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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Trade unions & new work

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Teleworker magazine, 2001

The trade union banners, hanging in splendour in Manchester’s Pumphouse museum in the city’s main tourist area, are a fine sight. Lovingly painted or embroidered, the banners show scenes from Britain’s industrial past, hearty chaps with their spades and shovels at the ready, along with the stirring slogans of the union movement of yesteryear: An injury to one is an injury to all, unity is strength.

The question facing Britain’s trade unions is whether they themselves are set to become museum-pieces. The omens are not good: the last twenty years have seen a substantial decline in union membership, from over 13 million in 1979 to almost exactly half this figure today. It’s easy to suggest that a movement which grew out of the industrial revolution has little to offer, as societies move from the industrial to the information age. How exactly, for example, can these lumbering behemoths, which have traditionally drawn their organisational strength from large-scale workplaces, cope with modern forms of work organisation — with the growth of self-employment, with flexible working, and with telework?

Inside the TUC’s central London headquarters, they were addressing exactly these sorts of questions at an international conference held in May. The event, entitled Unions and the Internet, aimed ‘to push the boundary of thought about the form of trade unionism best suited for the modern information economy’ — and, as an augury for the conference discussions, what could have been better than that very same day’s Financial Times, which coincidentally carried an article on precisely the same issue? The FT suggested that there was, indeed, a possible way forward: unions, the article asserted, could yet stage a comeback through effective use of information technology.

In fact there are already some quite innovative ways in which unions are trying to service the contemporary needs of people at work, as delegates at that TUC conference quickly found out. From Silicon Valley, for example, Linda Guyer described the work of Alliance@IBM, an initiative to organise staff in the traditionally anti-union IBM which operates almost entirely via the web. Three-quarters of Alliance@IBM’s members join on-line, though the website is also happy to provide information and advice to non-members. As Linda Guyer pointed out, the use of the internet is essential in a company where 40% of the employees are mobile workers.

Unions in Britain are also exploring the uses of new technology. The public sector trade union Unison recently joined forces with the NUS, for example, to launch the website, designed specifically for full-time students who are also working. Trouble at Work (which is low-key about its union links) includes advice on issues such as how to survive call centre working.

Perhaps ironically, Unison has itself explored the opportunities of call centres as a way of improving links with its individual members. Unison Direct is a 17-seat call centre operation operating 18 hours a day, six days a week, which last year took 52,000 calls and this year expects the number to increase to about 200,000. David Whitfield of Unison describes the operation as ‘a trade union 999 service’, and says that it offers an embryonic vision of the way unions will be able to undertake member relationship management. The Royal College of Nursing and the telecoms union Connect operate call centre helplines for members as well.

Trade unions are also reaching out to the growing numbers of self-employed workers. Media unions, such as the National Union of Journalists and the actors’ union Equity, have long experience of recruiting members who are effectively running their own small businesses, but so also does the TGWU through its recruitment of London taxi-drivers, a group renowned for their independent-mindedness. More recently, the white-collar union MSF (in the process of merging with the engineers, AEEU) has established the Information Technology Professionals Association, which includes a number of self-employed consultants amongst its members.

No British union has yet addressed directly, however, the specific needs of teleworkers in the way that their colleagues in Germany have done. The innovative Online Forum Telearbeit (Online Telework Forum) offers advice to would-be teleworkers via both a call centre helpline and a website, OnForTe, although a union initiative, is like Alliance@IBM equally happy to receive calls from non union members.

Whether the new breed of information worker looks to trade unions for help and support perhaps depends on how quickly unions can adapt. There are other possibilities: for example, it’s clear that legal, financial and technical advice could be offered by commercial organisations, on a direct profit-making basis. There is another alternative, that of the mutual membership-based organisation — like, indeed, the TCA. The TUC conference in May heard from Helen Wilkinson who has been instrumental in establishing, one of several websites now competing for the attention of ‘elance’ workers. Helen Wilkinson compared elancentric to the old idea of craft guilds, before pointing out that — as a woman in her mid-thirties — she had never had a permanent job in a traditional workplace or previously encountered the union movement.

It’s clear therefore that the TUC faces a formidable challenge in leading the trade union movement into the new century, though it is now discussing the issues. One of the most radical ideas to surface, albeit at a very early stage of discussion, is that of the e-union, a virtual trade union which would meet its members’ needs on-line — whilst still practising the traditional union virtues of solidarity, unity and democracy.

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