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. (Amazon.com 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.