World Employment Report 2001

Negotiating the new economy: The effect of ICT on industrial relations

10. Making use of the opportunities of new technology

Something of the latent power of ICT in industrial relations is apparent in this letter from a South African trade union negotiator, published in the COSATU publication The Shopsteward in mid-2000:

On 8 and 9 May I led wage negotiations in the cotton textile sector. On the evening of 8 May I downloaded my e-mail, scanned the Daily Labour News update, and got a very interesting article about the relationship between wages and inflation (very intellectual article, with references to Keynes, etc, I must admit).
The next morning (completely unexpectedly) as their opening gambit, the employers tabled a copy of the article. I could respond immediately and authoritatively, having read the article and thought about the implications – they were stunned.

The idea that information acquired electronically could be an integral part of the collective bargaining process has a long history. As far back as 1972, Charles "Chip" Levinson, the then head of the international chemical workers federation (ICF, now ICEM) suggested the use of what he called computerised information banks for trade unionists negotiating with large transnational companies.113 By 1992, when a pioneering conference on international trade union use of telematics was held in Britain, a number of trade unions had developed email and bulletin board services for members, often spurred on by a particular enthusiastic union member.114

Since then, the internet has radically increased the opportunities available. One writer has suggested that the internet permits a rediscovery by trade unions of the nineteenth century principle of internationalism.115

At the creation of the newly merged UNI in 2000, its General Secretary Philip Jennings announced that the new organisation aimed to be an "on-line organisation". He subsequently outlined an agenda for "web-friendly" unions which could include on-line recruitment, virtual union branches, e-campaigns, and e-solidarity during disputes.116

However, despite the Internet’s fast growth throughout the world, the digital divide remains a daunting obstacle to visions like this . For example, only about 400 (slightly less than half) UNI’s affiliate unions had internet connectivity in mid-2000. The organisation is encouraging north-south solidarity between affiliates with the aim of ensuring that all UNI unions have internet access by mid-2001.

The example of WashTech, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers which works primarily via the web, has been described above. Members can join WashTech via the website, completing their membership form online and paying membership subscriptions by credit card. A similar arrangement applies at Alliance@IBM, another initiative undertaken by the Communications Workers of America.

In South Africa, COSATU first included an electronic membership application form on its comprehensive web site in mid-2000. Workers who wish to join one of COSATU’s affiliate unions can complete the form online and email it direct to COSATU, who will forward it to the relevant union for processing. However, because some affiliates are yet to have internet connectivity, the actual procedure involves COSATU staff printing out the form for onward delivery by fax or post.117

The issue of on-line membership recruitment may raise legal difficulties and uncertainties. In Canada, one union has questioned whether on-line applications satisfy the country’s existing labour laws, particularly in relation to legislation on union recognition in non-recognised companies. In the US, however, the entertainments union IATSE is investigating using digital signatures (now legal in the country) for gathering signatures in organising drives.118

A number of unions have taken concrete steps to encourage their members to acquire personal computers. In Singapore, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has launched its Easy PC Plan, in collaboration with PeoplePC. Union members are offered a brand-name PC with internet access and an email account at a discount of up to 40% of normal shop price. Credit facilities are also available, for a payment of S$ 1 a day ($ 29.99 a month). The Easy PC Plan includes access to a 24-hour help line.119 NTUC says that 10,000 people signed up immediately at the launch of the scheme in May 2000. NTUC also offers heavily subsidised IT courses.

In Australia, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has arranged a similar scheme for members of affiliate unions, who can acquire an IBM Aptiva computer with software and internet access for less than A$ 10.95 a week. The ACTU deal, arranged with Virtual Communities company, also includes a 24-hour help line.120

In South Africa, COSATU are investigating a similar scheme for members of its affiliate Teachers union.

The internet offers a new tool which can be used in the event of industrial dispute. Unofficial web sites established by strikers during industrial action date back at least to a newspaper dispute in San Francisco in 1994. An issue which has only recently come to the fore, however, is the extent to which a company can and should have the power to control critical information about it posted on the internet.

This issue has arisen in Korea, as a consequence of an industrial dispute which followed from the dismissal of 580 workers after the takeover of Sammi Speciality Steel corporation in 1996 by Pohang Iron and Steel Co Ltd (POSCO). Supporters of the dismissed workers (some of whom have appealed against the decision) have been maintaining an "anti-POSCO" website, with details of the dispute and appeals for international solidarity. The anti-POSCO site deliberately parodies the design of the official company site.

The company applied for a legal injunction against the site, claiming that it violated the copyright of its own homepage. This allegation was in turn attacked by the Korean Labournet network NodongNet, which argued that the company was attempting to restrict freedom of expression on the internet.

A somewhat similar case occurred in South Africa in 1998 at the time when the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) was fighting an attempt by British-based multinational Biwater to operate privatised water services in parts of the country. Criticism of the company was placed on an NGO web site, but lawyers representing the company persuaded the site managers to remove the material. In response, however, the same material was mirrored in several other web sites around the world, including those of the Public Services International and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). The ICFTU also reports of strong on-line campaigns run by the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions (ICEM) against multinationals Rio Tinto and Bridgestone.121

The legal ability of workers (or indeed disaffected customers) to take their complaints into cyberspace by using a website which includes the company name is by no means clear. The issue is related to, though not identical to, that of so-called cybersquatters (individuals or companies who deliberately register web domain names for major companies, hoping later to sell the names back to the companies at a profit). The adoption in December 1999 of the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has led to the creation of the WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center which rules on disputed web domain registrations, including cases of alleged cybersquatting. As of July 2000, WIPO’s panel of neutral experts had ruled in about 350 cases, with about 80% of decisions going in favour of the company making the complaint.122

However, in the case of the web domain the WIPO panel has ruled against the multinational tyre company Bridgestone/Firestone in favour of Jack Myers, a former employee of the company who had established the web site to highlight a pension grievance he held. The WIPO panel recorded in its judgment the observation "The Panel concludes that the exercise of free speech for criticism and commentary also demonstrates a right or legitimate interest in the domain name.. The Internet is above all a framework for global communication, and the right to free speech should be one of the foundations of Internet law".123

The right of unions and workers to set up web sites using the name of the parent company may become clearer in the future. One possibility being discussed between the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and ICANN is the creation of a new generic top-level domain .union, comparable to the familiar .com and .org suffixes. If introduced, this might be an acceptable and easily recognisable way to identify trade union sponsored web sites for individual companies. However, this issue is still subject to debate.

Trade union leaders should perhaps be aware, however, that the internet’s powerful role as a means of communication and information potentially opens up union’s own internal procedures and structures as never before to individual members. This may on occasions be uncomfortable. The writer Eric Lee has recounted one anecdote from the US where a union had negotiated what it considered a successful agreement for its members in the aviation industry. The members, however, had to ratify the agreement by direct ballot. "One of them read through the contract very carefully and decided that the union had done a bad deal. He began sending out email messages every day to the members of his union, telling them line-by-line, word-by-word, what was wrong with the contract… When the vote came, the union leadership was overwhelmingly defeated.. It came as a complete shock to the union leaders, who were absolutely clueless about the internet."124

The innovative use of both the internet and call centres by the German telework advice service OnForTe has already been mentioned. In the United Kingdom, two unions have also explored the potential of call centres as a way of servicing their members’ needs more closely. The Royal College of Nursing opened an RCN Direct operation in 1998, providing advice for its 310,000 members from a well-equipped call centre operating twenty-four hours a day. RCN Direct staff are highly qualified, and advise both on employment related issues and on professional nursing and clinical concerns. The RCN also uses the telephone advice service as a recruitment mechanism to reach new members.

Also in the UK, the largest union Unison has recently piloted a call centre operation. Unison, which organises public sector workers, has attempted to mesh the call centre with its shop steward network, by referring callers where appropriate back to their workplace representative.125