Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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The 'e-union'

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in World of Work, 2003

"Am I being paid what I should be, for the work I'm doing?" - it's a question which many people ask themselves, but one where the answer is by no means always clear.

Collective bargaining has traditionally provided a convenient mechanism for ensuring an element of fairness in pay, albeit sometimes in a rough and ready fashion. But what about the large number of workers worldwide who aren't covered by collective bargaining agreements?

One answer, at least according to the innovative Swiss union //syndikat, may be a little collective self-help, courtesy of the power of the internet. //syndikat, an on-line trade union organisation which links IT professionals in the notoriously individualistic new technology sector, encourages both members and would-be members to check for themselves how their pay compares with the industry average, by using the Salary Checker software programme on its website. The service is free, the principle - as with shareware software - being that users can make a voluntary donation.

The information on Salary Checker becomes more valuable the more people use it and contribute their own data. //syndikat says that, with pay details entered by about 4,500 workers (or about 6.5% of the total IT workforce in German-speaking Switzerland), the Salary Checker database has become statistically representative of the sector.

Similar ideas to //syndikat's have been tried by unions in Austria and the Netherlands, and the idea of an IT salary checker is now being extended to the European level by Union Network International (UNI). "We want to cut away secrecy. We think it will be a very useful service for increasingly mobile IT workers, both employees and self-employed," says UNI's Gerhard Rohde.

The Salary Checker service is one example of efforts by trade unions to offer services to members by better harnessing the opportunities of new technology. From the sophisticated global website run by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) to the myriad of small union branch websites, the trade union voice is now well-established on the internet. A survey for the London School of Economics in April 2001 found over 2,600 union sites, with the researchers admitting that the actual figure is probably higher than this.

But as companies have also found, a website by itself may not be worth the time and money spent on developing it: it all depends on how it is used. One attempt to help unions benefit from best practice is the initiative, which links about sixty union webmasters worldwide. Appropriately enough, which provides a forum for information exchange and mutual support, operates entirely in the on-line world, via its website.

As initiatives like demonstrate, there is now considerable experience of innovative uses of new technology by unions to offer services to their members. Many unions offer interactive information and on-line learning packages to members via their websites; one example is the Swedish union SIF, which among other things provides a career counselling programme KarriƤrCoach. Another example is the French managers' union CFDT-Cadres which is about to launch an online stress management programme. The UK telecoms union Connect has developed a web-based recruitment service, Opus2, whilst the giant German union ver.di has an online database of resources for teleworkers via its OnForTe service.

More fundamentally, however, unions are asking themselves if, and how, new technology could transform the very essence of trade unionism. With levels of union organisation having fallen in many countries in recent years, unions are keenly aware of the need to attract new members, if only to replace those members who are retiring or leaving work. At the same time, unions are aware that they have to adjust to the growth of new sectors (such as IT) and of new ways of working - including technology-enabled workplaces such as call centres, teleworking and 'atypical' working such as self-employment.

The US academics Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers are among several sympathetic observers who have suggested that unions could gradually 'morph' into new types of organisation, working with individual workers in non-union recognised companies as readily as with traditional members in organised workplaces. They talk of unions reaching out to sympathisers via the web and, in the process, of the meaning of union membership becoming wider and 'fuzzier'.

For a sense of how these sorts of e-union might develop, the growth of web-focused unions and quasi-unions in the IT sector, like //syndikat in Switzerland, may provide a model, albeit still one which operates on a very small scale. In the US, a new Oregon-based group ORTech became established this year [2003], modelled on WashTech , the "voice for the digital workforce" in Seattle and Washington state. WashTech, like a third web-based group Alliance@IBM, is affiliated to the Communications Workers of America, though both groups prefer to emphasise their role as organisations serving the needs of professionals. In Australia, a similar initiative has led to the IT Workers Alliance. Meanwhile in India the IT Professionals Forums, originally focused on Bangalore and Hyderabad, continue to attract support from young well-educated IT workers. The Forums have recently opened new chapters in Chennai and Mumbai.

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