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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Teleworking and the trade union movement

This article, in a slightly different form, was first published in the Journal of World Transport Police and Practice, vol2, number 1/2, 1996 (The Information Society and Sustainable Development).

First, an anecdote. Second, an assertion. Third, the main aim of this paper: to offer some observations on the attitudes of the established trade union movement in Europe to the development of teleworking.

But first, the anecdote.

It's Christmas 1995 in the small town (population: 10,000) in the north of England where I now live. The pubs and restaurants are doing a good trade, providing venues for traditional Christmas office parties. But, for the second year running, one pub is host to a slightly different event: the Not-the-Office-Party, informally arranged by home-based workers who want their share of the festivities. All are welcome and about thirty turn up: computer people of various kinds, consultants, writers and editors, a trainer, a child-minder, several graphic designers, photographers and many more. And in between the introductions and the socialising, there is discussion of business tax, of the new local Web site, of VAT... The evening ends, and the talk is of a follow-up event, a barbecue in the summer.

One pub event doesn't make a social trend, and for various reasons my small town is in some respects atypical. But my story perhaps makes the point that, though home-based teleworking may be a solitary activity, teleworkers like the rest of humanity are collective animals. Teleworkers have a need to come together, to network, to exchange information and ideas, to obtain professional services... and also to defend their interests. For this is the assertion I want to make: that teleworkers share common interests.

How are teleworkers' needs going to be met, and their interests defended? There are a number of possibilities. Firstly, the services which they require may be (and are being) provided commercially. Secondly, teleworkers may develop (and already are beginning to develop) their own informal or formal organisations.

And thirdly, teleworkers may be able to turn to the organisations which traditionally have existed to defend workers' interests, the trade unions.

This may seem to some people to be an unlikely alternative. Leaving aside the institutional conservatism of some unions, it could be argued that unions are by their very nature incapable of coping with recent forms of flexible working such as teleworking. The union movement in its present form emerged from out of the development in the nineteenth century of large- scale industrial workplaces, throwing workers together in an environment where joint interests could be clearly perceived and collective action undertaken with at least some prospect of success. How can this creation of a past industrial age cope with today's leaner, more casualised, more atomised patterns of work?

Certainly, the growth of teleworking poses organisational challenges to trade unions. There are, for example, obvious problems in recruitment, in collecting subscriptions, and in maintaining effective communication with members. There are severe logistical problems with undertaking any form of industrial action. Unions would seem to have good reasons to defend existing work structures and to oppose moves towards teleworking.

But in fact the response of many trade unions has been rather more subtle. The position now is likely to be a cautious acceptance that new forms of working can be of benefit to workers as well as employers. The motion submitted by the Danish Finansforbundet (FSU) and four other Scandinavian banking and finance unions, which was adopted at the 1995 World Congress of white-collar unions affiliated to FIET (Federation internationale des employes, techniciens et cadres) catches this attitude well:

"For more than ten years computer-supported work outside the traditional workplace has been a practical option, so-called 'telework', 'teletravail'. There are strong indications that the number of teleworkers will increase substantially in coming years...

"Telework may be, on the one hand, a tool for employers to move work to geographical areas, where working conditions, salaries and collective bargaining rights are the poorest.

"But on the other hand, telework may be an interesting alternative for employees in certain phases of their lives, eg in connection with caring functions or as an attractive alternative to physical mobility due to structural changes..."[FIET World Congress 1995, motion 44]

A similar approach is suggested in a paper by a national officer of the UK white collar union MSF:

"Trade unionists are deeply suspicious of any extension of home based working. There is a long and discreditable history of, as well as on-going, exploitation of home workers.. Whilst recognising the potential to liberalise the labour market many point to employers as being responsible for the rigidity of the current workplace and are scornful of the idea that they will be interested in liberating people from it...

"MSF has no illusions about this. There are good and bad employers and there will be those who will employ people on poor pay and in unsatisfactory conditions, without safeguards. However, for trade unions, a knee jerk reaction based on the experience of worst cases is not a sufficient response. Nor does it indicate the confidence that trade unionists should feel, in the basis of their record." [Bill Walsh, MSF, Teleworking - A Trade Union Perspective (1993)]

Across Europe, there is now a considerable body of formal teleworking agreements satisfactorily negotiated and signed between employers and trade unions. In Germany, for example, the German Postal Workers' Union the DPG has recently negotiated a collective agreement with Deutsche Telekom, which will enable staff who undertake appropriate work to alternate between working from home and the office. In Sweden, the SIF union was engaged in 1994-1995 in discussions with the Swedish subsidiary of Siemens Nixdorf, which have led to the introduction of a major teleworking project for many of 200 or so staff who would otherwise have been required to work from a relocated head office outside Stockholm.

In the UK, telework agreements have been made, for example, between British Telecom and three trade unions, the Union of Communication Workers and the National Communications Union (now both merged into a single Communication Workers Union), and the managerial union the Society of Telecom Executives. The Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU) has negotiated a detailed teleworking policy with finance company Lombard North Central plc.

Interestingly, despite the different contexts, the same key points emerge again and again in these agreements. For example, the DPG/Deutsche Telekom agreement has been reported as follows: "It is particularly important that the status of the employees will not be affected in any way. The tele-homeworkers will remain Telekom employees and will not be pushed into spurious self-employment...

"The agreement protects the voluntary nature of telework. No-one may be obliged to engage in tele-homeworking; the right to return to work on company premises is guaranteed. Social contacts with the company must in any case be maintained... Working equipment will be supplied free of charge by the employer" [German Agreement on Tele-Homeworking, P.T.T.I News, Dec 1995]

These issues have been formalised by the UK union MSF into a set of Telework Guidelines. They include the following points:

* Teleworkers should be employees of an enterprise, not deemed self- employed. * To avoid isolation, contracts of employment should require home workers to attend the office periodically. * Teleworkers should enjoy the same rates of pay and employment benefits as office-based workers, including child care provision and family leave. There should be a defined number of working hours and teleworkers should be included in career development and appraisal schemes including training opportunities. * All computer equipment should be provided, paid for and serviced by the employer... * Teleworking should be voluntary and workers should have the right to return to working from the office. [Teleworking - Code of Practice for Employees, MSF, 1995]

This is all very well as far as it goes. But, as anyone who has examined the development of teleworking will be aware, companies which consider flexible working methods are often interested in addition in the possibilities of outsourcing, of reducing their directly employed labour force by putting work out to external contractors and consultants. Much of the growth in telework in recent years has been among the self-employed, rather than through the set-piece telework pilots represented by the Deutsche Telekom, BT or Siemens Nixdorf examples.

The self-employed are not in the same employee/employer relationship with which trade unions have historically concerned themselves. Just the opposite, indeed: the self-employed are business people, running their own ventures. So whilst self-employed teleworkers may find the need to join, say, business associations or chambers of commerce, why should they want to become trade union members? - where's the boss, where's the conflict of interest?

Trade unionists are increasingly pondering this themselves but, surprisingly perhaps, refusing to write off the self-employed. Here, for example, is a comment of PG Svensson, a board member of the Swedish bank union Finansf”rbundet and himself a part-time teleworker: "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 thought 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."[quoted in Twenty Seconds to Work by Lennart Forseb„ck, Teldok 1995]

Very similar opinions were expressed at a labour movement conference on telework, held in Manchester in 1995. Here, for example, is MSF's Bill Walsh again:

"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..

The trade unions.. have head office departments which provide support to people in conventional employment. They now need to expand these services to other groups of people." [Quoted in conference report, Working on the Infobahn, Teleworking and the Labour Movement, 1995]

It is significant that in the months since that conference MSF has set up an internal Teleworking Interest Group (TWIG), which has begun to discuss the sort of information and advice services which it could provide to teleworking members. MSF already has the experience of servicing 2,000 members in its Professional Sales Association, made up entirely of the self- employed.

Other trade unions (particularly in the media and arts fields) have considerable expertise in dealing with self-employed members. For example, the National Union of Journalists (which despite its name operates in two nation states, the UK and the Republic of Ireland) now has about 25% of its fully paid-up members running their own businesses. The actors' union British Equity points out that almost all its members ("at least 99%") are self-employed. The UK's latest official Labour Force Survey records that about 280,000 self-employed people (about 9% of the total) declared themselves as members of a trade union or staff association (though this figure should be treated with a little caution, since it may include farm owners in membership of the National Farmers Union, a trade association).

So it may not simply be wage serfs who are signing up for union membership. Unions who rise to the challenge of new forms of working, and of providing the sorts of services which self-employed members are likely to require, will find themselves changing. They may take on, for example, some of the attributes of the continental 'assistance' tradition (such as represented by Mondial and Europ Assistance), with the provision of 24- hour helplines on legal and other issues.

But there will clearly remain a core philosophical area which will separate unions from simple commercial information and advice services. There is still the concept of solidarity - the idea that individuals who join a union do so not just to help themselves but also to help each other. Solidarity between teleworkers, working at home and for their own businesses? Talk about it over a few drinks together in the local pub, and perhaps the idea isn't so impossible after


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