Essentially, the rise of the precariat and the parallel development of social networking technology leads unions closer and closer to a single watershed question: To what extent are we willing to entrust organizing to the members?
In a lengthy article, Peter Hall-Jones argues that social networking can lead to a new unionism that makes use of social networking as a organizing tool for precarious workers:
“Unionism is about building human relationships, not developing a client base. The precariat has everything to gain from coming together in solidarity. Unions need to be developing frameworks (eg occupational networks) which encourage the precariat to become involved and organize themselves. The alternative, a unionism which withdraws into 20th century traditions, will see many unions go the way of those earlier craft bodies. And the middle ground, based on helpdesks, contract advice and insurance services, can only slow the decline. Such an enormous new force as the precariat has little to gain (and unions little to offer) from a menu of services anchored around the word “help”.
On the bright side, the advent of new social networking tools (including the rise of mobile phones in developing countries) provides us with an ideal platform[xxx] to build this new solidarity. The fact that such tools are often free, and that the young have already mastered the medium (indeed, practically taken control of it), gives us the opportunity to build work-centered networks and associations on top of existing union structures. These might be initiated by a core group of union members, but if they are to address occupational issues properly, they will inevitably involve a growing cohort of the precariat.
For instance, a group of members of a service workers’ union might set up a care workers’ network. The agenda is theirs to define, but might include such things as the collection and sharing of data on pay rates, nationwide standards monitoring, lobbying over workloads, addressing problems within the industry’s culture, setting up exchange schemes, and working with occupational networks from other countries… whatever they see as relevant. Naturally, people could remain involved with the network if they became unemployed, or were reduced to part-time or contract work. Temps and staff provided by agencies could also become involved (if the group so decides), along with trainees, volunteers and/or retirees. Remember, this is about networking. It is not about setting up new structures or branches. It is informal, inclusive and dynamic.
This may just prove to be the 21st century equivalent of the radical inclusiveness of the earlier new unionists. Such occupational networks would help unions to develop a more concrete presence in the workplace, and within working relationships. Such a shift would also raise interesting questions about new types of ‘associate’ union membership.
Furthermore, once working people have more voice in the way work is organised, they will inevitably develop alternative views on what ‘the market’ requires. There is absolutely no reason that profit should be the sole end. Guy Standing cites a simple illustration of this:
“…left to themselves as individuals, fishers compete against each other and deplete fish stocks, since short term profits dictate what they do. Collaborative bargaining would tend towards the preservation and reproduction of fish stocks and would promote professional standards that would act to constrain individualistic competition.”
He goes on to argue that developing networks and a new citizenship around occupation takes us beyond the employer-centric trap of 20th century labourism.
This would be the beginning of a fairly major shift in thinking for some unions. Essentially, the rise of the precariat and the parallel development of social networking technology leads unions closer and closer to a single watershed question: To what extent are we willing to entrust organizing to the members?”