Unions and the web – What’s changed in the last seven years?

The short answer is – everything and nothing.
Let’s start with the “everything” part. Back in the twentieth century, unions were reluctant to embrace the net. The majority of union members were not yet online, and the top leadership of many unions was not convinced that the Internet was something unions needed to get involved with.
Fast forward to 2006 and basically every union worth its salt has got a website. Email has become a part of the daily life of nearly every trade union official, at least in the developed countries.
For those of us who’ve been at this for a while, including the editor of this online journal and myself, it is certainly something of a personal triumph every time we hear a union leader speak about how important this new technology is. Some of us had been saying that for many years before anyone listened.
So as we look back at how far unions have come, how ubiquitous the new technology has become, one is tempted to ponder early retirement and rest on one’s proverbial laurels. And yet …

Now we come to the “nothing” part.
If one is in a despondent mood, you can almost build the case that nothing has really changed much in the last few years, in spite of all those new websites and inboxes filling up with spam (and the occasional message).
For many unions, the web became simply another means of communication, an electronic version of existing tools such as newsletters and press releases. For those unions, the website is simply a repository of documents that existed in one form or another long before there ever was a web.
Even when unions have boldly set out to use really, really new technologies – such as online video – they are often not really very different from videos unions might have produced in the past.
For most unions, the web is seen as a means of one-to-many communication, a way for the union to talk to its members (and perhaps a wider audience). And that’s it.
But of course, the web is much more than that – something that pundits today are calling “Web 2.0” but many of us understood many years ago to be central to how it works.
Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who came up with the idea of the web some 15 years ago, often pointed out that in his original version of a web browser, if you could read a document, you could also edit it.
This idea has been realized in part by the many websites which thrive on the input of users – websites which would not exist but for the active participation of their readers. Think, for example, of the extraordinary Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that works exactly according to Berners-Lee’s vision. By mobilizing the collective intelligence and experience of millions of people, the Wikipedia has become the Library of Alexandria of our time.
Other enormously popular websites today – MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and many more – are entirely comprised of documents, photos, and videos posted by visitors. They are practically empty buildings when they start, but they are rapidly filled up with content, much of which is useless but some of which is amazing.
The real power of the trade union movement, as we know (or used to know) lies in its membership. The collective intelligence and experience of our millions of members is what makes unions possible – but this is hardly recognized at all in our union websites.
Of course there are exceptions. In Britain, the Trades Union Congress maintains a website for thousands of union reps which is almost entirely an online – and very active – discussion forum. It works so well that a number of academics have made it their job to study why it works. But it is not being widely emulated.
LabourStart has tried to move in the direction of greater involvement and openness, and what was a one-man show back in 1999 is today a website maintained by nearly 500 volunteers. Tens of thousands participate in its online campaigns, which did not even exist back in 1999.
Where unions have opened up their websites, and tried to maximize member involvement, they have not nearly been ambitious enough. It is not enough, in my view, to use the web to strengthen the local union in a particular factory, or town. Nor is it enough to use the web to attempt to strengthen our national unions.
The real power of the web, something recognized by many of the early users in the labour movement, is the fact that the net has no borders.
When security guards in Indonesia, illegally sacked by the multinational corporation that employed them, seize control of the company headquarters in Jakarta, that is no longer a matter for their own union, or Indonesian workers alone. It is a concern for all of us, which is why such an event can now trigger an instant, large-scale global campaign.
The arrest of the leader of the Tehran bus workers, a union which managed to completely shut down the Iranian capital in a series of strikes early in 2006, now prompts reactions within hours across the globe.
And when Australian workers pour out into the streets to protest against one of the most anti-union governments in the world, their story is told and their message is heard everywhere – in real time.
Of course the Internet is a great tool for the local trade union to announce its annual picnic, and for a national union to try to sign up new members online. Those are things we used to use print newsletters for, or leaflets at factory gates. There is nothing new in creating an online newsletter.
But what we are doing when we use the net to build international solidarity is something that we have never been able to do before, or at least not on this scale, and not at this speed.
This is the real power of the net, and this is what is really new and different about it. The net offers us the promise of the creation of a new kind of trade union, a union which knows no borders, a union in which an injury to one is an injury to all – anywhere in the world.
Only such a trade union movement will survive globalization. If we do not move in that direction, unions will become extinct.
Since 1999 we have taken tiny baby-steps in the direction of the creation of such a new labour movement using the net, but we have not moved far enough and we have not moved fast enough.
We could have done much more – and we can still do much more.
Workers Online was a triumph, a brilliant use of the net that inspired many and should serve as a model to unions everywhere. It will be missed.