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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 08:09 GMT
Will the internet transform the unions?

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online economics reporter

Much attention has been paid to the effect of the internet in transforming how business operates, but far less on how it has been affecting unions.

However, new research suggests that the internet may have the potential to transform the way unions function, with wide-ranging implications for labour relations.

Rank and file websites help boost morale in the fire strike
Professor Richard Freeman, who studies labour markets at Harvard and the London School of Economics, argues that the biggest effort of the internet will be to allow unions to organise the workforce more cheaply and efficiently than before.

And he argues that the growth of grass-roots activism and wildcat strikes has been strengthened by the creation of unofficial sites.

He says that the UK is ahead of the field in the attitudes of its unions towards internet use.

Professor Freeman told BBC News Online that the impact of the internet on union organising is still to be realised, but it could be "revolutionary".

In most Western countries, including the US and the UK, unions have struggled to maintain their membership levels and reach out to organise new workplaces, especially outside of manufacturing and the public sector.


He said that the internet was affecting unions in at least four different ways.

First, it was strengthening rank-and-file activists in the course of disputes, and leading to longer strikes.

Richard Freeman argues that the recent UK firefighters' strike - which saw a proliferation of websites devoted to supporting the striking workers - was prolonged because the leadership was outflanked by militant workers organising on the internet.

The growing pace of unofficial action in the UK, including recent unofficial strikes by postal workers, and the revival of militancy by the firefighters, seem to reinforce Mr Freeman's point.

Second, Mr Freeman believes that unions are able to strengthen their local leadership cadres by use of the internet.

He cites the example of the TUC which set up a specific website to reach all union representatives in the workplace, telling them about health and safety at work information, news about their rights at work, and giving them the ability to share information with others in similar situations.

A network of shop stewards has long been considered key to successful union organising.

Internet-based organising

Third, Mr Freeman believes that the internet makes it much easier for union activists to organise at the workplace - especially when companies are hostile to a union presence, as in much of the United States.

He cities the example of IBM, where a workers' website has been established for a company which refuses to recognise unions.

The site provides information about IBM's policies, especially its plan to abolish its final salary pension scheme and convert everyone to a money-purchase pension.

The site is well read by many IBM workers and managers, as it often gives advance information on changes in company policy.

And in the UK, unions such as Unison, which organise a diverse workforce at many different sites, are using the internet to communicate more effectively with their workforce.

Political mobilisation

Finally, Professor Freeman argues that unions can use the internet as an effective tool of political mobilisation.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vermont Governor Howard Dean
Mr Dean has raised his money through the internet
He points out that in the US, over half a million people have signed up with the AFL-CIO's union voices website, which sends an e-mail message asking them to contact their Congressmen and Senators when an issue of political importance to unions comes before Congress.

He says they have been very effective in lobbying Congress on particular issues such as changes to the law regarding overtime pay, the privatisation of Medicare health benefits, and trade issues such as the expansion of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The view that the internet might help increase political involvement is shared by the UK Government, which has suggested it might experiment with internet voting in local elections.

And in the US, the use of the internet to raise money and recruit volunteers has propelled Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean into the position of frontrunner.

Jobs market

In contrast, initial results by Professor Freeman suggest that the internet is having less effect on recruitment than previously thought.

Although there has been a proliferation of web-based job search sites, it appears that workers are not finding jobs any more quickly.

Instead, they are searching more jobs before finding an appropriate match.

Companies still need to use conventional methods, such as newspaper ads, to find the right workers.

Professor Freeman's research is part of the Economic and Social Research Council's e-society research programme.

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