‘Knowledge work’ is increasingly significant in global value chains – where creating, processing and transporting information plays a crucial role – but the analysis of this area of employment enjoys less attention. What is the scope for unionisation? How might this work across borders? The latest edition of the journal “Work, Organisation, Labour and Globalisation” (Getting the Message: Communications workers and global value chains, Ed Catherine McKercher and Vincent Mosco, Volume 4 no 2, 2010) looks at the growth of communication work and its political potential within the global economy. Richy Leitch reviews it for us below. You can buy the book or download the full text of individual articles here: http://goo.gl/IsN78.

The editorial introduction of ‘Getting the Message’ maps out a range of approaches we can use to define and establish the boundaries of ‘knowledge work’, contrasting narrow views of it as the manipulation of symbols to create original products, with broader alternatives that bring into view the movement and transmission of information and the rapidly expanding sectors of ICT assembly and call centre operations.

The whole spectrum is one the editors cast in terms of a core division between ‘message makers’ and ‘message movers and takers’. What it does show is the sheer breadth and variety of knowledge work: from product creators and technical enablers through distributors and assemblers to advisors.

Such a spectrum also involves social divisions and hierarchies: compare the ‘creative class’ of film makers or ICT programmers to the low grade labour of ICT assembly and call centre advisors. Could there be any unity amongst all this? That is the question at the heart of this collection, which examines the prospects for collective organisation of different groups of knowledge workers around the globe.

Underpinning its geographical and sectoral variety are a set of recurring issues that confront these workers in their struggles for a collective voice and power: the range of state and corporate obstacles to collective action; the challenges of a global recession; their particular orientations to work and collective action; and types of trade unionism adopted.

The combinations of these internal and external factors may vary – but the editors believe there are common lessons to be learnt from each others’ struggles against the powerful social forces currently reshaping their (and our) lives.

Perhaps the best place to start is in the twin powerhouses of the information economy, India and China. Stevens and Mosco’s survey of the Indian ICT sector compares the attractiveness of different modes of knowledge worker mobilisation, professional association or trade unionism. They find a number of obstacles to unionisation here, favouring the option of ‘associationism’: employer encouragement of ‘professional’ identities; individualisation of pay and contracts; the banning of strike action by regional governments; union hostility to technological change; and cultural indifference to collective organisation amongst IT professionals. The earliest efforts in this sector did evolve along the lines of employee associations, but both the IT Professionals Forum and the Young Professionals Collective found their ability to achieve concrete gains limited.

In response to this, the more recent Union for IT Enabled Services Professionals (UNITES) has set out to achieve genuine collective bargaining rights and tackle the wide range of inequalities and injustices found across the whole sector, which has minimal government regulation. Organising and growth have proved challenging for UNITES. Multinational companies have refused recognition, and there are wide divisions amongst the IT sector workforce (from software designers to call centre operatives). The union has responded by following a ‘one big IT union’ strategy, covering all workers, and using a living wage approach to address the diversity of pay and conditions. In terms of member mobilisation, UNITES has turned to issue-based activism and building international solidarity across Asian borders, acting as a leading light in the new Indian labour movement.

China is now the world’s manufacturing IT centre, producing over a half of all PCs and mobile phones. Armies of rural labour have migrated to the ICT regions to assemble and coordinate these huge operations; a mass bolstered by a set of new online labour activities (messaging services, online gaming) undertaken by a ‘non-elite knowledge’ workforce (NEKW). Conditions in this new ‘workshop of the world’ are difficult, culminating in a wave of labour protests in 2010 and the mass suicides at Foxconn. Global recession is adding further pressures, with mass redundancies, labour subcontracting and flexible production regimes.

Responding to all this has not been easy for labour activists. Foremost of all the obstacles they face is the rigid state control exercised through the official ACFTU trade union structures. Though forced to move some way towards more genuine and locally based worker representation in the face of the labour protests, the ACFTU remains opposed to independent labour organising and the situation of the non-elite knowledge workers. And yet independent activity is a growing phenomenon. Linchuan Qui’s article argues that the NEKWs are relying on informal, web-based channels of communication to organise their opposition (especially the local QQ social networking service) – and have drawn on cross-border support from NGOs based in Hong Kong too. Yu Hung’s more general survey similarly highlights international linkages as a key development, one underpinned by China’s place at the centre of Asian production networks. In one case, a Taiwanese firm (Wintek) with a Chinese subsidiary (Masstop) both came under pressure when trying to retrench in the face of global recession through redundancies and pay cuts. Cross-border labour networks were able to target the client base of the parent company to win some concessions – but the scope of this activity on mainland China is limited without the presence of a strong domestic labour force able to exert pressure on Chinese manufacturers.

At the other end of the ‘knowledge spectrum’ stand the creative cultural producers and traditional information-based occupations, conventionally seen as less close to trade unionism. What ‘Getting the Message’ shows, however, is that changing economic conditons facing these groups are leading them closer to collective mobilisation. Take the case of the Taiwanese documentary makers, examined by Chiang-de-Lui, who have launched their own union (the DMWU) to try and defend their interests in a harsh economic climate – a local film industry overrun by Hollywood imports and dependent upon meagre public subsidies, suffering poor pay and working conditions.

The Taiwanese labour movement is weak overall, and cultural workers face a range of particular obstacles to unionisation – internal divisions between an elite of well-paid ‘stars’ and the mass; the self-conception of workers as ‘independent artists’ rather than workers; a ‘professionalism’ that inhibits any deep engagement with union work. Despite this the DMWU has made some headway, pursuing traditional goals of improving the pay and conditions of its members as well addressing their concerns for professional development and the expansion of the entire industry itself. This strategy has been dictated in part by the ‘dual consciousness’ of its members, who see themselves simultaneously as professionals and workers. There are strong tendencies in Taiwanese unions to function more as associations, securing access to health insurance etc, rather than fighting for workers rights.

The DMWU has tried to avoid this by deepening links with the wider labour movement – initiating film-making training for other union activists – and forging connections with other progressive social movements (e.g. immigrant rights, environmental groups). Chiang-de-Lui suggests there is here the beginnings of a ‘social movement unionism’ that could become an alternative future for Taiwanese cultural workers’ organisations.

The librarians of the Florida university system are similarly pitched midway between unions and professional associations, according to the research of Tracy and Hayashi. Members of both organisations, these librarians have found that the relevant associations do little to address their specific concerns (being strongly management influenced), whilst the faculty union historically has focused too much on its tenured teaching staff at their expense too.

The authors believe, however, that the faculty union (the UFF) could mobilise the librarians if it was to carve out a specific agenda for their concerns. Recent changes in the union and its membership base – the reinvigoration of its local chapters in a statewide fight against privatisation, and an expansion of the non-tenured workforce in universities – are pushing the UFF in a more expansive and participatory direction, that would support such an initiative, helping to address the perceived ‘second class status’ of the librarians.

Finally, there are those knowledge workers who ‘move messages’ and the products they inhabit – the distributors. Postal and telecommunications work would not be seen as typically information-based, but the structural changes this sector has witnessed in recent decades have brought it closer to the media and cultural industries –  as part of massive media conglomerates post-privatisation, heavily reliant on IT, and finding its specific products challenged by new forms of communciation. Nappo and Schiller takes us back to the beginning of this set of changes, examining the responses of US postal and telecoms unions to pending economic restructuring in the 1970s.

In the postal sector, unions were divided over proposals to form a single communication workers union, some opting to preserve their own craft identity and autonomy. The telecommunications union, CWA, was enthusiastic, believing a merger would enhance its bargaining power with the likes of Bell Communications and AT&T. Failure to reach any agreement cost the unions dearly according to the authors, individually unable to effectively respond to, or shape, sectoral restructuring which proceeded wholly along market-led lines. Today the CWA is a strong advocate of such a ‘labour convergence’ to boost its power, organising a variety of telecoms and media workplaces, as the self styled ‘Union for the Information Age’  – a strategy also followed by Canada’s CEP union we covered in a previous journal issue review.

Corporate convergence has been equally significant in another distribution sector, that of transportation. Roger Sealey argues that the emergence of new logistics conglomerates (expanding beyond their original rail or road freight specialisms) is closely linked to changes in global production regimes, whose far-flung supply chains they now integrate and coordinate through their distributional hubs. This integrative work relies on the application of ICT and also uses these technologies to rigidly control its workforces – e.g. offering remote monitoring of drivers. Alongside spatial integration, globalised production is pursuing a ‘compressed temporality’, an incessant drive to ‘speed up’ the production and distribution of goods, in response to changing market demands and point of sale electronic data capture. This trend forces logistics workers to labour more quickly as and when required, aligning their lives to ‘the unpredictable tempo of global markets’ (p29).

At the head of these global supply chains, creating the incessant pressure upon suppliers, distributors and workers, stand the mega retailers, dictating production volumes, locations and timescales – a feature we examined at length in our review of Edna Bonacich’s ‘Getting the Goods’.

Although all this seems to bear down on logistics workers unremittingly, Sealey suggests there are key weaknesses in the whole regime that this workforce can take advantage of. Their complex networks, allied to a drive to hold minimal inventory at each point in the chain, are extremely vulnerable to external shocks, especially as regards their transportation processes. Furthermore these workers are actually the key power in the whole chain, controlling its hubs which, if disrupted, can rapidly transmit shocks across the whole network. This power is so far untapped – but the position does give them a unique leverage over global supply chains even without controlling the entire chain itself. From here they can potentially move forwards to demand improvements in their situation.

So what are the lessons we can derive from this global panorama? The editors don’t offer specifics, but it seems to there are at least four key themes that stand out:

  • the need for unions organising communication workers to combat tendencies towards ‘professionalism’ amongst groups of workers by fighting for workers rights, signalling the clear distinction of a trade union from an employee association;
  • the advantages of an expansive union strategy, to combat the diversity of cultural labour found across the sector, and effectively respond to corporate convergence;
  • the benefits of cross-border labour networks, often rooted in globalised production regimes, as solutions to state and/or corporate obstacles to  union activity;
  • global value chains embody their own vulnerabilities which key groups of communication workers can exploit.

Whether all that would be sufficient to enable ‘knowledge workers of the world to unite’ is another question.

Reviewed by Richy Leitch, September 2001.