Technology Organizing
and Unions

By Marc Bélanger

January, 2000

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Unions were created in response to an industrial revolution which is now in its death throes. Should we be preparing shrouds for our unions? Or will unions still exist in a hundred years?

This essay suggests that they could exist if we refresh our ways of thinking about technology and do what we do best as unionists: organise! It looks at the new computer communication technologies being implemented and some of the effects those technologies are inducing. Then it discusses a context in which unionists could operate to leverage their current talents and capabilities while maintaining their core values to participate aggressively and effectively in the design of the new electronic world being born. Its premise is that unionists need to face the emerging technological world with a new set of thinking tools, a new vocabulary and a new method of participating in technological change.

The technological maelstrom buffeting us as we head into the 21st century is just the edge of the storm front. There are hurricanes of technological change coming our way. Think of being in Gutenberg's shop just as people were learning how to print books - and what was to come after. Think of being in Edison's laboratory as electricity was being used to light bulbs or create sound recordings - and what was to come after. Now think electronically - and of what will come.

What comes after the introduction of electronics - and its use in computer communications - is of course difficult to predict. But electronic communication technologies have general tendencies and direct effects which can be considered as we think about what is going to happen to our workplaces, homes and communities.

The General Tendencies of Computer Communications

The general tendencies include: decentralization, customization, deterioration of hard linkages, universal software translation and the development of a biological paradigm. I'll explain.

Decentralization means that computer communications will put pressure on organisations, including unions, to decentralize their operations. Organisational centres were built to contain filing cabinets and the staff to put paper into the filing cabinets. But now that information is not paper-bound, it can be accessed from anywhere, or copies of it can be put anywhere. There is no need for a large number of people in one centre. With computer communications an organisation could be a collection of many centres. Not only could it be a collection of many centres, but the use of computer communications will put pressure on the organisation's leaders to make it a collection of many centres. That does not mean all organisations will decentralize - but those that do, will be the ones to survive.

The forces of decentralization will affect individuals as well. The trajectory of computer communications is aimed at reaching any individual, anywhere in the world, at any time with text, graphics, sound, video and even smell. The goal is to make the presence of the sender virtually real for the receiver, and vice versa. One result of this will be greater pressure to decentralize work to the home.

A second general tendency of computer communications is customization. Services and products will be customized for individuals and organisations. Levis is customizing jeans for particularly-shaped legs. General Motors, Ford and Toyota are all starting to custom-create cars for individuals at regular car prices. Where these companies go others will follow, not only because they control galaxies of suppliers around them, but because they serve as models for other sorts of manufacturers. Clients, users, union members and others will begin to expect customized treatment.

Another general tendency of computer communications will be to make people think of linkages as fragile and temporary. The Industrial Revolution produced hardware such as trains and toilets - things made up of parts which connected in physically hard ways and were disconnected with difficulty. This encouraged people to think of linkages as hard and permanent. Employees, for example, were considered as linked to the machines and over time, became permanently attached to the work. Today, however, many of our dominant products are software creations with bits and bytes which can be easily and quickly disconnected. Employees can be seen, and are being seen, as easily disconnected from one project or company to be used in another project or company. Think of linkages (parts to assembly lines; people to organisations) and consider them dissipating and you will be able to better predict what will happen around you.

An additional general tendency of computer communications is that everything is being translated into software: the chair you are sitting in, the paper you are reading, and even you. What used to be important about a chair was how a crafter chose the particular kind of wood, moulded the legs, and curved the seat. What is important now is how much of the chair's description has been put into a software program so it can be manipulated to optimize it for fast production or customization. Even people are being translated into software. Not literally of course, but there are software descriptions of people in databases which put together would produce a clear picture of the individual's health, purchase patterns, reading habits, financial situation, political leanings and more. If a company searched all the databases that included information about you and put that information together, it would have a better picture of your behaviour than you do.

Thinking about fragile linkages and universal software translation may seem strange, and, to the practical mind of many unionists, fantastical. But remember: ways of thinking have revolutionized how we organise ourselves, our communities and our workplaces. Newton's greatest "Aha!" moment did not come when he saw the apple fall. It came when he looked at the inner workings of a clock and said: "That's how the universe works: like clockwork. There must be mechanical-like laws which determine how the universe operates." The scientific methods developed to find those laws led to industrial production, which led to unions. Ways of thinking are important to consider as we develop software programs which mimic human thought.

We no longer see the universe as a mechanistic contraption with a master blue print. Instead, the metaphor we use is biological. The earth is a "living entity", not a lump of rock. We don't have problems in software programmes, we have "viruses". Stop thinking about computers as machines. Think of them as hard-skinned intelligences. If that seems too fanciful, remember this: you may not think of computers in this way, but the people who are designing the next generation of computers certainly do. They see computers as intelligences which mimic the human mind - intelligences to be nourished, introduced to each other and helped to learn. They do not think of computers as machines. You will be continually surprised by the latest advance in computer communications if you do. Computers are clones of the human mind created by people working with a human, not mechanistic, paradigm. Think where the development of a young mind might go and you will be able to think more clearly about the advancement of computer technology.

Consideration of the general tendencies of computer communications - decentralization, customization, deterioration of hard linkages, universal software translation, and the development of a biological paradigm - can be used in two major ways: as a tool for thinking about how computer communications will evolve and as a creativity generator for designing new technological applications. Try to see the tendencies at work in your organisation or community.

The Direct Effects of Computer Communications

The direct effects of computer communications are much more concrete and easily seen. They include:

De-industrialisation. The so-called "industrial" countries are rapidly de-industrializing. This is the result of two factors which can be attributed to computer communications. First of all, software translation of hardware goods is making it easy to produce things with less people and less commitment to infrastructure. Small plants with small numbers of staff can now produce as much as big plants with large numbers of staff. The result is smaller industrial sectors in the economically advanced countries. Secondly, computer communications allows production to be co-ordinated globally which allows companies to be headquartered in the rich countries and still manage industrial production in the poorer countries. Not coincidently, these poorer countries have lower wages, less stringent safety laws, the worst forms of child labour and weaker unions, if any. It may be that the developing countries will get what they have been asking for - industrial activity - just when it has become devalued. They may become the smoke factory towns of the Electronic Revolution - but this time not a few miles away from the rich homes of the bosses, but thousands of miles away. Out of sight, out of mind?

Globalization. Computer communications knows no boundaries. It is as easy to send an email to a person countries away as its to send one to the person next door. Companies can decentralize their activities and still depend on just-in-time production methods across thousands of miles. They can choose countries according to unionization rates, wage levels, safety laws and compliant governments. If a country or workforce begins to demand better wages or safety laws, the companies can easily move production to another country. It is no coincidence that the most successful strikes which have been held in the past few years, such as the United Parcel Service (UPS) strike in the United States in 1997 and the Australian dockworkers strike of 1998, involved services which could not be moved. Docks have to be in one place; packages have to be physically delivered within a country.

Virtual Companies. The most powerful companies in the world no longer have to be the biggest in terms of production facilities or workforces. Take Cisco Systems for example. It is known as one of the world's largest manufacturers of computer network hardware. However, it manufactures very little of the equipment which is sold under its name. It farms out most of the work to 37 factories, all linked by computer communications. Its suppliers make all the components, perform 90% of the sub-assembly work and fully 55% of the final assembly. Its suppliers regularly ship finished Cisco equipment to Cisco customers without a Cisco employee ever touching the equipment. What's more, about 80 % of its sales are generated from its Web site. Cisco is a virtually non-existent company (except, of course, for the money it is earning, the power it holds over its suppliers and most importantly, the control it has on the production methods and schedules.) Cisco has kept all the planning and coordinating work while farming out all the problems (such as pesky unions) to its suppliers.

Contracting-Out. The secret to Cisco's success (which is not so secret) is that it has contracted out most of its work. It is able to do this and still maintain control over its product because it can issue orders via computer communications. More companies are looking at developing along the same lines. Not only are workers losing their jobs to contracting out, but because of virtual companies such as Cisco, they are no longer sure who they are really working for. Additionally, the rise in contracted work is producing a pool of transitory workers who move from company to company in search of higher wages or better working conditions. The result is high turnover rates and depressed wages in the companies which are doing the manufacturing.

Another factor which has contributed to the increase in temporary and casual workers is the fact that employers now have computers to handle the complicated payroll systems involved in paying many outside people. Twenty or thirty years ago it would have been very difficult to track the hours of large numbers of temporary people. But now, with computers it is easier, and so employers take advantage of the capability to avoid paying the benefits due to full-time staff.

Different Union Structures? Unions developed during the Industrial Revolution as a response to employer actions. In many ways, they are reflections of existing management infrastructures. Today's auto unions, for example, are big partly as a reflection of big automakers. And certainly unions learned their administrative structures from the business community. So, for example, dues collection stopped being a process of meeting the members and asking for the monthly dues - it became a matter of the local union secretary-treasurers sending cheques to union accountants. Or, increasingly, computer communication is being used to send dues directly from the employer to the central union without any local union intervention.

The serious question then becomes: if employers are going to change the way they do business and morph into other sorts of structures (such as virtual companies) what will unions do? Will they reflect the employer's administrative structures? Or will they create their own? What will the unions of the 21st century (if they exist) look like? The answer may be found in a closer look at the new workplace being created as computer communication evolves.

The Imaginary Workplace

The electronic workplaces of the 21st century (for those who are able to participate in them) will be imaginary ones. The Imaginary Workplace will be one in which the human imagination (and therefore creativity) is the most important factor. For the first time in the history of humankind men and women will work with unlimited resources - computer space and the human mind. No longer will humans be limited by the amount of coal in the ground or fish in the sea. The result could be full employment for all humans, everywhere.

That is the goal. Computer communications can help us reach it because we will no longer be limited by the natural world. But full employment policies are not necessarily supported by corporate interests. Full employment can cause sectoral labour shortages which in turn can increase wage demands and requests for other benefits. The corporate community may feel more comfortable with a pool of unemployed or underemployed which, by its very existence, depresses wages and gives power to the managers (by allowing them to threaten employees with dismissal because others could quickly fill the jobs). If there has ever been a development in the history of humankind which could produce good jobs for all it is the advent of computer communications. Actually producing this full employment will be a question of politics and societal power relations.

Also, it has to be recognized that not all workplaces in the electronic countries will be treated as Imaginary Workplaces where workers' creativity is paramount. The people working in the warehouses of (the online bookseller) are not treated as people with brains - they're treated like old time industrial workers who have to do what they are told, when they are told. The people staffing the help desks of many new computer service companies are underpaid and overworked. These workforces are perfect locales for traditional union organizing.

Still, the overwhelming trend in the electronic countries is towards the development of workplaces based on information-handling or knowledge-creation, in other words: Imaginary Workplaces. Education will play a key role in supporting the development of these workplaces.

Education in the Imaginary Workplace

The Imaginary Workplace will be characterized by two major factors: speed of change and life-long learning. Assembly lines have to shut down for re-tooling every time a new product is introduced. But workplaces which are based on replicating human thought via software (which is what the Imaginary Workplace will do) can change almost at the speed of thought itself. It may take time to think up new ideas and write software to implement those ideas, but certainly not as long as re-tooling an assembly line. This means workers in the Imaginary Workplace will expected to constantly re-create their jobs - every day.

The only way this can happen is if workers have access to information-on-demand, training, education and democracy in the workplace. They need access to information in order build the software products which will provide their services or products. They need just-in-time training in order to learn a skill set at the time it is needed. They need access to life-long education in order to keep their knowledge creatively fresh. And they need more democratically operated workplaces places because creativity cannot be ordered to exist. It needs to be nurtured in an environment in which people have collective control over their work circumstances and feel free to express themselves. More democracy in the workplace is the key to a successful enterprise in the new electronic society. But of course whether employers recognise this is another question.

Life-long training and education is a prerequisite for the new workplace. Gone is the day that workers could be educated in a few years, trained in a few months, and then be expected to be employable the rest of their lives. Workers will become l'earners - people who earn a living by learning.

Computer communications, which will force the need for life-long education, will at the same time provide the tools to meet the need. Computer-based distance education could provide workers with the means to keep their skill sets relevant and ways of continuing their life-long education. But who will provide this training and education? There is no doubt that much of the educational activity will come from the private, commercial sector. That is not the problem. The problem is how much of this educational activity will be commercially-based. Primary and secondary education - for now - seems safely in the hands of the public sector (despite growing pressure to commercialize the schools). But much of post-secondary education could be privatized if public educational institutes do not move quickly to take advantage of computer communications for education. A bricks-and-mortar attitude on the part of university or community college educators will result in the closing of many public educational organisations. Workers will vote with their keyboards to stay on the job or in the home and learn at institutes which provide online courses. Those public institutes which pay attention to this phenomena will continue to exist. Those who ignore it will be shutting themselves down.

Predicting the Changes

Understanding the changes which are about to hit our workplaces involves not only understanding the general tendencies of computer communications and studying the direct effects, but predicting what technologies will come into play in the near future. This predicting is by necessity hazy and imprecise but it does not have to involve chicken entrails (or worse, futurists.) You can learn to see what is coming in technology, at least in the short term (say five years) by following a few rules:

  • Pay attention to technologies being introduced in your sector by reading trade magazines or web sites. It always takes time for organisations to make decisions and re-write the budgets. You can think about what currently available technologies are likely to be introduced into your particular workplace. That is not futurism; that is paying attention to the present.

  • Look at the entertainment industry, especially toy production. Most new technologies make their way into the market for entertainment or play. That is because new technologies are creative endeavours and the entertainment-toy world is geared for play. The telescope was first introduced as a toy. So was the personal computer. What are the new toys coming into the market?

  • Look to corporate practice. Corporations will adopt technologies which will help them do their work. Notice this does not mean that technologies will help them make a profit. There is no evidence at all that the introduction of the microcomputer helped the bottom line. Instead, it seems to have helped companies do the old things faster (leaving room for new things to be done) or created whole new corporations such as Microsoft.

  • Pay attention to democratic communities using new technologies. The Internet took off not because it enabled scientists to electronically enter far-away computers. It took off because those scientists (and later their students) used it to send personal messages. Soon millions were using it for email. As another example consider Linux, a new operating system which could rival Windows and still be free of charge. It is being developed by programmers all over the world who are volunteering their work because they see a global community creating a new and useful product and they want to be contributing members of that community. The Open Source, free, software movement (which is what produced Linux and other software) is the democratic technological community's answer to globalization and monopoly software.

Creating Technological Effects

There are other thinking tools which can be used to predict what technologies will hit your workplace or the workplaces of others in the next few years. But what is important to understand here is why we must develop more of these tools and change our ways of confronting the future.

Why? Because of the enormous speed at which the changes are coming and will continue to come. We will have increasingly less time to think through the consequences of our adoption of new technologies and the changes they will promote. If we do not consider how we can predict technological change, how we can react to its effects, and how to create the technological effects we want, we could end up falling into societal design driven mainly by corporate interests. That is what is happening to the design of the new global economy which is in turn putting pressure on local societies and economies to adopt its practices.

Unlike a static society mired in traditional ways, a rapidly changing society is more easily deflected towards a new mixture of institutions and goals. Today, as in another fast changing time - the Industrial Revolution - corporate interests are taking advantage of social flux to promote the institutions and goals they want (plus get rid of the institutions they don't want). And they are using the same arguments: less government intervention lest the wondrous technological advance be stymied; no worker organisations which could impede workplace flexibility; raw competition between workers - this time on a global basis - for lower and lower wages in the name of progress; and so on and so on. It all has a such a familiar ring to it. But just because it is all so wearily familiar does not allow complacency. If we do not act now to affect the technological changes coming at us, we will be handing the creation of our new electronic societies to corporate leaders who may have different ideas about what constitutes a just and equitable society than most people.

The first - and most crucial step - to understanding the technological changes coming at us, and be able to plan for them, is to build a greater appreciation of the enormity of the changes headed our way. The simple truth is that most of the wondrous new technologies you see being applied, or hear about, are just hazy prototypes of what will appear tomorrow. The Internet may seem an awesome technological wonder. But it will soon disappear.

The Internet will disappear in two ways: First, it will be built into the material world. If you think the jerk at the next table talking into his cell phone is irritating just wait until your fridge says: "There's a call waiting for you and by the way you need more butter". We are going to build the Internet into all sorts of common place products and consequently it will become common place - something to be paid less attention to as we marvel at the next technological wonder. Secondly, the Internet will cease to be a focus of societal attention in the same way radio and TV did. Both radio and TV seemed to be the ultimate in communication when they were first introduced. And both had very powerful effects on our social and political doings. But both were eventually obsolesced: radio by TV; TV by the Internet. If you think the Internet is the ultimate communication tool, then all your navigating through the next few years of technological change will head you off in wrong directions.

We are not building the Internet - we are building a New Electronic Society. Computer communications (of which the Internet is merely a part) will change our industrial societies radically - so much so that to call them industrial societies condemns us to erroneous thinking about how they will develop. The rich parts of the world are creating electronic societies which will be as different from industrial societies as industrial society was to feudalism. Meanwhile the so-called "developing" countries will be cast the industrial dregs and many of them will find themselves even further behind the richer countries (despite one or two golden exceptions).

The secret to understanding what the Internet is (in social, economic and political terms) is understanding that it is an enabling, multi-purpose technology. It will promote the creation of many radically new technologies in much the same way the book did after its introduction in the 15th century and electricity did after it was introduced in the 19th century. There are interesting times ahead.

Book production induced many radical changes. Because books became available, higher literacy levels developed. Because people could see their language in print, grammar and spelling became important. Because the Bible was translated into the vernacular and distributed widely, the Reformation was sparked. Because printed language helped define national groupings, nation states were created. Because nation states with middle classes were developed, local capital markets were started. Because the mechanics of print (with its repeatable parts used over again to create new products) provided an industrial model, and there were capital markets, and there were books teaching people how to produce things, the Industrial Revolution was born. And out of the Industrial Revolution came unions.

The advent of electricity also provoked many societal-changing technologies, not least of which were: the telegraph, the light bulb, the phonograph, the telephone, movies, radio and television - all of which prompted many far-reaching changes.

The Internet will enable the introduction and development of many new technologies which will be just as revolutionary as the ones mentioned above. Each will have profound effects on how we organise our economies, social lives and workplaces. What is important to pay attention to is not the Internet, but what technologies the Internet will, and could, spawn - and develop those technologies which enhance the human condition.

(There are other very noble ideas about not being involved in any new technology because they are all tainted with the original sin of corporate capitalism and cannot be used for democratic, human-enhancing activities. This stance condemns its adherents to be continually reacting to the technological applications being promoted by the very corporate interests they decry. It closes the mental doors to understanding what radical new technologies and applications of new technologies could be developed.)

Designing Technology

How can we be involved in the design of the new technologies headed our way? Here's how: We should use our talents as people organisers to build a popular Technology Organizing movement as powerful as today's environmental movement. This movement (which would include organised labour, non-governmental organisations, political parties and other organisations) would promote new people-oriented technological designs; suggest legislative initiatives; lobby for publicly-controlled technological inquiries and regulatory bodies; encourage people in technological communities (such as workplaces) to find their group technological power; condemn technological applications which degrade the human condition; and, eventually, point to a radically different civilization which is based on the use of technologies which promote economic and technological activity linked directly to social well-being. Those who would quickly scoff at this idea and declare it fantasy forget that the environmental movement faced the same sort of derision when it started. But now, after only 40 years and after the development of organisations such as Greenpeace, and the rise of political parties like the Greens, environmental ideas are at the very heart of our political and economic debates. The same could happen with a technology organizing movement and its ideas.

At the core of a technology organizing movement must be a people-inclusive definition of technology. The engineer's definition (the one most prevalent today) is:

A technology is a tool (hardware, software or mental) which is used to solve problems.

The great difficulty with this definition is that it excludes people. It is as if technologies were not to be used by or for people. By omitting men and women in the design of use of tools the definition excludes public debate, corporate interests, governmental action, cultural imperatives, psychological orientations, fun, love, sex and more. It portrays technologies as entities developed as part of an unfolding of what capital "T" Technology must be. We do not design technologies, according to this definition, as much as participate in a process of discovering the neutral laws of Technology. But this is a false extension of the scientific process to technological development. Pure science needs to be built on strict observation of life and materials in order to inoculate itself from human-produced error. A chromosome is a chromosome. But as soon as a science (such as DNA analysis) leaves the lab and becomes a technology it enters the messiness of human activity. It becomes moulded by the prevailing power patterns, cultural activities, economic institutions and other human-built entities and processes. Or it dies an early death, even as an idea, by not being supported once it is outside the lab.

Here is a more people-inclusive definition of technology:

A technology is a tool (hardware, software or mental) which is used by groups of people to solve problems.

This definition has the advantage of being closer to the truth, as well as providing an entry point for thinking about how people involved in technologies can be organised. Technologies become technologies once they come into use by people. And they are used by groups of people because that is how we organise ourselves (technologies are rarely designed by or for one person.)

This way of thinking about technology opens the possibilities of seeing technological design and application almost like community organizing. Community organisers bring together people who share a common sense of community (geographical, institutional, interest, age, etc.) and facilitate the community's understanding of its power to get things done. A neighbourhood group for example might lobby city hall for speed bumps on roads (a technological rather than political solution). A group of workers might organise through their union for the creation of a new workplace technology or influence the use of a technology being introduced into the workplace. In both instances the groups come to a sense of their power by combined action. And they both face powerful, often overpowering, opponents: city hall or the employer. But the power of their opponents does not stop them from organizing and winning what victories they can. In the end, they hope to create a society which is more responsive to the needs of its citizens, especially in whatever community they are organizing.

This sense of continuing to struggle in the face of overpowering odds is especially pertinent in thinking through a theory of technology organizing. Technology is too often seen as an all-powerful force which produces entities which appear as they do because that is the natural course of the unfolding of technology. But, in reality, technologies are the result of numerous decisions made by people working in groups (such as corporations or other institutions). The technologies look and act they way they do because groups of people have made choices all along the path of their development.

The intriguing possibility is that, subject to other choices being made, it is possible that radically different technological forms could be developed - maybe even forms which could promote a global civilization better aimed at developing the social well-being of its people.

A small example: for years the radio was assumed to have a particular design - transistors, speakers, antennas, batteries, etc. It was what we knew to be a "radio". But a few years ago an inventor in England made an important change to the basic design of the radio which is now helping many people in developing countries where batteries are expensive or difficult to find. He designed a radio which can be cranked up to provide an hour's worth of play time. No batteries are needed. This idea seems logical now, but for years the inventor could not interest anybody enough to get financial backing. A radio was a radio; it needed batteries - which in the rich parts of the world are cheap and easily obtainable. It was only after an entrepreneur in South Africa was intrigued by the idea that production started. And now there are villages in the developing world with a "crank-radio" that is designed for their circumstances. (Should we be thinking of crank PCs?)

As another example, the first national bilingual computer conferencing system in Canada - SoliNet - was not developed by one of the big telephone or computer companies. It was developed by a union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), using technology developed at the University of Guelph. CUPE was also the first organisation in Canada to build a Local Area Network (a LAN) of computers, ahead of even the computer companies. SoliNet and CUPE's early use of a LAN proved that unions can be involved in the design of new technologies, and at the cutting edge.

These are small examples in the big scheme of technological things. But what if more attention were paid to encouraging people to be involved in the design and application of new technologies? What if more people were trained in computer system design principles or participatory software creation? What if people had access to public funds to create new technologies? What if they could sit on public boards which monitored the introduction of new technologies? What if workers were allowed to democratically participate in the creation of new, worker-oriented technologies? Might we develop different sorts of technologies which, by their very existence, could point to the great possibilities inherent in letting thousands, maybe millions, of people participate in technology design?

Andrew Feenberg, a professor at Simon Fraser University and one of the first online teachers, has written extensively on this subject in books such as The Critical Theory of Technology (Oxford University Press, 1991). He argues that technologies have many "potentialities" which can lead in many different directions according to the people making the choices. These potentialities, correctly acted upon, could lead to a radically different civilization than the ones in which we currently exist, a civilization based on broader democratic participation. Labour unions, he argues, could be a part of the movement which encourages these various potentialities to be explored.

The central lesson is that within the technological world is an array of possibilities. The existing technological world is not the result of technological imperatives which determine how a particular technology evolves or what new technologies appear. It is the result of many choices made by people working with tools to address problems and fulfil aspirations. Other choices could produce radically different technologies.

Of course, the problem is that most of the people with resources to produce new technologies are mainly working for large corporations which have their own agendas for the world. The result is a technological world (produced by a corporate mind set) which looks "natural" and "inevitable" - something we object to only at the risk of being "unreasonable", "inefficient" or worse "Luddite". But that does not mean, however, that those outside of the corporate world should reject the practice of technology design. Rather, we should work hard to show how democratic, people-oriented technologies can be built, even with meagre resources, in order to point towards the possibility of a radically different technological civilization.

In order to do this, we need to organise communities to understand and use their group power to design and influence technology, much in the same way urban groups, organised by community organisers, influence city governments. We could train activists in the principles of democratic technology design and people-organising skills. These activists could work in organisations, workplaces, unions and communities - anywhere people are using technologies. Generically, we could call these people technology organisers, but they could have different titles within different communities, such as technology stewards.

Technology organisers would not be limited to working only in the advanced electronic societies. In fact, it is possible that the most fertile work could be produced in the developing countries where technologies have to be designed to meet local circumstances. Technology organisers could work with people in developing countries to create system designs (technical descriptions) of electronic technologies which take into account factors such as undependable telephone connections, expensive Internet connections or costly electricity. We should not assume that the way a technology appears in an advance electronic society is its ultimate form. Like the crank radio, a technology could be designed to operate as effectively while adopting a different form to meet the different circumstances of the developing world. Funding for producing the technologies could be sought after the system designs were produced. Clearly thought out and written ideas are the necessary prerequisites for finding money.

The immediate goal of a technology organising movement facilitated by technology organisers would be to show that groups can influence the creation and design of technologies. The intermediate goal would be to build an international technology organizing movement as powerful as today's environmental movement to influence governments, corporations and other institutions in their use and creation of technology. The long-term goal would be to point towards a new global technologically-based civilization which ties economic activity to social well-being and practices democracy in all its important activities.

Training Technology Organisers

The key to the successful development of a technology organizing movement would be the training of the technology organisers - the people who work within the technological communities. They would need training in the basic organizing principles of a technology organizing movement and in the goals such as movement would promote.

A basic course for a technology organiser would include:

1) An introduction to technological change, which would include discussion of a people-inclusive definition of technology and the concept of various potentialities within technologies.

2) An overview of technologies affecting the community in which the organiser is working, with special attention paid to the technology which is most affecting the community.

3) Discussions on the basics of technological forecasting which would include how to predict what technologies will be introduced into particular communities.

4) A module on the principles of participatory design, which is a method (originally developed in the Nordic countries) to effectively involve users in the development of computer programs. Participatory design principles can be learned by anybody; they do not involve extensive knowledge of computer programming.

5) An introduction to the basic strategies and tactics of organizing people within technological communities such as:

  • Pick an initial project which is almost sure of victory to build confidence within the group.

  • Let potential solutions come out of facilitated group discussions and not the organiser.

  • Find the natural leaders within a group and train them as technology organisers.

6) A basic technology organiser course would also include a section on how to organise a computer project including sections on:

  • Needs analysis (to determine the needs of the participants).

  • System design (a process leading to a document which describes the technical design of the software to be produced).

  • Prototyping (to provide a prototype for the participants to react to, and change, before the whole program is written).

  • Programming ( the basic concepts only; technology organisers do not have to know how to program).

  • Training (how to design a training program).

  • Scheduling (how to establish a schedule for a computer project).

  • Parallel runs (operating the new and old system for a period of time in order to find errors in the new program and have time to fix them).

  • Evaluation (not only of the program produced, but of the whole process of the technology-organizing involved in the project).

This last point is crucial. It is not enough to have successfully involved a community in the design of a new technology because we know that more new technologies will appear. What we also have to do, while involved in a technology organizing project, is to pay attention to what general lessons could be learned about how to organise technology. Then we can apply those lessons to our technology organizing when the next new technology comes along.

In terms of technology organizing it matters little that you learned how to work with a particular technology (like computers or the Web). What really matters are the lessons you learned in organising the people who were involved with it. By building our stock of lessons we can continually improve the basic principles of technology organizing and strengthen the movement's ability to confront the next wave of technological change.

Technology organisers will also need to be trained in articulating the rights the movement would fight for. A listing of rights might vary from community to community. A list of rights for a workplace community might include:

  • Being involved in the design of technologies in the workplace

  • Privacy - no email or telephone monitoring

  • Health and Safety protection, especially for stress-related problems

Electronic Unions

Each technological community will use the principles of technology organizing in their own way. They will develop novel ways of reacting to technological change. And (hopefully) they will develop new technologies. By adopting the same major goal (to uncover democratic potentialities in technologies) and sharing organizing lessons, they can learn from each other and together build a powerful, global movement.

As for the specific case of employee unions: they will need to radically reorganise themselves because their employers are in the process of radically re-organizing themselves. If they do not, they run the risk of being 19th century organisations facing 21st century employers. That is a risk which could very well result in the extinction of unions.

To help ensure the re-creation of industrial unions into electronic unions we need to begin wide-ranging discussions with creative ideas. Members have to be involved in a campaign of re-thinking their institutions. Some ideas which might be introduced into these discussions include:

  • Temporary local unions created for temporary projects. If employers are going to create temporary entities for their projects (possible via contracting out and other ways) unions may have to make it easy for groups of workers to come together during the life of the project to form their own local union or branch. This may mean addressing the legislation which creates and protects unions. Maybe we should be looking at the example of actors' unions which protect members working on temporary projects (plays).

  • Organise information and knowledge workers. Information workers are people such as insurance clerks who work with data that has been shaped into information. Knowledge workers are people who create new knowledge, such as university professors, scientists, computer system designers and others. Both fields of employment will expand in electronic societies. Unions have to begin organizing these people by understanding who they are, hiring some of them as organisers and most importantly, using the same tools they do (such as computer communications).

  • Develop customized information. The key to working with people (either as clients, customers or union members) in an electronic society will be to address them in customized ways. Abundant computing power allows for the tracking of minute pieces of information such as: how many times a member sent an email to the union; what are the member's interests; what family grouping do they live with; and so on. By tracking disparate bits of information on members a profile could be built so that union organisers (or intelligent computer systems) could react to members as individuals (or individuals within particular groups). If companies are going to do this to build and maintain their customer bases why shouldn't unions? Unions should give away customized information (such as: retirement plans, or wage analyses linked to financial plans) as an enticement for the worker to join the union in order to get more customized information.

  • Organise workers' help desks. Information and knowledge workers are used to dealing electronically with computer companies for software help. They should also be able to communicate with union help desks. These union help desks could provide information on labour legislation, retirement plans, layoff provisions, etc., without charging. In order to get to a higher level of customized help people would have to join the union.

  • Lobby for truly universal pension and maternity/paternity plans. Computers allow employers to manage the payrolls of large numbers of temporary workers (in fact, this is one of the reasons for the rise in the number of casual employees). There is no reason why these very systems could not also track hourly employment periods in order to calculate pension, maternity and other benefits. If a worker is employed by a company a total of 52 hours in a year that employee should be able to have 52 hours counted towards a pension plan or other benefit plan. Then it would be a matter of legislation to make the plans portable between employers.

  • Union education departments are usually under-staffed and under-resourced. However, with the introduction of computer communications, unions could share their educational staff, or other experts amongst themselves. A health and safety officer based in one city could teach members of many unions who may be scattered throughout the country or international region. These activities could be coordinated by national and international labour bodies.

  • Create databases of employers. Unions could use computers to build databases of information on employers to share with other unions (perhaps internationally) but also to track the linkage between companies (such as primary companies and suppliers). This information could help build the union's strength in bargaining, public campaigns (such as boycotts) and, if necessary, strikes.

  • A union activist database could be created. This database could hold profiles of labour activists according to their interests and capabilities. For example, if a union were looking for a person with experience handling a particular health and safety problem (such as asbestosis) the database could be search and the person contacted via email.

  • Hypertext contracts could be posted online. Every contract clause could have a hypertext link to an explanation of why the clause exists, why it might need improving and what its history is. As well, clauses which do not currently exist (but the union would like to add) could be annexed with explanations. In this way members could gain a better understanding of their contracts and be informed about possible improvements. A better informed membership always strengthens the union's bargaining committee.

Grand Projects for the Labour Movement

The labour movement needs some grand projects to give it focus and enthusiasm as it develops electronically. These projects might include:

  • An Online International Labour College. The creation of an International Labour College, which uses computer conferencing to conduct online classes, would be a very important step in developing the labour movement's reactions to globalisation. An online College would not only train unionists in the characteristics of the global economy being created (and we desperately need more unionists informed on this topic) but also build linkages between individuals and organisations internationally. 

  • A Crystal Labour Encyclopaedia. If you drop a crystal into a supersaturated solution it becomes a much larger, even more beautiful crystal. If we created a labour encyclopaedia with little articles (like little crystals) to which people around the world could attach information or comments we could create an international encyclopaedia of enormous scope and diversity. The Crystal Labour Encyclopaedia could become a very important tool in the development of a global labour movement consciousness.(* This paragraph was written in 2000 long before the introduction of wikies and the Wikipedia. Today of course we would use those technologies and models)

These are just a few ideas thrown into the wind for discussion. They, and others suggested by more unionists, could spark even better ideas. And it is ideas by the millions we need in order to make sure our unions make the transition to the new electronic societies that are emerging. Maybe, by adopting a program of training technology organisers and participating in an international technology-organizing movement, we can ensure the continued existence of our unions, extend our efforts to protect working people and participate in a global movement which promotes the appropriate use of technology to celebrate the human spirit in all its manifestations.

Marc Bélanger

Turin, Italy,                                                               

First published:

Bélanger, M. (2001). Technology organizing and unions. In M. Moll & L. Shade 

(Eds.), E-commerce vs. e-commons (pp. 129-151). Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: 

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.