Teleworking
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The following article first appeared in a revised form in The International Labour Organisation (ILO) publication The World of Work. Many thanks to Tom Netter, editor of "The World of Work" as well as Guy Ryder and Luc Demaret of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) for their help.

Connecting the workers of the world

The advent of wide-spread use of information and communications technologies represents a double challenge to trade unions. On the one hand, these technologies are an integral part of profound modifications underway in the nature of work and as such transfigure the very things trade unions are centred on: workers and working conditions. A great deal of work is being done by the ILO and elsewhere about these changes in particular in relation to the development of telework. At the same time, the pressure on trade unions to adopt these technologies themselves necessarily questions their own ways of working, whether that be in militant action, contact with workers, or worker awareness and education,... as well as trade unions' own internal administration. These two challenges are interwoven and need to be met simultaneously.

Universal up-take?

The move to extensive use of such technologies is generally perceived as inevitable within the trade union movement even if it is sometimes seen with misgiving. In the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) report on the use of the Internet by media trade unions, an earlier survey carried out be the International Committee of Entertainment and Media Unions (IEMU) is quoted as stating "The question posed to media unions is not to know whether or not the developing digital age is a positive step for humanity but rather to understand how New Information Technologies can be tamed and thus intelligently used for the benefit of all union members." In a rather similar vein John Monks writes on the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) site "Unions must become agents of change in a skills revolution and the drive for a first class, high skill, high productivity economy". In the face of this seeming unanimity, there may well be a need to question the wide-spread perception of inevitability in the up-take of these tools.

Are unions connected?

But are unions getting connected to the Internet? Judging from the 350 web sites listed by Institute for Global Communications's (IGC) LaborNet, even if most of them are in North America, a move is underway. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) lists 85 union web sites. Half of the listed sites are in the US, whereas, apart from South Africa, no African of Latin American sites are mentioned. At the same time, a number of unions and affiliated organisations are encouraging trade unions to get connected. The International Federation of Journalists, for example is taking part in a European Union initiative called Musenet aimed at assessing "the needs of European media trade unions regarding information and training related to the development of the Information Society".

Providing information

Most union web sites provide information about themselves. Some also include information about campaigns underway. The ICFTU, for example, carries statements from the General Secretary endorsing action carried out by local unions and encouraging other unions to support them. A second, albeit very different example would be the web site of the Californian Nurses Association (CNA) which, at the time of writing, figures regular up-dates on troubles with a Californian hospital.

Workers' education

Another facet of providing information is worker education. The International Federation of Workers' Education Associations (IFWEA) publishes a monthly bulletin on the web. They have also published a booklet called "Workers' Education and the World Wide Web". Many union web sites publish advice to members. The ICFTU, for example has a series of pages called Union Builders' Toolbox containing amongst other things practical advice about organising campaigns.

New formats?

It is interesting to note the image used by the ICFTU in talking about the adaptability of material in their on-line Union Builders' Toolbox: "...this Manual is written on paper not engraved in stone...". Effectively, most union web sites create the impression that they are based on a logic still anchored in the print medium. This may not necessarily be a bad thing in itself as it concentrates on the essential. However, some of the advantages of hypertext and Java could probably enrich the union message by going beyond the brochure or the magazine format to embrace more hybrid, interactive forms. One such possibility would involve structuring on-line material in such a way that using the site could be a combined awareness-raising and learning experience, for example with a glossary of key terms and background information about key issues as well as news, opinions and discussion.

Investment

At the same time, as one still stumbles on pages labelled "under construction" and the occasional links that lead nowhere, one can't help wondering if union web sites are not being maintained sporadically by union Internet enthusiasts in addition to the rest of their days' work. Apart from commercial concerns, relatively few organisations seem sufficiently convinced of the importance of the Internet to invest wages in it.

The surprise of teleworking

One surprising discovery for some trade unions according to journalist Natacha David in a special ICFTU report on trade unions and the Internet, is that the very tools - like the Internet - which enable people to telework and thus fragment and undermine traditional trade union constituencies, also serve to get in contact with those distance workers and afford the only viable means to bring them together into a common community.

Interactivity

Judging from what can be found on the web, few unions seem to venture into the more interactive side of the Internet and the creation of on-line discussions. Eric Lee's Labour Webmasters' Forum using a web-based technology to enable discussion between trade union webmasters from around the world seems to be an exception. Another example of forthcoming interactivity is the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) on-line "Soap Box" which is aimed to give workers a chance to discuss working conditions amongst other things.

Changing times

According to Luc Demaret of the ICFTU, however, this situation is changing as the Internet is beginning to be used to mobilise employees around the world. During the campaign of the Teamsters against UPS's move to make work more precarious in the States, for example, daily up-dates on the conflict were relayed world-wide by such organisations as the ICFTU. In the confrontation with Bridgestone, the International Federation of Chemical Energy Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) created web pages providing a list of sites and e-mail addresses of Bridgestone management as well as companies investing in Bridgestone. Flooded with messages, Bridgestone was forced to capitulate and reinstate the 2'300 workers laid off for striking.

Commitment?

The fact that union web sites tend to provide information rather than establishing an on-line dialogue may well have something to do with the level of access of workers to the Internet. It would be interesting to know how many individual union members actually have access to the Internet. It would also be interesting to know to what extent unions are sufficiently convinced that the step to the Information Society is inevitable and worthwhile. Should the numbers of union members connected to the Internet turn out to be quite low, how far would trade unions be prepared to commit themselves in helping their individual members get connected, trained and participating?

Alan McCluskey. Saint-Blaise.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: Nevember 14th, 1997 - Last up-dated: November 14th, 1997