The blog of Eric Lee - web design and internet consulting for the trade union movement.

Ubuntu and the Unions

Over the course of the last few weeks, I've installed a new operating system on my computer. I no longer use Microsoft Windows XP and instead now use Ubuntu Linux. That's nice, you may be thinking, but what does that have to do with the trade union movement?

Before I answer that, I should mention that I have access to some privileged information about unions and computer operating systems. As the founding editor of the LabourStart website, I get to look at the statistics. I know how many people visit our site every day, I know what countries they come from and which web browsers they use. And I know which operating systems they are using as well.

In the last couple of days, over 91% of those visiting LabourStart were using Microsoft Windows. Seven percent were using Apple Macintosh. And just 1.16% were using Linux.

I'm sure that most union websites are having the same experience.

Linux has been around since the early 1990s. I first used it more than a decade ago. I bought my first desktop running Linux instead of Windows back in 2002. I and many others have been writing about open source software, including Linux, for several years now. And yet the vast majority of you are not listening, and are sticking with Microsoft Windows on your desktops and laptops.

I should qualify that: there is one case where you are listening. Millions of you have chosen Mozilla Firefox, the open source web browser, instead of Microsoft Internet Explorer. Less than 70% of the visitors to LabourStart use Microsoft's web browser to reach the site. Over 20% are using Mozilla. So at least some open source software has an appeal for you.

But Linux has not taken off, at least not in the trade union movement, and without trying to analyze why that is the case (I hope some of you will tell me), I want to point out five very good reasons why trade unionists should consider making the switch.

First of all, there's the issue of cost. Dell is now selling computers for the first time with a user-friendly version of Linux. In the USA, those computers cost on average $50 less than computers with Microsoft Windows. (You can pick up a brand new Dell laptop running Ubuntu Linux for less than $600.) The reason for the price difference is that Linux is usually distributed free of charge, while Windows is paid for.

If you buy a copy of Windows Vista, the latest version of the Microsoft operating system, it can set you back US $400. ( will sell you a copy of Vista at a huge discount -- "only" $300.) Meanwhile, a copy of the latest version of Ubuntu Linux costs nothing at all. In fact, Ubuntu can be sent to you on CD completely free of charge. (And you can download it from the net as well.)

If you have CDs or DVDs with Linux on them, you can legally copy them and distribute them to friends and colleagues. You can pass around your CD at work. Try doing that with Windows.

Second, this brings up the issue of legality. When I mentioned to a colleague that Linux was particularly appropriate to -- and becoming wildly popular in -- the world's developing countries, I was told that no one pays for their Windows software there anyway. That may be true; pirated software is very popular and not only in the world's South.

But companies that use pirated software quickly learn that they are taking a business risk. They can be sued, their assets can be seized, and they live under the constant threat of discovery by Microsoft and its agents. Unions face the same threat, and any union using illegal, pirated software is vulnerable to legal action.

Third, there's the issue of security. Most trade unionists are not IT specialists. They know little or nothing about firewalls and anti-virus software. If they're lucky, the union has sorted out a subscription to keep their anti-virus software up-to-date, and the IT department in their union has made sure their firewall is turned on and is working.

(There's a cost issue here as well. Norton's security suite costs around US $70 to buy, and then $60 per year to keep up to date.)

In Linux, there are no viruses and in most cases (such as in Ubuntu Linux) there's no need for a firewall either. Your computers are completely secure, and you've saved your union $70.

If you're an IT pro, you don't really need Linux because you know all about trojan horses, defragmenting, viruses, firewalls, and so on. You've mastered all those issues. But if you're a normal human being, you want to use your computer to send and receive emails, surf the web, listen to music -- and you don't want to have to choose which firewall or anti-virus is best, and to ensure you've got the latest updates every day. Linux is by far the more secure and easier solution.

Fourth, if you really love monopoly capitalism and companies like Microsoft earning billions in profits just warms your heart, go ahead -- keep using Windows. But if you like the idea of a society in which goods and services might be distributed for free (does "to each according to his need" ring a bell?), you might find the free and open source software movement of some interest. For ideological reasons, unions should be lining up behind and aggressively promoting this one sector of the modern economy in which there is a real alternative to giant, profit-driven transnational capital.

Fifth and finally, you should switch because you can. A decade ago, Linux was for geeks only. It was hard to use and made no pretense at being a competitor to Microsoft Windows on the desktop. Five years ago, when I first tried it, I admit that it was still unfriendly, hard to get it to work with printers and the like, and wouldn't have recommended it to anyone else. Today, with Ubuntu Linux, I can't think of single thing I used to do with Windows that I can't do now on my PC. I am running a faster, more secure machine, and spending nothing on software.

It's time for unions to save their members' money, to make their offices more efficient and secure, and to support the free and open source software movement. It's time for unions to switch over to Ubuntu Linux.


Lots of good points but a few errors too.

Linux computers should be protected too. You don't have to buy a seperate firewall or anti-virus software - there are high quality free alternatives - but you do need them. The peer review system in Linux and other FLOSS might mean bugs and vulnerabilities get fixed quicker, but it doesn't mean they don't exist.

Secondly I think you miss the point about what FLOSS can do for the economy - it helps spread skills and lowers the barrier for entry into the market, so helping growth to the benefit of working people.

I'd also have a go at the "false consciousness" on the left which seems to equate Apple with good and MS with evil - they are all the same to me. The left needs to understand the power of freedom and use the market in ideas that is essential to FLOSS to develop and strength its case.

Keep up the good work though.

Not sure if these are errors or just differences of opinion.

For example, I think the consensus is that with Ubuntu Linux, you do not need a firewall. For one view - "The default Ubuntu install does not leave any ports open, so the firewall is not exactly a necessity." -- see here:

The same article also reads: "At this point there are no linux viruses in the wild, so there is no need for antivirus."

I think there are legitimate differences of opinion in the Linux community about these issues, though nothing I have read so far convinces me that running what is essentially the default configuration in Ubuntu 7.04 requires either a firewall or an anti-virus program.

I would suggest that in TUs that a small PC (or router) set up as a firewall, it is an additional security measure and will allow multiple PCs to be networked into the Internet

It is controlling the Internet at the point of access, and ensuring nothing untoward happens, a bit of overkill in some circumstances but prudent move if people are going to be using the Internet on a daily basis

Obviously, there is a debate over hardware and software firewalls

some advantages of a hardware (and separate) firewall are 1) the task is isolated and offloaded from the user's PC 2) it allows other PCs to be networked in without much change 3) once set-up a hardware F/W tends to look after it self and is unlikely to be interfered with

there are floppy based distributions, which will turn a low end 486 into a decent firewall, etc

I think it is not beyond the wit of trade unionists to master Linux, and there is less of the "mysticism" and the dependency culture associated with Microsoft software (users are dependent on Microsoft for patches, information, etc)

Another argument for Linux is, a lot of IT people spend their time finding workarounds to Microsoft's poor design or incompetent software, whereas computers should be used by people to enhance their knowledge and help them confront the world (not spend enough time twiddling with Microsoft bugs).

phew eric - is it the heat! - i applaud your message. unions should be more accountable in terms of the cost of technology. it is too easy to get sucked into micrsofts licensing scheme - without standing back and reviewing alternatives.
however this isnt going to be an overnight seachange - it took you 14 days and you presumably are a one man band.
as someone who works in trade union ict i would like to see evidence of successful installations across other organisations. Ticket master for instance- uses mysql to manage the sale of online concert tickets - madonna's concerts sold out in 10 minutes - using open source technology.
The tory party are keen to get uk govt to use open source.
it works - it just doesnt have the marketing that microsoft has. It will be gradual but not this year!
just for the record their are around 10 viruses for linux.

This is an awesome article and I've been pitching GNU/Linux to the worker's movement for a long time. A good document to point for more information to would be the dotCommunist manifesto. A few corrections:

1. Call it GNU/Linux
Linux only refers to the Kernel, GNU/Linux refers to the Kernel and all the GNU applications it comes from that were made possible by the GNU project.

2. A few more points
You might want to write about microsoft's treatment of workers, perma-temping, etc. as well as them being caught TWICE falsifying evidence in court. Also, mention how since union work has often been met with resistance from powerful adversaries like law enforcement and corporate spies, it's good to have a system that's open-source and that you can modify. Microsoft has been caught putting backdoors in windows updates, especially with WGA and sending information to microsoft such as what programs you have installed. Otherwise, great article.

Comrade Ringo Kamens

This is an awesome article and I've been pitching GNU/Linux to the worker's movement for a long time. A good document to point for more information to would be the dotCommunist manifesto. A few corrections:

1. Call it GNU/Linux
Linux only refers to the Kernel, GNU/Linux refers to the Kernel and all the GNU applications it comes from that were made possible by the GNU project.

2. A few more points
You might want to write about microsoft's treatment of workers, perma-temping, etc. as well as them being caught TWICE falsifying evidence in court. Also, mention how since union work has often been met with resistance from powerful adversaries like law enforcement and corporate spies, it's good to have a system that's open-source and that you can modify. Microsoft has been caught putting backdoors in windows updates, especially with WGA and sending information to microsoft such as what programs you have installed. Otherwise, great article.

Comrade Ringo Kamens

Very good article, I think you will agree with a lot of the things our group does.
if anyone will like to spread the social
ethics and values of Free Software please join us at

Comrade Chris F.

Better Linux/open source than MS for sure, Apple is good for workers though on total cost of ownership stats, and on the lack of virus/malware front too.
The fact is that the old questions such as class struggle still concern the labor movement, our preferred computer guys are not perhaps the major issue of our times.
It appalled me to read in a recent posting of the abused Russian unionist, a country formerly a guiding light to many workers everwhere.

I use an Apple MacMini as there are no known viruses for the Mac computers.

I use other Microsoft packages such as Word, Powerpoint etc and get email attachments that use the same programmes, what type of software do you use with Linux?

just one thing:
Remember that Ubuntu is provided by a south african capitalist that try to chalange Microsoft.

I am totally support open source etc' but in order to have a society in which the goods are given by need and not by profit there is no replace to a strong workers movment.

I totally agree with you on getting more users to choose Ubuntu. Theres one problem, linux just doesn't have the widespread support for hardware that windows has. I've downloaded... 5-6 different distributions of GNU/Linux and I've had no luck whatsoever in hardware compatibility. If Ubuntu, as well as other distributions, they need to provide support for a wider range of hardware which includes previously windows computers bought from outlets such as Future Shop (which is where I bought mine).

While I agree with much of what has been said above (and the speed of Ubuntu compared with Windows is astonishing) it seems to me that if we all did as you advocate then there would be an awful lot of people out of work that depend on Microsoft sales/support/etc. for a living.

I use Mozilla but like to look up the news on and find that I cannot access some of the links from this page on Mozilla and after ages I discovered I could access these links if I used Internet Explorer. It appears to me these links are blocked. Can they be accessed using Mozilla please? Gwenda

Great article! I'd also like to note that anyone with an ATI card, BEWARE. ATI hasn't released open source drivers for ubuntu, which can result in quite a lot of problems! Nvidia is the way to go.

david williams wrote: "just for the record their are around 10 viruses for linux."

So far, no GNU/Linux virus has successfully spread in the wild. There's an explanation here:



Hi Eric

Thanks for the valuable insight. I did not realize the usage stats were that skewed. Amazing. Great article and I believe it is something that is overlooked much in the union movement. Technology in general is under utilizied and in many cases it is typcially heralded as cost that is the prohibiter. With the open source movement there are now some alternatives. I hope people start exploring these options. Your work is a signpost for the potential of this technology.


Great article. I do have a couple of things to point out, however:

  1. Like others have said before me, having at least a minimal security plan is strongly encouraged. Too many people become complacent with their GNU+Linux systems and end up with a compromised system. While viruses that target GNU+Linux aren't common, they do exist, as do rootkits.

    While it's much, much safer to go online without protection on a GNU+Linux system than it is on a Windows system, it's still not completely safe, so let's not let the improved security of GNU+Linux over Windows make us complacent when it comes to this topic. Rootkit scanners, security sentries, and a firewall are still a very good idea.

  2. When referring to the operating system as a whole, please don't call it just “Linux”, because doing so is misleading. Linux is a part of the operating system you're using. The rest of the operating system is actually GNU. When GNU (the operating system) is combined with Linux (a kernel for GNU), a popular way to denote this combination is to call it “GNU/Linux”.

    (Personally, I prefer to use “GNU+Linux”, because the plus sign (+) is less ambiguous. To me, a slash (/) means “or”, not “with”. On top of that, many people feel awkward saying “guhnoo slash lihnucks”, so they often shorten it to “guhnoo lihnucks”, which is also wrong, because there's no such thing as “GNU Linux” (Linux is not a GNU program). “guhnoo plus lihnucks” or “guhnoo with lihnucks” (if you're talking about the GNU operating system running on top of the Linux kernel) or even just “guhnoo” (the GNU operating system, regardless of kernel) solves this problem altogether.)

    Unfortunately, the Ubuntu folks call their software distribution “Ubuntu Linux”, even though Ubuntu is derived directly from a distribution called “Debian GNU/Linux”.

    To add further weight to this point, there's also Debian GNU/Hurd (Hurd is the official kernel for GNU; this could just be shortened to “Debian GNU”, but “/Hurd” is appended to make the distinction between this GNU variant and the others), Debian GNU/NetBSD (GNU plus the kernel from NetBSD), Debian GNU/kFreeBSD (GNU plus the kernel from FreeBSD), and Nexenta GNU/OpenSolaris (GNU plus the kernel from OpenSolaris (like Ubuntu, Nexenta is Debian-based)).

As a web designer and I.T. guy. I would wholly recommend Linux because Microsoft Xp and Vista are 2 of the worst operating systems on the market. Vista especially is rank rotten with more holes in it than a fishing net and has outragoeus system requirements basically requiring a completely new computer to work properly costing upward of 600 dollars on top of the 400 you pay for Vista. I could not recommend it all because of the security holes microsoft seem to leave in there OS,es for the first year or 2 unintentional or not. Also a little known fact that the super snoops the NSA (National Security Agency) in America had a hand in designing Vista a hidden hand at that. To me that is very worrying to say the least. No matter what Microsoft may say about this issue it opens a whole can of worms that won,t close.

Windows XP is now 6 years old and has constant patches and critical updates. The worst being WGA a loathsome piece of nastiness that spied on you to start by sending info home every fortnight until there was an outcry and they changed the way it worked. I still do not trust it and would not have it on my computer. Plus Xp is still vulnerable to attack which begs the question why bother fighting constant spyware and virus attacks. Use Linux what ever flavour you want. The one thing that bugs me about Linux is not Linux but the BIG ISP,s refusal to support Linux in any way even though they use Apache server and Linux for there computer systems and servers. It show,s some collusion between the ISP,s government and Microsoft. It seems they don,t want you to have a secure computer environment. I digress i will leave with a tip to get Linux on the NET easily use a router because there is virtually no support for USB modem,s in Linux. Unless you have a lot of experience in Linux

Just a couple clarifications:

On firewalls:
The linux kernel actually includes one (iptables), so it's there and preset. If you want a graphical way to play with it, software such as Firestarter are available.

On Security:
The above comments are well-met. Linux does not negate the need for security; it just makes it a part of the process from the start, rather than attempting to tack it on afterwards.

On skills and labour
The ease with which 'any' person can become a computer professional now is astounding. University courses have their benefits, as do high-end computers and software, but you can learn 99% of that for dirt cheap if you are willing to put in the effort to learn it. The tools are there, the projects are there, the people are there.

Thanks for the article, and the blog.

Interesting and timely post Eric. And the responses have been informative.
As a union communications officer for a small but active union – Maritime Union of New Zealand - these issues are familiar.
Most of the Union would use MS products but coming from a design/journo background I use Mac (yes, they are still capitalists.)
However I use a lot of open source apps such as NeoOffice/OpenOffice and content management like Wordpress and Drupal.
This is one way to encourage open source use, by promoting this software, which is probably less of a jump for people who are uncertain about what it all means (ie the majority).
I think a lot of the challenge is simply education. People go with the Windows default because that is the expected option.
It may just be a case of continuing to spread the word as many people here are doing.

Correction: Ubuntu DOES have a firewall as part and parcel. It's called iptables, and that is what is used to "switch off all the ports"

It can be configured with front-end packages like Guarddog

I would like to know how you imagine a society in which goods and services are distributed for free. How do producers of those things get rewarded for their work and contribution to society?

In response to Matty Greenhalgh

"just one thing:
Remember that Ubuntu is provided by a south african capitalist that try to chalange Microsoft."

Yes this is true but this is why the license is the best thing we have, the GPL from the and the GNU project, this license protects everyone users and developers from anyone in particular doing what you fair..
this is why is called Free as in Freedom not cost..
there is also totally community driven by called "union" developers like
for more information in our struggle to fight for peoples rights on cyberspace and in technology please visit us and subscribe to our mailing list:
we are in need of progressive people from all sides to fight for what is right.


Hi, again sorry, I am reading and reading and I think a lot of questions here are based on misinformation, first I will like to add that Ubuntu is just one distribution of GNU/Linux among many others.. there are community driven distributions that most of the old schoolers use, like debian.
this distributions are more social and not carry by any corporation behind them, I say this because some of you asked that, another thing is that
Ubuntu as many other GNU/Linux distros has everything you may imagen one way or another, yes firewalls, anti viruses etc.. you many not know but most of the servers in the internet uses one or another distribution of GNU/Linux, GOOGLE for example bases all their servers on this, and many other companys, also nations like Cuba, Argentian, Venezuela, provinces of Spain, some German and France institutions use GNU/Linux and Free Software among open applications like "open office"
just want to make sure you understand that just because you never hear about GNU/Linux is not wide spread because *it is* but like any community driven effort is only spread by one person to another, today we have the internet so this has help a lot to spread GNU/Linux but don't expect to see stocks and commercials on TV/Magazines...
one thing is for sure.. GNU/Linux and Free Software is here to stay and every day more people and social activist are using it..
I hope you join us on this digital revolution, I already posted our group website above no need to spam. but please consider the political and social ethics behind this movement.

Thank you
Chris Fernandez

Matty, you can use OpenOffice in place of Microsoft Office. There are other replacements for most Windows programs.

I agree that Linux *would* be great as an alternative to Windows/Apple (same thing as far as I'm concerned), BUT many, many workers do not have access to the internet. For those of us who use the print media to communicate, the woeful lack of any Linux desktop publishing programs capable of interfacing with commercial printers is a huge stumbling block. If you can't sent a file to a printer, you can't talk to anyone but the privileged.

Attention Wayne Simmons:

for reading Microsoft Word documents (at least those created by Office 2000 and earlier) on GNU/Linux one can use or Abiword. includes wordprocessor, spreadsheet, database, drawing and presentation program that can import and export in Microsoft formats.

Both and Abiword are available in Microsoft Windows and GNU/Linux versions, so one can use them on either platform.

'Ubuntu' (or 'Kubuntu' -using the KDE Desktop) are stable products and each of them will be gateways to firewalls and AV Applications that work with Linux should you need them. My main comment is directed to the Apache Network and Web Servers that use Linux to distribute files and applications. These are highly professional pieces of hardware running in an Linux environment and wouldn't do so if there was something iffy about the Operating (OS) System. In fact most Webhosting packages use servers that utilise Linux. So my point is if the Professional Mandarins use Linux - there must be a good and valid reason for doing so. Hugo Shepherd - Labour Party member.

I've been involved in several efforts over the last 10 years or so to get people who identify with various flavours of socialism to use free software, with marginal success. It's an uphill struggle to even persuade people to for God's sake stop distributing information in Microsoft Publisher format.

The dispiriting thing for me was the realisation that there's a greater percentage of people in "the left" willing to smash shop windows and throw stones at policeman than are interested in taking a small, unglamorous stand on matters of principle, or even interested in learning what the ethical issues are.

For people who are curious, Software Freedom Day (, coming up on September 15th, is a good chance to learn and get involved with the free software movement. And as other people here have noted, the GNU Project's website, particularly their philosophy section ( is a great introduction.

To answer Tom Condit,

Sorry, you are wrong. There are loads of small and some very big DTP packages for GNU/Linux, Inkscape and Sodipodi to name a few.

For people who want to find out if there is open source software to address a specific need I suggest they goto and use the search function. Just try typing "word processor" in to the search field and you will see what I mean about there being answers to every closed source exploitative product.

GNU/Linux is about freedom in many sense. Freedom to have the computer set up as you want. Freedom to learn from all that is out there (try for some good docs on GNU/Linux). Freedom to know that your work belongs to you, and you will always have the right to do with it as you want, something Microsoft are currently working on denying you! and of course freedom to share what you know.

As for putting all those people who do Microsoft out of a job, why can they not provide the same services for GNU/Linux? You know companies pay for support, checkout or for examples.

Very nice bout Linux but there are some problems. Had it installed last year on my computer and it gave me hell!!!! My scanner was recognised but didnt do a thing, my printer didnt work, the sound was very clear if you could hear it. Unfortunately the soundcard got reset after every song so the next song was playing but there was no volume. I had to restart the computer every time you played a new song... I do love the idea of Linux but their hardware support is diabolical. I do not blame them for it as I understand its the hardware companies that dont make their drivers available. Can someone explain to me why not? The way I see it they would only profit as more linux users would use their products...

Linux is all good for me wasnt it for the terrible hardware support

I've been using Kubuntu Linux (a form of Ubuntu) for around three years and I am very happy with it. I do take some precautions as far as firewalls and anti-virus. If Linux ever gains a mass user base, viruses will become more of a problem though the design of Linux still makes it more difficult for viruses to execute.

I also agree that hardware support is not always there. Now, I only buy hardware after checking the compatibility lists.

All unions should consider using open-source software not only as a way to stop supporting a huge monopoly but also to save money. I am able to do all of my union work on Linux including newsletters. I always have up-to-date software unlike most Microsoft users who are usually one or two operating systems out-of-date due to the expense of changing.

Linux is great for some stuff and not so great for other!
So why move... because Windows is no better!
If anyone has done a clean install using a Windows XP OEM disk (not a recovery disk) on a PC within the last couple of years they'll know that a lot of hardware doesn't have native support in Windows!
You have to find the manufacturers Website and find a driver and in the case of the switch to Vista there are probably a few people who have qualms over the fact they cannot get 64bit drivers at all for their hardware!
Linux gives users the same productivity in office environments and is failed only by not have a good enough Photoshop or Publisher replacement... but these 2 tools aren't used in every office!
The advantage is not that Linux is cheap either, but that switching to Linux means switching from Microsoft Office which is a huge saving and for businesses switching to Linux means no more Active Directory or Microsoft Exchange Nightmares!
You'll still get nightmares but because everything is open source you can easily script a change; or backup that exchange server; or replicate a server and there's no licence issues to worry about... the only clauses in the licence are with regard to DISTRIBUTION!
Linux is not mature enough for the Home User as it doesn't allow the kids to play GTA3, the parents to watch DVD movies and as far as security goes the rules are the same - don't run programs from untrusted sources and don't browse dodgey stuff if you want to do secure Internet Banking.
For business unless you are serving 10000 clients and need complex directory services there's no need not to change... if you had a problem with Windows and rang Microsoft they'd only tell you to wait for the next patch so what are you paying for?
As far as the earlier comment on Linux not being an economical model anyone know off hand the position on the stock market of IBM, Novell, Red Hat, Oracle, Sun and Nokia because they all either totally or partly rely on Linux day-to-day and contribute a huge amount towards the free software you can receive!