The network is the vanguard.
Dan Gallin, Chair of the Global Labour Institute


The union movement and FaceBook are about the same size, as of October 2012. That’s about one billion members, or one seventh of the world’s population[1]. It’s a milestone that has attracted very little attention because, frankly, the comparison ends there.

But why?

In this discussion the author argues for a new type of social networking as a necessary complement to our organized structures. This new networking needs to protect the user while promoting openness. Adding such a layer to our existing model of unionism would create a horizontal axis, and bring tremendous new strength to existing vertical structures.


Unlike FaceBook, the union movement has grown organically, usually in the face of resistance. The “new unionism” of the late 19th century ushered in an age of industrial unions, and by the beginning of the 20th century workers were uniting and federating along regional, sectoral and national lines. The first experiments with international structures began to appear in the very earliest years of the twentieth century. Back then, comparisons with FaceBook might have made sense.

Any sense of growth and convergence ended with the First World War. Intra-national fractures followed with the great communist/socialist split of 1920. Then there was the Great Depression, Stalinism, the Second World War, Maoism, the Cold War, the rise of neo-liberalism, the implosion of soviet socialism, globalization and the 2008 finanical crisis. This roller coaster ride has been further complicated by profound and ongoing changes in industrial relations and employment law regimes. All the entrepreneurial savvy in the world wouldn’t have saved Mark Zuckerberg in similar circumstances; FaceBook has bloomed in a climate of neo-liberal toleratation. (Compare this with the ongoing furore over Wikileaks!) To its credit, the union movement has continued to develop all through and all around these obstacles. However, it must be said that we have developed some mighty peculiar shapes along the way.

When is a union not a union?

For all practical purposes, unions in North Korea are qualitatively different things from unions in Germany. The same could be said about unions in South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Or Australia, Afghanistan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Iran and the U.S.A. Some would develop an argument from this that many workers’ organizations around the world are not “real” unions. In doing so, they promote one or other ideal model, to which they say unions in various countries do not correspond. Most notably, the ILO defines unions as: “independent organizations, consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members”. This is a labourist business unionism. The definition raises more questions than it answers. Does the ILO really mean to imply that workers’ organizations in countries where bargaining is illegal are not real unions? And in countries where employers refuse to meet unions, are the latter somehow fictive? What about unions whose primary concern is to extend workers’ influence, rather than adopting the service-based role the ILO prescribes? Or unions who represent groups other than traditional employees? (eg the self-employed, workers in co-operatives, peasant farmers, care givers, slaves, volunteers, the unemployed etc)? After all, this is by far the majority of working people. And are some unions in China to be accorded a mysterious ‘quasi-being’ status, as they gradually approach some vague boundary in the ILO definition? And what about the new “membership-based organizations”, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India, Via Campesina, or the Freelancers Union in the U.S.A. Are we really agreed that these are not unions? Furthermore, it should be noted that independence is no guarantee of democratic governance. Since when did we agree to leave that part out? More to the point, given the nature of words like independent and democratic, can we ever use any definition to effectively determine whether an organization is a union or not? The shadow of the Cold War hangs over the ILO’s definition. If we are talking about global unionism, we need to recognise that this question of definition is problematic, and temporarily set it aside. Rather, let’s consider what we want unionism to be, and see if there is more consensus there. This means referring back to the aspirations of working people.

Most would agree that unions are characterised (rather than defined) by the nature of their membership and the participation of their members. Finding ways to optimise this, in accordance with the members’ wishes, is what matters, rather than checking the model for correspondence against some ideal definition. In some contexts working people may seek structural solutions (eg social partnership), in others they will use less formal strategies (eg labour NGOs). But always, no matter what else goes on, they will build networks.

When the traditional definition is set aside, we find a huge gap in the current model. Working people are not organized internationally. They have set up structures that have met this challenge on their behalf, creating all manner of peak bodies and federations. However, working people themselves have scarcely begun the process.

A case in point

A person working for Best Price in India is part of a network of 2.2 million people that includes employees of Asda in the UK, Sam’s Club in the USA, and Seiyu in Japan. They all work for Walmart — the largest private sector employer in the world. But what mechanisms are available for these working people to develop global influence within the company?

If  they are union members, there is a good chance their union is affiliated to a global union federation called UNI. This month (October 2012) UNI affiliates from nine countries met to form the Walmart Global Union Alliance[2]. This is doubtlessly a great initiative. However, UNI only has about 70(?) staff members, and they must represent 20 million unionists in 150 countries. How much energy can they invest to build this alliance, especially given that Walmart’s staff in the USA are not unionised? UNI’s membership is made up of unions (ie 900 affiliates), rather than working people. Because of this, the organization’s primary mandate is to help build unionisation at national level. This explains the angle taken in the presentation that accompanied the launch of the Alliance (see http://goo.gl/pn78l). UNI takes the opportunity to strongly recommend that working people join their local unions. In its own right, UNI has neither the mandate nor the resources to build global organizations from the base upwards.

If direction and resources are not going to come from the top, then how can our friends in Best Price begin to network with colleagues at Seiyu, Asda and Sam’s Club? Let’s look at the recent experience of Walmart employees in the U.S.A. About 5,000 of them came together (starting in 2010) to form a social network. “OUR WalMart”[3] is hosted by NationBuilder, which bills itself as “the world’s first Community Organizing System”[4]. They have used the tools to produce a “Declaration of Respect”[5] and are building and negotiating around this. At the time of writing they have launched the U.S.A.’s first-ever Walmart strike, involving 28 outlets in twelve USA cities[6]. A larger strike is planned for “Black Friday” (November 23, 2012). Remember, these people are not in a union. [7]. Now take a look at these other Walmart employee sites: http://goo.gl/Mdwzq, http://goo.gl/ya8Tu, http://goo.gl/F2I6k, http://goo.gl/P0Fq2 (ASDA), http://goo.gl/F36tb, http://goo.gl/bdYwX, http://goo.gl/q3o1E. You probably didn’t look at those sites. Believe me, if you had you would be thinking: “Something big is happening”.

Full credit to these courageous employees and the unions who are standing by them, even though they are not members. Now, if they can somehow link their networks horizontally, and start a conversation with colleagues at Sam’s Club, Seiyu, ASDA and Best Price etc, they will have a tremendous base for influence. Of course, this is in addition to the vertical initiative being developed by UNI. In fact, such a social network would be the best ally that the Global Walmart Alliance could have. Local unions would also be rewarded with new and active members, when their right to unionisation is finally recognised.

At this point it is tempting to suggest a new global unionism based on social networks that are built around workplace or employer. However, before doing that, let’s consider some other natural spheres of solidarity. A freelance IT worker in Bulgaria shares a natural network with his/her equivalents in Canada, Algeria and the Philippines. Having a social network based around occupation provides a useful avenue for professional support, friendship, ideas, job advice and career development. In a similar way, being able to network around region, sector and industry could offer advantages too, both for the individual and the collective. As the current union movement was coming together, innumerable unions and federations developed around each of these communities. We also saw the growth of general unions, and attempts to build organization around supply chains. Then there are those natural networks that form around gender and ethnicity. And of course, other networks are continually developing around social, political and sexual preferences. And what about networks by language? Furthermore, the ‘precariat’ (temps, contractors, agency workers etc) could benefit immensely from some purposive social networking — they could learn to co-operate in a market that deliberately plays them off against each another.

So which is it to be? Should workers organize globally around linked workplaces, employers, occupations, gender, regions, sectors, industries, language, identity politics, supply chains or any of a dozen other options? Remember, this question has not been answered at the national level, yet alone globally.

Luckily, we can learn here from existing social networks. The solution is in place, and it has already been thoroughly tested. You can be a member of as many groups, smartlists or circles as you like. There is absolutely no reason to select one over another. Rather, it is a matter of reconfiguring the data dynamically around the member. Essentially, this means that we can build solidarity and influence along multiple lines at once.

Why are we waiting?

The fact that this has not happened yet is not evidence that working people do not want to organize globally. After all, LinkedIn, a social network generally used by professional workers, has more than 175 million active users. Xing and Viadeo serve a similar niche. More than 22 million artists use deviantArt as a platform for exhibition and discussion. Yammer offers social networking services to more than 200,000 companies. Avaaz is a democratic activist network with more than 16 million members. And FaceBook has many groups dealing with workplace issues, including one for workplace bullying with more than a million members. But if you were having specific problems at work, would you turn to any of these to discuss the way forward?

At heart, FaceBook is an advertising agency. Its raison d’etre is to extract data from private profiles and convert this into commercial demographics. The more information they collect, the more they earn from their database. This is not where you would go to discuss sensitive matters. We have seen this in countless cases where people have been disciplined, prosecuted, sacked, spied on, harrassed, sued, or denied employment following FaceBook activity. Raytheon, the world’s fifth largest defence contractor, has shared technology with US government that allows it to analyse vast amounts of information from Facebook and Twitter (source). Google Plus isn’t much better, despite the branding. It makes no bones about the information it collects (some of which is given optionally). Over and above your name, photo and contact details, it collects occupation, employment and relationship details, email addresses, phone numbers, current location (such as GPS signals sent by a mobile device), telephony log information (such as your calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls), your IP address and your hardware settings. [8]). According to Google’s own transparency report, national governments and law enforcement agencies made 42,327 requests for personal data in 2012. Google granted 88% of these requests (source). Oddly, even LabourStart’s UnionBook does not address the issue of privacy. At the time of writing, key profile information is accessible to the public by default and comments are indexed, which means that anything you say may be accessed by your employer. Nor is there any way of knowing the real identity of those who have joined a group you set up. Needless to say, UnionBook has not taken off as a workplace organizing tool[9].

I believe the missing link, the ingredient that would bring together the horizontal innovation of social networking and the vertical discipline of the union movement, is safety. If you are going to start building organization with your co-workers, the first thing you need is a safe space to meet. At the moment there isn’t one. There are social networks and secure forums, but the two functions have not been combined.

Depending upon your vantage point, it is easy to forget the risks that working people face as they try to build a collective voice. In the USA, for instance, 25% of private sector employers fire at least one worker for his/her activity during a union organizing drive. 75% of them hire consultants or union-busters. 92% force their employees to attend mandatory closed-door meetings against the union[10]. But such intimidation becomes the least of our worries, when we try to network across borders. In Colombia, Guatemala and the Philippines in 2011, about 50 people were assassinated for union activity. Unionisation is illegal in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Eritrea, Qatar and Sudan. Unions are banned in most export processing zones. Fiercely anti-union regimes operate in Djibouti, Swaziland, Iran, Equatorial Guinea, Syria, Bahrain, Ethiopia and Fiji. And in 2011 mass dismissals, arrests and/or detention, followed union activity in Georgia, Kenya, South Africa and Botswana and Namibia. Furthermore, depending on your political perspective, you might argue that working people are actively denied collective voice in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And of course this climate of fear is sharpened by the global rise of precarious work (ie work that is non-permanent, indirect, informal and/or otherwise insecure). Short-term contracts are clearly used to prevent union organizing in Cambodia, South Korea, Indonesia and Japan. The same effect is being felt to a lesser but growing extent across most of the world[11].

We do not have a safe means for social networking. Once there is such a thing, and once critical mass and unity have been achieved, the work of building solidarity (towards unionisation) becomes much easier. If Black Friday goes as planned at Walmart, the employer will have to offer real concessions. The network remains in place for next steps to be taken. And along the way, an initial base for the building of global unionism has been established.

First steps

The New Unionism Network is setting up a facility called SafeSpace (http://safespace.newunionism.net) [12]. In a sense, this meeting is a practical test of the system. With a little further development it could be added to any website or blog by pasting in a few lines of code. Full security would be maintained wherever the system was used.

Whether it is SafeSpace or some other model, the crucial idea is that working people need to have access to a tool that they can use to freely and honestly engage with each other, without the attendant risks of FaceBook or comment/chat systems. As we have seen above, this becomes critical when we begin to network across borders. With such a facility in place, any worker at Walmart could set up a website or blog and create a social network of their own. In the meantime, their colleagues could be doing the same at Best Price, ASDA, Seiyu and Sam’s Club. Joining these groups together is simply a matter of discussion and assent.

Social network unionism[13] can be developed across any sphere of mutual interest. This creates a powerful new ally for the global labour movement. Together, the two axes in the figure below provide a platform for global unionism.

Conclusion

The conflict between labour and capital takes many forms around the world — from courteous rivalry to murderous repression to strait-jacketted collaboration. Each of these creates an analogue within the union movement. Tensions between unions are a necessary consequence. Meanwhile, out in the global workplace, cross-border relationships between working people are generally characterised by cameraderie and goodwill. Solidarity is the starting point, rather than a strategic goal. For this reason, social networking, if it is developed in such a way as to minimise risk to participants, could provide a vital ally for labour’s vertical organizational structure.

If all this sounds too technocratic or theoretical for you, watch what happens at Walmart. When the joint power of organizations and social networks comes together, working people can act as consumers as well as producers. It is not a new FaceBook we are talking about, but a new solidarity.

Notes

About the author
The name of the author of this paper has been withheld. It is envisaged that the same process will be applied to subsequent papers in this series — all of which have come from members of the New Unionism Network — until the Network has discussed the visions collectively. After this, we will start presenting visions for wider discussion among the union movement. The authors may (or may not) elect to identify themselves and promote their views individually.

About safespace
The New Unionism Network’s discussion on global unionism is being hosted on SafeSpace, which has been developed by volunteers (IT and communications workers) from within the network. See [12] below. An FAQ on the project is currently in preparation. Please contact safespace@newunionism.net for further information.

References

[1] FaceBook: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-19816709. Union membership figures are much more elusive. The figure usually quoted is one in five, based on an ILO report from 1997. (ILO, 1997. World Labour Report 1997-1998. Geneva, ILO). No comparable study has ever updated this data.  Our own research suggests that (roughly speaking) union membership has increased in developing countries and decreased in developed ones since 2000, with an overall net increase in total. No comprehensive data on density trends exists. The status accorded to unions in China is a crucial variable in any calculations. In light of this, one in seven can only be regarded as a rough and conservative estimate.

[2] http://www.uniglobalunion.org/Blogs/walmart.nsf/dx/03.10.2012040756REL4GS.htm?opendocument&comments. This builds on earlier work that produced the Walmart Workers’ Alliance.

[3] See http://forrespect.org/ and discussion here: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/retail/story/2012-06-05/walmart-workers-air-complaints/55450634/1

[4] http://nationbuilder.com/faq

[5] http://forrespect.nationbuilder.com/sign_the_declaration

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/09/walmart-strike-dallas-arkansas-los-angeles-workers_n_1951867.html?1349806956&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

[7] Involvement and support from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and others should be noted here. This is difficult to quantify, but solidarity has obviously played a key role in developing these networks.

[8] http://www.google.com/intl/en-GB/policies/privacy/

[9] That said, UnionBook is an invaluable tool for activists who want to share ideas, seek information and establish new contacts around the world. Every unionist should join!

[10] http://www.newunionism.net/library/organizing/AFL-CIO%20-%20Statistics%20on%20Employer%20Interference%20in%20Unionisation%20-%202007.pdf

[11] This information is collected from the ITUC’s latest Annual Survey of the Violations of Trade Union Rights (2012). See http://www.ituc-csi.org/annual-survey-of-violations-of,11418.html

[12] Some brief specifics: When you sign up, safespace does not ask for your name or address. Instead, it assigns an initial alias. This can then be changed whenever the user wishes. The system uses your email address just once to verify your identity, then encrypts it (one-way hash salted MD5, for the afficianados). After this it cannot be accessed again. Most importantly, the system does not record user details against comments, nor does it keep IP numbers or any other information that could be used for identification purposes. All that anyone can know is that the people who are in a discussion have been invited to be there by the host.

[13] The term “social network unionism” was coined by Immanuel Ness (himself a member of the New Unionism Network) in his 2005 book “Immigrants, Unions and the new U.S. Labor Market”. Rather than referring to social networking in its technical sense, Ness was referring to an organizing approach based on the use of existing social networks to organize immigrant/ transnational workers. Örsan Şenalp (another member) has used the term since 2010 to describe a shift towards “a peer to peer, transnational, common, and hyper-empowered labour class movement”. The term is used here with the blessing of both members, although it means something quite distinct: i.e. working people using social network technology to build solidarity from the ground up, within and across borders.

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