Andrew Bibby


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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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Trade unions and Telework

Report produced for the International Trade Secretariat FIET, Autumn 1996

E. Trade union responses to teleworking. Suggestions for action.

Teleworking in all its various forms clearly offers a challenge to the trade union movement. It is, however, a challenge which can be met.

Previous sections have looked at some of the issues which trade unions need to address to defend members' interest when responding to moves towards teleworking by employers. This section explores some of the ways in which teleworking impinges on trade union organisation itself. It looks at steps which individual trade unions have been taking already, and offers some suggestions for good practice.

a) Communicating with teleworkers

So much of traditional trade union practice is built around the fact that members work together in a centralised workplace. Remove that factor, and new ways must be found for unions to communicate with their members and for members to talk to each other.

"Fight fire with fire: Works Councils and the GPA must set up their own networks through which they can maintain contact with employees and trade union members."

[Telearbeit: Vorschläge zur Gestaltung, GPA (Austria) 1996]

- Know how to reach members

On a basic administrative level, it is clearly sensible for unions to ensure that they have ways of reaching their members independent of the workplace. In particular, members' home addresses need to be adequately recorded. It may be appropriate to change methods of communication away from a reliance on mass workplace bulletins, and to develop instead more direct mailings to members' homes. Methods of 'relationship marketing' increasingly used by companies in communicating with customers may be adaptable to the trade union context.

Trade unions may be able to make use of employers' channels of communication with teleworking employees. One suggestion for negotiation is for union information to be included with payslips.

- Use e-mail

One obvious way to reach teleworkers is through e-mail.

The right of trade unions to have access to corporate e-mail services run by employers is an issue which is currently under negotiation in several countries. It is an important demand.

"The GMB has negotiated with British Gas Services to allow shop stewards to communicate with each other and with members via the British Gas Service network. The GMB national office also has a link to the network, and can therefore contact the shop stewards nearly as easily as before..

Access to a company's e-mail system should be a key negotiating demand for trade unions. This will help to recruit and organise members, even if those members and potential members are working remotely or in a variety of locations."

[New Technologies at Work - Consultative Document, Trades Union Congress (UK), 1996]

"The works council shall receive a current list of all employees who are working at external working locations. The works council has the right to use the electronic communication facilities."

[Clause in model teleworking agreement, in Telearbeit: Vorschläge zur Gestaltung, GPA (Austria) 1996]

As mentioned above, the Communication Workers of America has proposed that the union negotiate the right to present a welcome message to teleworkers when they log on to their company's system.

- Offer on-line bulletin board facilities for members

The traditional union noticeboard in a workplace has a direct electronic equivalent, the on-line bulletin board. Bulletin boards (such as those based on FirstClass) offer a forum for information exchange and discussion. As with all on-line services, geographical distance and international boundaries can be eradicated.

Access to on-line bulletin boards can where appropriate be restricted to union members.

"In 1995, MSF set up a new section for workers in the information technology industries, [the] Information Technology Professionals Association... ITPA members can join the ITPA Bulletin Board, set up to enable the discussion of ideas, views, and problems that relate to the IT profession. Members can also join the ITPA Poptel Online Network, which provides access to the Internet, e-mail facilities that allow members to communicate with each other and with the union, and access to databases and software."

[New Technologies at Work - Consultative Document, Trades Union Congress (UK), 1996]

- Use the Internet

The development of the Internet internationally offers powerful new opportunities for unions to reach members and potential members with access to new technology.

Hypertext links provide an easy way for Internet users to find areas of interest. However, union organisations should remember that, to be useful, World Wide Web sites need constant updating and revision.

FIOM-CGIL (Italy) has opened a telework (telelavoro) site on the World Wide Web. This includes detailed information on the telework agreements negotiated in recent months with six Italian employers (Telecom, Dun & Bradstreet, Seat, Italtel, Saritel and Digital Equipment).

The address is:

b) Union organisation

Union internal organisation has also traditionally been based around the centralised workplace. Union democracy is focused on the coming-together of members in person, in workplace or branch meetings or at conferences.

Teleworkers working away from workplaces, perhaps in geographically remote areas, may not be well served by this structure.

Traditional methods of union organisation will also fail to fit the needs of people who find themselves working in 'virtual companies': this is the term used to describe the method of computer-assisted co-operative working, where teams of workers participate together on commercial projects but where the company itself does not operate from a physical headquarters. Virtual companies can bring together workers across national boundaries.

Ultimately, unions may wish to respond to these changes by developing their own 'virtual' union branch or workplace group structures, where members will be able to communicate with each other and take decisions electronically. The practical issues of ensuring that democracy would be adequately practised clearly require some further discussion.

Nevertheless, and perhaps paradoxically, on-line communication through the Internet (for example through e-mail, newsgroups and discussion lists) is intensely participative and democratic, although admittedly only for those with access to the medium. It is also worth noting that the on-line world is an international one, where national barriers are almost irrelevant. In the world of e-mail and bulletin boards, the gender, racial origin, age and disability or otherwise of participants becomes of little relevance.

To summarise, by using methods of electronic communication there is an opportunity to increase the amount of democratic involvement ordinary members (and especially teleworking members) are able to have in their union.

"The Labortech conference 'Communication Tools for the '90s' held in California in May 1990 was the first attempt to pool US labour movement experience in new communications technology, with participants from trade unions and labour service centres. Don Skiados, Director of Communications for the airline pilots' ALPA told the conference, "You think Texas Air doesn't communicate in real time? You think Greyhound doesn't? They all do. If you want to compete with them you've got to do it too.."

[Trade Unions On-Line, by C Mather & B Lowe, 1990]

An international Labour Telematics conference (Information Technology, Electronic Communications and the Labour Movement) sponsored by the ICEF, Worknet (South Africa) and Transnational Information Exchange (Netherlands) was held in Manchester, UK, in 1992 to discuss trade union uses of on-line services in member communication and collective bargaining. The organisers, the Labour Telematics Centre (UK/Brussels), plan a second conference in 1997.

c) Recruitment of members

- The recruitment challenge

This report has already drawn attention to the challenge telework poses to concepts of the 'normal' workplace and the 'normal' working day.

Teleworking is associated with flexible patterns of work, including part-time working. It is also, as we have seen, often associated with work undertaken by women, and by young people. Indirectly, therefore, telework challenges unions to develop their recruitment strategies beyond a reliance on the (often male) full-time worker engaged on a permanent contract in the traditional workplace.

"Trade unions must change their policy and examine new pre-occupations, new patterns of work, and a much more heterogeneous nature of work and worker, including the self-employed."

[Working Paper, Discussions, Questions with Focus on the Legal & Contractual, Social Security, Health & Safety Aspects of Teleworkers, European Commission DG V conference, 1996]

At a time when unions internationally have been fighting hard to save the jobs of their members under threat from corporate restructuring, it may seem a luxury to divert resources towards the needs of part-time or casualised workers. However, the strength of unions in the next century may depend on how relevant they are able to appear to people who find themselves working in these ways.

- Responding to changes in management practice

As this report considered above in the context of call centres, management techniques and corporate cultures are changing. Trade unions may need to understand and acknowledge these changes when considering recruitment techniques.

The UK banking union BIFU, for example, has described how it adapted its recruitment strategy to attract recruits in the direct banking operation First Direct. BIFU was initially not recognised by the company when it started in 1989 and the union established itself as a representative body by building up membership, initially in a covert manner.

"The upside of First Direct's culture of constant development is that our representatives often come up with new ideas about how BIFU should organise in the workplace. An important example is the use of what they call 'Roadshows' as a recruitment vehicle.

It is a norm of First Direct that when a department formulates a new product or campaign, it holds a 'Roadshow' to explain it to the rest of First Direct's staff. To do this they set up a conference room with posters, games, competitions, videos, literature and even balloons..

So that's what we did: we set up a conference room with a video, info on the Union, a quiz, free gifts - biros, balloons, rulers etc - and a group of talkative Union representatives."

[Leif Mills, BIFU, speech notes 1995]

- Remembering the casualised worker

As the researchers Ursula Huws and Sarah Podro have pointed out in a recent report for the ILO, there is nothing necessarily unusual about trade unions recruiting casualised workers and finding ways to service their needs. They write:

"Many industries, both in developed and developing countries, have long traditions of casual working and, over the years, trade unions have developed a variety of means for representing casual workers, negotiating improvements in their wages and conditions of employment, and participating in schemes designed to introduce regulation. Such groups include construction workers, seasonal agricultural workers, dockers, domestic servants, actors, musicians, film technicians, freelance journalists and a variety of different manufacturing trades." [Employment of homeworkers: Examples of good practice, by U Huws and S Podro, ILO, 1995]

The authors of this very useful report offer, in the context of a study of home-working, several examples of good practice in the collective organising of these workers.

- Recruiting the self employed

"It is up to the teleworkers themselves, to the salaried employees and the self-employed to get organised. The trade unions have to target these groups and to get them to join the unions."

[Le Télétravail, UCC-CFDT, 1996]

"The challenge for the trade unions in the future is a situation where you have to go out and engage also those who are no longer employed in the traditional sense. So far the white-collar unions have not wanted to organise the self-employed even though their professional work well fits in under a union branch area. I believe that it will be necessary to change this view if the trade unions want to continue to play a role in the working and community life."

[PG Svensson (Finansförbundet, Sweden), quoted in Twenty Seconds to Work, by L Forsebäck, Teldok 1995]

Trade unions have been correctly concerned to ensure that the development of home teleworking is not accompanied by a rise in bogus pseudo self-employment. However, it is also necessary to relate to those who are genuinely self-employed, running their own small businesses.

Teleworkers in this situation have a need to come together, to network, to exchange information and ideas, to obtain professional services and to defend their common interests. These needs could be met by commercial providers or by teleworkers' own associations and organisations, but it is also possible to see that there is a role here for the trade unions to play.

As we have seen above, some unions already have considerable experience in recruiting self-employed members. Other unions are beginning to realise that the professional expertise and organisational skills which they hold can be made attractive to the self-employed.

"The issue is [one] of organising people who have no contracts of employment, who are self-employed and are in fact running their own small businesses. The first thing unions have to do is to change their attitude towards these people and not turn their backs on them. They need all kinds of help: for example, they need advice on contractual arrangements and on their relationships with the people who provide them with services. They need legal support, insurance, tax advice, pensions, health and safety advice and information. They may want trade unions, as large organisations with bulk purchasing power, to help them obtain equipment, training and technical support..

The trade unions are already engaged in most of all of these activities.. They now need to expand these services to other groups of people."

[Bill Walsh, MSF (UK),quoted in Working on the Infobahn, Teleworking and the Labour Movement, report of conference, 1995]

d) Widening the trade union agenda.

- Gender and equal opportunities

Telework, in its home-based form, breaks down the traditional boundaries between work life and personal life. Unions have tended to be concerned exclusively with the first of these areas, sometimes at the expense of ignoring concerns and issues (such as problems of combining working with childcare and family responsibilities) which are of considerable interest to large numbers of members.

Teleworking indirectly, therefore, challenges trade unions to consider again equal opportunities and gender issues.

Women and telework: children, kitchen, computer?

"The blurring of boundaries between work, housework and parenting, typical of telework, is our cue once again to raise the issue of traditional gender roles. Telework could also be an opportunity to involve more men in housework and family life, at the same time allowing the improvement of women's chances of vocational development.

Demand: Link forms of telework to measures for the advancement of women."

[Telearbeit: Vorschläge zur Gestaltung, GPA (Austria) 1996]

It is worth bearing in mind that, in societies where women have traditionally undertaken low-status housework and family care at home without financial recompense, the idea of teleworking from home may have a very different resonance for women than for men. Where the world of work is associated with an external workplace away from the home, women may have legitimate fears that tele-homeworking will return them to a way of working which does not receive proper societal recognition. Women may find it harder than men to resist housework and family distractions, or visits from unthinking neighbours, whilst trying to work from home.

As stated in a previous section, teleworking does not eliminate the need for proper childcare arrangements to be organised. However, teleworking is one of a number of more flexible ways of working which can benefit those with childcare or family responsibilities.

- Health and safety issues

Teleworkers are, by definition, working with IT equipment, and face all the same problems as those who work with IT in centralised workplaces. These include a worrying growth in the number of workers complaining of Repetitive Strain Injuries/Upper Limb Disorders.

The Trades Union Congress (UK) in a recent report identified the following additional health and safety risks facing teleworkers:

- they are less likely to have the correct work equipment - commonly, teleworkers use domestic tables and chairs rather than adjustable furniture

- they are subject to the commonest domestic hazards - faulty wiring leading to electrocution or fires, inadequate fire prevention or escape facilities, badly carpeted stairs, and so on

- they are often distracted from the hazards they are facing by the domestic surroundings - and sometimes by dependent children whose safety they are likely to put above their own

- they are likely to be isolated from fellow workers, which can be stressful and make it more difficult to resist unsafe working arrangements.

The TUC goes on to propose the development of 'Cyberspace safety reps':

"Teleworkers may be geographically isolated, but they are very easy to communicate with, through the computer technology they are employed on. This opens up the prospect for unions to offer teleworkers cyberspace Safety Reps.

These Safety Reps, who could be based at head offices, or indeed could be a network of union safety activists, could provide answers to information requests about safety; advise on safety rights and responsibilities; share details of and develop policies on risk assessments."

[New Technologies at Work - Consultative Document, Trades Union Congress (UK), 1996]

The Swedish white collar union federation TCO has developed over a number of years a major initiative to promote the use of safer personal computers to the general public. Its TCO92 labelling scheme identified computer display monitors which met strict requirements for electrical and magnetic field emissions, energy efficiency and electrical and fire safety. TCO92 has been followed by the TC095 PC certification scheme, which covers the complete PC including keyboard and processing unit. TCO95 takes into account, among other things, ergonomic and environmental issues.

"TCO95 is the first environmental labelling scheme that is global. It is based on the premise that users should have better working conditions. TCO95 also covers a wide area in respect of environmentally harmful substances such as CFCs and heavy metals."

[TCO (Sweden) leaflet, Questions and Answers about TCO Environmental Labelling of Personal Computers]

e) Trade union employees and teleworking

Finally, it is appropriate to add that the work of many trade union officials and staff may itself be suitable for teleworking. Trade unions should consider carefully whether teleworking arrangements (such as partial home-based working and mobile working) may enable officials to make better use of their time.

Those officials who are frequently involved in travel in order to meet members and service their needs may be able to benefit particularly from aspects of teleworking.

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