social network unionism


Solidarity and the gig economy

by Peter Hall-Jones
for the New Unionism Network

Gig economyIt’s a credit to the tireless efforts of Professor Guy Standing that the word ‘precariat’ has made its way into most English dictionaries. In case you’re not up to speed (and who is these days?) it means: “the class of people who are poor and do not have secure jobs” (Cambridge Dictionary). Sure, there has been a bit of debate around whether this group really constitutes a separate ‘class’, but nobody disputes that the phenomenon itself is very real.

Almost 40% of young workers in the OECD are in non-standard work, such as contract or temporary work, or involuntary part-time employment (more). At global level more than 60% of workers, predominantly women, are in temporary, part-time or short-term jobs in which wages are falling (ILO 2015).  And of the top 20 global employers in 2017, five are outsourcing and ‘workforce solutions’ companies (more).

In the twenty-first century Dolly Parton’s ‘Nine to Five’ just doesn’t work as an anthem anymore.

Naturally, the English language being what it is, we have a range of apolitical synonyms for the word ‘precariat’. Workers who survive by performing a series of temporary jobs, and/or juggle bits and pieces of contract work, are called ‘casuals’ or ‘freelancers’ or even ‘micro-entrepreneurs’. Their stamping ground is ‘the gig economy’. It’s all very rock’n’roll. Being your own boss, meeting endless new people, wide horizons, flexible hours, maximum variety… what’s not to like? In fact, there is a lot of research to suggest that the majority of such independent workers – in the USA and Europe at least – have ‘chosen’ to work this way (eg McKinsey Global 2016).

At this point you might like to reflect for a moment upon the use of the word ‘choice’ in industrial relations. I was one of a generation who ‘chose’ to go on the dole in New Zealand in the 1980s. In reality, the employment market had collapsed around our ears. There were no jobs for us to go to. The only real choice we had was whether or not to interpret our situation in a cheerful light.

Anyway, choice or no choice, all this is about to change.

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safespace anonymous email and web forumsBestu oskir from Iceland — the Switzerland of data! That’s where you’ll find safeSpace, an anonymized communication tool created by volunteers from the New Unionism Network. It’s an online facility where workers can discuss issues without fear of being identified, and where they can meet securely with union organizers and/or colleagues from other countries. safeSpace also provides email addresses which have been stripped of any identifying information — a handy tool for whistleblowers and those who want to bring attention to crap they are witnessing. Unlike anything we’ve done before this is a user-pays service, but there wasn’t any way we could get the project off the ground otherwise. We’re sticking to our non-profit roots by offering free accounts to union organizers in a series of ultra-repressive regimes; initially Algeria, the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Mali, North Korea, Paraguay and Somalia.

The safeSpace system is still in Beta, and we’ve got a few details to iron out, so we’re offering folks a 50% discount until the end of 2017. Financial members of the New Unionism Network will continue to get a discount after that. If you’d like to know more about the project check out the FAQ here.

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The global union database project – UNIONWIKI – was launched today (25/5/14). In true Wiki tradition, the project has soaked up thousands of hours of collaborative work from volunteers within the New Unionism Network, with practical support from the ITF. Next step, if all goes to plan, is to create national union directories and then a facility for free wikis for individual unions. Along the way we also want to find out where our true strengths and weaknesses lie — with graphs showing the data by country, region, sector, confidence level and national income. If you’d like to know more about the project and future plans, please email unionwiki@newunionism.net.

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This is the final in our series on how global unions might be built. In it, the author argues for a rejuvenated form of solidarity built around occupation. Industrial unions began to replace guilds and friendly societies during the first wave of new unionism – starting towards the end of the 19th century. The labour movement may have lost something critical along the way. Look at the way we talk about work — people do jobs; but people are occupations. The author argues: “…we need to start from the principle that what we do and seek to do is more important than who we do it for.” As we have seen elsewhere in this series (see here, for instance) a revived focus on occupation could be constructed as an added dimension to existing union activity and structures — it need not require any major reconfiguration. The benefits to working people are obvious, as we have seen with professional associations and support networks. But a new approach based on occupational citizenship might also help us address some of the most pressing problems we face:

  • How do we organize and bargain across borders in an age of globalization?
  • How do we organize “the precariat” – that rapidly growing class of workers who come and go before unions can reach them?
  • How do we rebuilt solidarity and influence in an age where many unions are struggling just to sustain themselves?

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structureThis classic article by Jo Freeman (republished with her permission) was first brought to our attention by the venerable member Dave Spooner from the Global Labour Institute (Manchester). Dave’s right – this is a great reference point in our discussion about organisational forms for global unionism. Some believe we can (or should) avoid formal structures altogether. Dave, along with Jo Freeman, argues that this simply empowers those who can manipulate informal structures. The fact that this article comes to us all the way from the 1970s* in no way diminishes its relevance, as you will see. On the contrary – this is essential reading for a new networked generation, and for any activist interested in making democracy real.

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peerThe transnationalisation of production, along with the rise of global supply chains, informalisation, financialisation, and connecting of world markets through informationalisation have all hit hard on workers. It seems to have become impossible to overcome the resulting divisions among working classes, who have been so radically abused by capital. These new structural forces have created an immense need for connected self-organisations of workers, built from the bottom up, and operating simultaneously at local, national and international levels. This article argues for a new global unionism that goes beyond the IWW experience and allows workers to connect local, national, regional and international struggles by aligning with other struggles in life. (more…)

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.

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