choice," he says. "There is a museum of labour history in Manchester full of banners and memorabilia from the high points of the movement's past. I have no intention of letting my grandchildren go there to see stuffed models of trade unionists."

Around the world, trade unions are in different states of evolution. Their progress depends both on the nature of their relationship with their government and on how they weathered the economic storms of the past couple of decades. For some unions, such as those in the US, features of the new economy are now well established. For some, mainly those in less-developed economies, they are still a marginal consideration. And for others, such as Britain's, these are the most interesting of times.

The last 20 years or so have not been easy for the British movement. The first wave of globalisation in the late 1970s began to erode unions' self-confidence as they watched jobs move around the world in search of cheap labour. Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spent much of the 1980s dismantling unions' legal immunities and identity, with two devastating effects: the reduction of membership, and the labelling of the whole movement as regressive and old-fashioned. The early 1990s saw global recession turn the screw even tighter.

Looking after number one The numbers vividly illustrate the story. Between 1989 and 1999 membership fell from nearly nine million to 7.3 million, while the proportion of workers who belong to a union dropped from 35 per cent to 27 per cent. The number of workplaces with union membership slumped to 27 per cent in 1998 from 47 per cent in 1984. The public sector - which accounts for the majority of the membership - is holding up better than the private sector, but the longer-term prospects for state-funded employment are much bleaker. Male membership has been hit harder than female, and the average age of union members has been rising. Industrial action has fallen to its lowest level since records began in 1891. The list of symptoms goes on and the message is clear: the unions are suffering.

So what are the components of change in the new economy that threaten to agitate an already ailing patient? John Philpott, director of the Employment Policy Institute, identifies two key factors: a shift in the type of jobs created and lost, and a corresponding shift in employee psychology. The first has meant less blue-collar work - a mainstay of trade unionism - and more white collar work. And the second has resulted in a more individualistic culture making collective representation seem less relevant.

"The new economy is a real phenomenon that will become more prevalent over time," he says. "You will get an overall reduction in manufacturing employment. Virtually everything left will be knowledge-based. Unions will need to organise themselves in different ways.

"The new economy is more individualistic. Workers may not be self-employed but they see themselves as individual units. They work in one place for a short time and prefer to look after their own interests."

More specifically, new industries and new technologies have thrown up a number of trends. Some, such as the recent rise in part-time work and female employment, have been slowly catching on for years. But others - such as "new management" practices, "more progressive reward structures" and a more flexible work culture - are rapidly upsetting established ideas of what it means to go to work.

They are all an important part of what it's like to work in today's economy. And together they mean the gradual disappearance of the traditional model of "the union man" and the rise of a more elusive "new worker". Whether it's the highly skilled programmer designing Amazon's Web site or the low-skilled worker filling shelves in its warehouse, they are all more difficult to sign up.

Roger Darlington is head of research at Britain's Communication Workers' Union. The union's constituents are on the cutting edge of the new economy, whether in the rapidly expanding telecommunications industry or in the less-promisingly positioned postal service. Not surprisingly, it is having trouble making itself relevant to today's employees - perhaps even more than most of the other big unions.

"The structure of work is changing," says Darlington. "There are smaller and more entrepreneurial workplaces. The nature of the person working there is changing and presenting a problem for recruiting. We now have to show how the union is offering value to the individual. That means expanding the services that we offer.

"It's not just the traditional services, like wage bargaining, any longer. We have had to accept that people increasingly have their own individual arrangements on pay."

These difficulties are not confined to the shop floor. White-collar jobs in some of the most dynamic sectors of the economy are being lost, taking with them union cards that are not reissued when the jobs reappear elsewhere.