Union "dot orgs" come of age

"Am I being paid what I should be, for the work I'm doing?" is a question many people ask but often find difficult to answer. Now, Internet sites dedicated to workplace issues can resolve this and other queries. Writer Andrew Bibby examines how workers and employers are navigating the information highway on bread and butter issues.

LONDON - Collective bargaining has traditionally provided a convenient mechanism for establishing pay levels, 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 organization 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 "Salary Checker" software on its Web site. 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 per cent of the total IT workforce in German-speaking Switzerland), the Salary Checker database has become statistically representative of the sector.

The worldwide spread

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," says UNI's Gerhard Rhode. "We think it will be a very useful service for increasingly mobile IT workers, both employees and self-employed."

The Salary Checker 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 Web site run by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), to myriad small union branch Web sites, 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.

But as companies have also found, a Web site 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 e-tradeunions.org initiative, which links about sixty union "webmasters" worldwide. Appropriately enough e-tradeunions.org, which provides a forum for information exchange and mutual support, operates entirely in the online world, via its Web site.

As initiatives like e-tradeunions.org 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 online learning packages to members via their Web sites. One example is the Swedish union SIF, which among other services provides a career-counselling programme KarriärCoach. 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, while 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 organization having fallen in many countries in recent years, unions are keenly aware of the need to attract new members, if only to replace those who are retiring or leaving work. At the same time, the unions are aware of the need 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 organizations, working with individual workers in non-union recognized companies as readily as with traditional members in organized workplaces. They talk of unions reaching out to sympathizers 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 one which operates on a very small scale. In the US, a new Oregon-based group ORTech, established this year, is 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 with the Communications Workers of America, though both groups prefer to emphasize their role as organizations 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.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which gets under way in Geneva in December, has - unusually - been organized as a two-stage event, with the second stage scheduled for Tunis in November 2005.

The summit, called under the auspices of the UN, and facilitated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), has set itself the task of developing an international action plan for the forthcoming information age, what it describes as a revolution - "perhaps the greatest that humanity has ever known".

The voice of employers in the WSIS debates is being heard primarily through the work of the Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors (CCBI), chaired by the International Chamber of Commerce. Among the concerns raised are those of spam, privacy and cyber security, intellectual property rights, Internet governance and technology neutrality.

The CCBI argues that development of information and telecommunications technologies should be left to the private sector and the markets, and urges the WSIS to be pragmatic and adopt what it calls "a healthy sense of realism". It also defends the current arrangements for the allocation of Internet domain names undertaken by the independent private organisation ICANN, arguing against transferring this task to an international public body.

From the trade union side there is considerable disappointment that the implications of the information society in the workplace have not received greater attention. Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, which is coordinating union input into the summit, argues that union concerns have been squeezed out.

With two years before the WSIS process culminates at Tunis, there remains, however, ample opportunity for both employers and unions to influence the eventual outcome.