Discussing Global Unionism II: The Social Network Model

RT map of protests across EU.

Below we are re-posting the second paper of the very timely discussion on how to form truly global unions -instead of international federation of national unions. The discussion has been recently launched by the New Unionism Network and you can read other papers here.

 The network is the vanguard. Dan Gallin, Chair of the Global Labour Institute

The union movement and FaceBook are about the same size, as of October 2012. That’s about one billion members, or one seventh of the world’s population[1]. It’s a milestone that has attracted very little attention because, frankly, the comparison ends there.

But why?

In this discussion the author argues for a new type of social networking — one which takes great care to protect the user while actively promoting honesty and openness. This combination of safety and collegiality is vital if working people are to build international networks; it is all too easy to forget the real hazards faced by many who need a collective voice. Adding a social network layer to our existing model of unionism would also create a horizontal base, and bring tremendous new strength to the existing vertical structures.


Unlike FaceBook, the union movement grew organically, almost always in the face of resistance. The “new unionism” of the late 19th century ushered in an age of industrial unions, and by the beginning of the 20th century we were uniting workers and federating their unions along regional, sectoral and national lines. The first experiments with international structures began to appear in the very earliest years of the twentieth century. Back then, comparisons with FaceBook might have made sense.

Any sense of growth and convergence ended with the First World War. Intra-national fractures followed with the great communist/socialist split of 1920. Then came the Great Depression, Stalinism, the Second World War, Maoism, the Cold War, the rise of neo-liberalism, the implosion of soviet socialism, globalization and the 2008 finanical crisis. This roller coaster ride was further complicated by profound and ongoing changes in industrial relations and employment law regimes. All the entrepreneurial savvy in the world wouldn’t have saved Mark Zuckerberg in similar circumstances; FaceBook has been allowed to bloom in a climate of neo-liberal toleratation. (Compare this with the fate of Wikileaks!) To its credit, the union movement has continued to develop through and around all of these obstacles. However, it must be said that we have developed some mighty peculiar shapes along the way.

When is a union not a union?

Unions in North Korea are qualitatively different things from unions in Germany. The same could be said about unions in South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Or Australia, Afghanistan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Iran and the U.S.A. Some would argue from this that many workers organizations in the world today are not “real” trade unions. In doing so, they promote one or other ideal model to which unions in certain countries do not correspond. In this way the ILO defines unions as:“independent organizations, consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members”. However, this approach raises more questions than it answers. Does the ILO really mean to imply that workers’ organizations in countries where bargaining is illegal are not real unions? And in countries where employers refuse to meet unions, are they somehow fictive? What about unions whose primary concern is to extend workers’ influence, rather than adopting the service-based role the ILO prescribes? Or unions who represent groups other than traditional employees? (eg the self-employed, workers in co-operatives, peasant farmers, slaves in Western Africa, volunteers, the unemployed etc)? And are some unions in China to be accorded some kind of mysterious ‘quasi-being’ status? Then there are the new “membership-based organizations”, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India, Via Campesina, or the Freelancers Union in the U.S.A. Are we really agreed that these are not unions? Furthermore, independence is no guarantee of democratic governance. Since when did we agree to leave this out? More to the point, given the nature of words like independent and democratic, can we ever use any definition to measure whether an organization is a union or not? The shadow of the Cold War hangs over the ILO’s definition. If we are talking about global unionism, we need to recognise that this question of definition is problematic, and temporarily set it aside. Rather, let’s consider what we want unionism to be, and see if there is more consensus there. This means referring back to working people.

Most would agree that unions are characterised (rather than defined) by the nature of their membership and the participation of members. Finding ways to optimise this in accordance with the members’ aspirations is what matters, rather than checking for correspondence against some ideal definition. In some contexts working people seek structural solutions (eg social partnership), in others they use less formal means (eg labour NGOs). But always, no matter what else is going on, we build networks.

As soon as the traditional definition is set aside, we notice a huge gap in the current model. Working people are not organized internationally. Their union structures have long since met this challenge, creating all manner of peak bodies and federations, but working people themselves have scarcely begun the process.

A case in point

A person working for Best Price in India is part of a network of 2.2 million people that includes employees of Asda in the UK, Sam’s Club in the USA, and Seiyu in Japan. They all work for Walmart — the largest private sector employer in the world. But what mechanisms do these working people have for developing global influence within the company?

If they are union members, there is a good chance their union is affiliated to a global union federation called UNI. This month (October 2012) UNI affiliates from nine countries met to form the Walmart Global Union Alliance[2]. It is a great initiative. However, UNI only has about 70(?) staff members to represent 20 million unionists in 150 countries. How much energy will they be able to invest to build this alliance, especially given that Walmart’s staff in the USA are not unionised? UNI’s membership is made up of unions (ie 900 affiliates), rather than working people. Because of this, its primary mandate is to help build unionisation at national level. This explains the angle taken in the presentation that accompanied the launch of the Alliance (see goo.gl/pn78l). UNI takes this opportunity to strongly recommend that working people join their local unions. In its own right, UNI has neither the mandate nor the resources to build global organization from the base upwards.

If direction and resources are not to come from the top, then, how then can our friend in Best Price begin to network with colleagues at Seiyu, Asda and Sam’s Club? Let’s look at the recent experience of Walmart employees in the U.S.A. About 5,000 of them came together (starting in 2010) to form a social network. “OUR WalMart”[3] is hosted by NationBuilder, which bills itself as “the world’s first Community Organizing System”[4]. They have used the tools to produce a “Declaration of Respect”[5] and begun to build and negotiate around this. At the time of writing they have launched the U.S.A.’s first-ever Walmart strike, involving 28 outlets in twelve USA cities[6]. A larger strike is planned for “Black Friday” (November 23th 2012). Remember, these people are not in a union (although they want to be!)[7]. Now take a look at these other Walmart employee sites:goo.gl/Mdwzqgoo.gl/ya8Tugoo.gl/F2I6kgoo.gl/P0Fq2 (ASDA), goo.gl/F36tbgoo.gl/bdYwX,goo.gl/q3o1E.

Full credit to these employees and to the unions who have stood by them, even though they are not members. If they can somehow link their networks horizontally, and bring in colleagues at Sam’s Club, Seiyu, ASDA and Best Price etc, they will have a tremendous base for influence within the company. Of course, this is in addition to the vertical initiative being developed by UNI and its affiliates. In fact such a social network would be the best ally the Global Walmart Alliance could ever have. Local unions would also be rewarded with new and active members, when their right to unionisation is finally recognised.

At this point it is tempting to suggest a new global unionism based on social networks built around workplace or employer. However, before doing that let us consider some other natural spheres of solidarity. A freelance IT worker in Bulgaria shares a natural network with his/her equivalents in Canada, Algeria and the Philippines. Having a social network based around occupation provides a useful avenue for professional support, friendship, ideas, job advice and career development. In a similar way, being able to network around regionsector and industry could offer advantages, both for the individual and the collective. In the course of building the union movement, innumerable unions and federations have formed around each of these communities. We have also seen the growth of general unions, as well as attempts to build organization from the top down around supply chain. Then there are the natural networks that form around gender and ethnicity. And of course other networks develop around social, political and sexual preferences. What about networks by language? Furthermore, the ‘precariat’ (temps, contractors, agency workers etc) would benefit immensely from this kind of social networking, learning to co-operate in a market that deliberately plays them off against each another.

So what is it to be? Should workers organize globally around linked workplaces, employers, occupations, gender, regions, sectors, industries, language, identity politics, supply chains or any one of a dozen other options? Remember, this question has not been answered at the national level, yet alone globally.

Luckily, we can learn here from existing social networks. The solution is in place and has been thoroughly tested. You can be a member of as many groups, smartlists or circles as you like. There is absolutely no reason to select one over another. Rather, it is a matter of reconfiguring the data dynamically around the member. Essentially, this means we can build solidarity and influence along multiple lines at once.

Why are we waiting?

The fact that this has not happened already is not evidence that working people do not want to organize globally. After all, LinkedIn, a social network for professional workers, has more than 175 million active users. Xing and Viadeo serve a similar group. More than 22 million artists use deviantArt as a platform for exhibition and discussion. Yammer offers social networking services to more than 200,000 companies. Avaaz is a democratic activist network with more than 16 million members. And FaceBook has many groups dealing with workplace issues, including one for workplace bullying with more than a million members. But if you were having specific problems at work, would you turn to FaceBook to discuss the way forward?

At heart, FaceBook is an advertising agency. Its raison d’etre is to extract data from private profiles and convert this into commercial demographics. The more information they collect, the more return they earn from their database. This is not where you would go to discuss private matters, as we have seen in countless cases of people disciplined, prosecuted, sacked, spied on, harrassed, sued, or denied employment following FaceBook activity. On top of this, FaceBook is often frowned upon or blocked in workplaces. Google Plus isn’t much better, despite the branding. It makes no bones about the information it collects (some of which is given optionally). Over and above your name, photo and contact details, it collects occupation, employment and relationship details, email addresses, phone numbers, current location (such as GPS signals sent by a mobile device), telephony log information (such as your calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls), your IP address and your hardware settings. [8]). Oddly, even UnionBook does not address this issue of privacy. At the time of writing, key profile information is public by default and comments are indexed, which means that anything you say might be accessed by your employer. Nor is there any way of knowing the real identity of those who have joined a group you set up. Needless to say, UnionBook has not taken off as a workplace organizing tool[9].

I believe the missing link that would bring together the horizontal innovation of social networking and the vertical discipline of the union movement is safety. If you are going to start building organization with your co-workers, the first thing you need is a safe space to meet. At the moment there isn’t one. There are social networks and secure forums, but the two functions have not yet been combined.

Depending upon your vantage point, it is easy to forget the risks that working people face in trying to build a collective voice. In the USA for instance, 25% of private sector employers fire at least one worker for activity during union organizing drives. 75% hire consultants or union-busters and 92% force their employees to attend mandatory closed-door meetings against the union[10]. But such intimidation becomes the least of our worries, when we try to network across borders. In Colombia, Guatemala and the Philippines about 50 people were assassinated for union activity in 2011. Unionisation is illegal in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Eritrea, Qatar and Sudan. Unions are banned in most export processing zones. Fiercely anti-union regimes operate in Djibouti, Swaziland, Iran, Equatorial Guinea, Syria, Bahrain, Ethiopia and Fiji. In 2011 mass dismissals, arrests and/or detention, followed union activity in Georgia, Kenya, South Africa and Botswana and Namibia. And, depending on your political views, you might argue that working people are actively denied a collective voice in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And of course this climate of fear is sharpened by the global rise of precarious work (ie work that is non-permanent, indirect, informal and/or otherwise insecure). Short-term contracts are clearly used to prevent union organizing in Cambodia, South Korea, Indonesia and Japan. The same effect is being felt more generally across most of the world[11].

We do not have a safe means for social networking. Once there is such a thing, and once critical mass and unity have been achieved, the work of building solidarity and unionisation becomes much easier. If Black Friday goes as planned at Walmart, the employer can only avoid unionisation by offering real concessions. Either way the staff win, and the network remains in place for next steps to be taken. Along the way, the basis for building global unionism has been established.

First steps

The New Unionism Network has set up a facility called safespace(safespace.newunionism.net) to discuss the development of global unionism[12]. In a sense, this meeting is a practical test of the system. With a little further development it could be added to any website or blog simply by pasting in a few lines of code. Full security would be maintained wherever the system was used.

Whether it is safespace or some other model, the idea is that working people need a tool which they can use to freely and honestly engage with each other, without the attendant risks of FaceBook or comment/chat systems. As we have seen above, this becomes critical when networking across borders. With such a facility in place, any worker at Walmart could set up a website or blog with a safe social network of their own, adding the email addresses of people they know and want to work with. In the meantime, their colleagues could do the same at Best Price, ASDA, Seiyu and Sam’s Club. Joining these groups together is simply a matter of the hosts agreeing that it is a good idea. Better still, they could set up a new group for cross-border discussion. And even in the worst case scenario, if a trusted member of the group were to feed information back to the employer, there is no way of proving who is involved in the discussion, or who is saying what. That evidence simply does not exist.

Social network unionism[13] could be developed across any sphere of mutual interest. It creates a powerful new ally for the global labour movement. Together, the two provide the platform for a new global unionism. The model could be mapped this way:


The ambient conflict between labour and capital takes many forms around the world — from courteous rivalry to murderous repression to strait-jacketted collaboration. Each of these finds its analogue within the union movement. Ideological tensions are a necessary consequence. Meanwhile, out in the global workplace, cross-border relationships between working people are generally characterised by cameraderie and goodwill. Solidarity is the starting point, rather than a strategic goal. For this reason social networking, if it minimises risk, could provide a vital ally for labour’s organizational structure. And if all this sounds too technocratic or theoretical for you, watch what happens at Walmart on Black Friday, when the power of organizations and social networks comes together. It is not a new kind of FaceBook we are talking about here, but a new kind of solidarity.


About the author
The name of the author of this paper has been withheld. It is envisaged that the same process will be applied to subsequent papers in this series — all of which have come from members of the New Unionism Network — until the Network has discussed the visions collectively. After this, we will start presenting visions for wider discussion among the union movement. The authors may (or may not) elect to identify themselves and promote their views individually.

About safespace
The New Unionism Network’s discussion on global unionism is hosted on safespace, a facility developed by volunteer IT and communications workers from within the network. See [12] below. An FAQ on the project and the technology behind it is currently in preparation. Please contact safespace@newunionism.net for further information.

[1] FaceBook: www.bbc.com/news/technology-19816709. Union membership figures are much more elusive. The figure usually quoted is one in five, based on an ILO report from 1997. (ILO, 1997. World Labour Report 1997-1998. Geneva, ILO). No comparable study has ever updated this data.  Our own research suggests that (roughly speaking) union membership has increased in developing countries and decreased in developed ones since 2000, with an overall net increase in total. No comprehensive data on density trends exists. The status accorded to unions in China is a crucial variable in any calculations. In light of this, one in seven can only be regarded as a rough and conservative estimate.

[2]www.uniglobalunion.org/Blogs/walmart.nsf/dx/03.10.2012040756REL4GS.htm?opendocument&comments. This builds on earlier work that produced the Walmart Workers’ Alliance.

[3] See forrespect.org/ and discussion here:usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/retail/story/2012-06-05/walmart-workers-air-complaints/55450634/1

[4] nationbuilder.com/faq

[5] forrespect.nationbuilder.com/sign_the_declaration

[6] www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/09/walmart-strike-dallas-arkansas-los-angeles-workers_n_1951867.html?1349806956&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

[7] Involvement and support from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and others should be noted here. This is difficult to quantify, but solidarity has obviously played a key role in developing these networks.

[8] www.google.com/intl/en-GB/policies/privacy/

[9] That said, UnionBook is an invaluable tool for activists who want to share ideas, seek information and establish new contacts around the world. Every unionist should join!

[10] www.newunionism.net/library/organizing/AFL-CIO%20-%20Statistics%20on%20Employer%20Interference%20in%20Unionisation%20-%202007.pdf

[11] This information is collected from the ITUC’s latest Annual Survey of the Violations of Trade Union Rights (2012). See www.ituc-csi.org/annual-survey-of-violations-of,11418.html

[12] Some brief specifics: When you sign up, safespace does not ask for your name or address. Instead, it assigns an initial alias. This can then be changed whenever the user wishes. The system uses your email address just once to verify your identity, then encrypts it (one-way hash salted MD5, for the afficianados). After this it cannot be accessed again. Most importantly, the system does not record user details against comments, nor does it keep IP numbers or any other information that could be used for identification purposes. All that anyone can know is that the people who are in a discussion have been invited to be there by the host.

[13] The term “social network unionism” was coined by Immanuel Ness (himself a member of the New Unionism Network) in his 2005 book “Immigrants, Unions and the new U.S. Labor Market”. Rather than referring to social networking in its technical sense, Ness was referring to an organizing approach based on the use of existing social networks to organize immigrant/ transnational workers. Örsan ?enalp (another member) has used the term since 2010 to describe a shift towards “a peer to peer, transnational, common, and hyper-empowered labour class movement”. The term is used here with the blessing of both members, although it means something quite distinct: i.e. working people using social network technology to build solidarity from the ground up, within and across borders.


2 thoughts on “Discussing Global Unionism II: The Social Network Model

  1. Pingback: Discussing Global Unionism II: The Social Network Model | ANOTHER WORLD NOW! - GLOBAL SPRING | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Discussing Global Unionism II: The Social Network Model | Prop@ganda | Scoop.it

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