Switched On

Unions have seen the light about new technology — although not necessarily in the ways outsiders might expect. Report from a major conference on unions and the internet.

A few days before the big ‘Unions and the Internet’ conference organised by the TUC in May, I received a phone call from a journalist. I’ve been asked by my editor to do a piece on this conference, he told me. There was a pause. I asked what he wanted to know. Um, he said. Another pause. So, how are unions helping the people laid off in the dotcom collapse?
Now it was my turn to pause. And it took me a moment to understand. From the point of view of this journalist, who knew nothing whatsoever about trade unions, a conference on ‘Unions and the Internet’ could only deal with how unions could help people whose employment was dependent upon the net. Or something like that.
The conversation ended with my pointing out that (a) unions were a lot more concerned about tens of thousands of layoffs in manufacturing than about some people losing their jobs at boo.com, and (b) anyway, that was not what the conference was all about.
So much for the idea that the point of holding such a conference would be clear to everyone.
The agenda of the conference — which had long since been posted on the TUC’s website — would have greatly assisted this journalist to understand what was actually being discussed. And the broad theme of the conference had nothing to do with layoffs in the doctcom sector. Instead, it focussed on how unions use, and will use, the new communications technology.
In fact, the dotcom collapse went largely ignored over the two day event. Some speakers still used terminology like “e-unions” long after it has ceased to be fashionable to put an e- before anything to make it sound modern. But there was one indication of the slowdown in the ‘new economy’: the nearly complete absence of commercial services hungry for new customers in the trade union movement. Other than the long-established workers’ cooperative Poptel, internet service providers, software companies and the like were nowhere to be seen.
I couldn’t help thinking about a couple of earlier attempts to hold conferences on the same theme, both of them in Manchester, back in 1992 and 1993. It seems like centuries ago when dozens of activists, academics and trade union officials met to discuss how new-fangled tools like modems and electronic mail could somehow serve the interests of the labour movement. Probably the one continuous thread linking those earlier, pre-web, conferences and this one was the presence of Poptel, which goes back to the 1980s.
The conference was actually two conferences, with an invitation only event on the first day and a public event on the second. One indication of how times have changed is the fact that when I tried to get an invitation for a leading official of what is now the second largest union in Britain to the first day of the conference, I was initially told that it was full up. On the second day, the TUC’s conference hall was nearly full. Interest in the subject runs high, despite the bursting of the dotcom bubble.
This conference, like most others, was a mix of plenary sessions and workshops, with the inevitable PowerPoint presentations and failed attempts to get Internet connections. But it was different from other conferences I’ve attended in a number of ways. The participants were an interesting mix of top trade union officials (including general secretaries and deputy general secretaries from major British unions), academics (it was organized by Richard Freeman of LSE and Elaine Bernard from Harvard), activists and geeks. There were also a number of foreign guests from the USA, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, France, Belgium and elsewhere. Even though this was not touted as an international event, the very nature of the subject ensured that there would be interest from abroad — and that participants would be eager to learn about foreign experiences.
For some, hearing about the bold attempts of workers at IBM — one of the largest corporations in the world and still non-unionized — was inspiring. On a shoestring budget, using mainly volunteers, Alliance@IBM has pioneered use of the web, including online recruitment. As Richard Freeman pointed out during the final session of the conference, the extremely low cost of the new technology has allowed unions to sustain organising campaigns at companies even where it may be years until there is any kind of success.
I was struck by the contributions of colleagues from the Norwegian and Swedish trade union movement, who told us of online trade union courses attended by tens of thousands of workers, or of live broadcasts of national trade union congresses which were accessed by audiences of thousands through the web. Compared to these, a detailed study by a group of academics of a single online pilot course in Britain in which a handful of participants ‘experimented’ with the web sounded so, well, twentieth-century.
Perhaps the conference’s most controversial moment came during the first day when several speakers revealed statistics – ‘hit counts’ – for their websites. The revelation was that most trade union websites, particularly at international level, reach only a miniscule part of the membership of the unions. Though trade union members are online in their millions, they are not spending much – or even any – time on their own union’s sites.
Not long ago I spoke at a labour movement conference in London where questions from the floor included the inevitable ‘if only 50% of the people in the world have ever made a phone call, why should we care about the Internet?’ A question like that would never have come up at this conference.
It was clear that for the British trade union movement, there is no longer of question of whether, but only how, we will use the new technology.

1 Comment on "Switched On"

  1. Alun Williams | 15/11/2003 at 22:04 |

    I am starting a project as part of an M.A. course at University of Glamorgan. I am an organiser with USDAW based at Cardiff and hope to look at the effect of the internet on my own work. Is there any way I can get a complete set of the papers for this conference? I have obtained some from the TUC Conference website, but none of the overseas papers you refer to are there. Any help you can give would be much appreciated.
    Best wishes
    Alun Williams

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