“Digital” favours conservatives… and how unions can fight back

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Over a decade ago, progressives and unionists looked at the internet, digital platforms and tools and dreamed utopioan dreams of democracy and equality. Now, in the era of fake news, surveillance capitalism and “zoombombing”, progressives & unions are struggling with how to respond.

Fundamental for unions to understand about digital technology in 2020 is that digital tools entrench, not disrupt, existing power relationships. Corporations, employers, and conservative political groups have easily overcome the novel early “edge” that progressive activists and unions had in digital tool adoption. Corporates now utterly dominate the digital age.

The real risk now is this dominance snuffs out the dreams of a better, more equal future.

In this article, I want to propose a methodology for unions to fight when there is an absolute asymmetry of power relations (something our movement is familiar with), and what practical steps unions can take in the “Data Age”.

Unions are losing the Data War

Unions are losing the Data War, and in many cases we don’t even know we’re fighting the battle.

Unions used to be data organisations.

From the turn of last century, unions held the data monopoly of the “going rate” for workers’ wages. This gave us unrivalled power over bosses and it was information that was highly-valued by workers who we could organise using this knowledge.

By the 1990s, we more or less forgot that this information monopoly was our advantage, and by the mid 2000s, corporations took over the monopoly.

Today, the big banks, credit scoring companies and corporate HR tech vendors possess more information about union members, work satisfaction, wages, and industry knowledge than unions could ever dream of. In fact, banks know far more about union members than unions themselves.

Combined with the rapid growth in surveillance capitalism, logistics companies are using AI to remotely control/manage workers from warehouses to disability care, and monitoring pace, steps, keystrokes, social media and physical location at all times.

Compared to this, unions are basically absent.

Meanwhile, a personal data and worker data disaster is brewing, that has the potential to completely undermine collective worker power for generations.

(And as I wrote a few months ago, efforts by organisations like the Centre for Responsible Technology are looking at how data and technology can be regulated.)

Fighting and winning: the insurgent strategy

In a previous article, I wrote in detail about how unions can adopt a guerilla/insurgent strategy.

The insurgent approach is one that acknowledges that we, the union movement, are at a structural disadvantage across almost every area of conflict with capital — including digital, data and technology.

The tactics adopted in the insurgent approach are ones of necessity: 1) they recognise the reality that we are weaker (in terms of material resources) than our opponents, 2) that we must build mass support through a range of tactics, and 3) that we address the resource-power asymmetry by exploiting the environment we operate in and by taking resources from our opponents.

First – we must unlearn the notion that unions and progressive organisations are “better” at digital than our conservative and corporate opponents.

Digital is not a fix for democratic deficits or resolving power imbalance. As we have seen over the past decade, the digital and technology advantage that we thought we had has been obliterated by the Liberal party, Tories and Republicans — and employers likewise now have access to consulting firms that can utterly dominate the use of tech and digital tools.

The already-powerful have access to better tools, better computer hardware, more paid staff, and more content creators. The increasing complexity of technology tools and communication channels also favours well-resourced, powerful and hierarchical organisations.

As we have seen, more horizontal, democratic and consensus-based organisations are struggling to solidify gains, despite successes in mobilising large numbers of people — think Occupy Wall St, Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, Iran’s “Green Movement” or the various March in March and climate movements in Australia.

While those campaigns used new technology and had masses of people involved, they did not ultimately succeed in transforming power relationships. What’s more, their opponents have doubled-down on technology investments: surveillance technology for police forces and dictatorships to monitor and control populations, or mass corporate “feminist-washing” propaganda in the wake of #MeToo.

Therefore, unions’ approach must recognise this truth, and in response we must rapidly and deeply improve our understanding and technical literacy.

The insurgent approach requires that unions pay special attention to technical preparation.

This means:

  • Ensuring your union’s leadership has good data literacy
  • Providing ongoing, regular training to all union staff about the use of digital tools

Insurgents must master the essential tools of the trade: for workplace insurgents, this the use of modern technology tools. Unions do not have the luxury any longer of tech-phobic organisers or industrial officers that refuse to use the union’s new CRM or roll-out of Slack/Teams.

Proficiency in all of the modern “tools of the trade” — as well as traditional organising frameworks — is vital for our movement to succeed. I am very heartened that the ACTU has recently created the Australian Trade Union Institute to assist union to rapidly access technical training and Futures Network to share innovations.

Second – we must continue to recognise that greater numbers remains the primary strategic advantage our movement has. Currently, the union movement is at a low ebb in terms of membership.

This requires some hard thinking and difficult decisions. We need to get more workers into our movement.

What are the barriers? At the moment, a big barrier is our attachment to the historical “one-size” membership model.

To win, we need a movement, not of 2 million workers, but 6 million.

As we’ve declined in size and density, the information monopoly and advantage of our movement has declined. Whereas once we sourced information from across industries and workplaces from our networks of members, now our information sources are limited to “islands” of members in organised workplaces.

We need to re-expand our sources of workplace intelligence. This workplace information (now a field dominated by the job-websites like Seek and Ziprecruiter) is vital for our movement. We need to know how capital is organising, how they are restructuring, what their priorities are, their plans. We should not limit our sources of information to just the 20% of workers who are our members.

In terms of membership, I don’t necessarily advocate that unions reduce their membership dues. However, I do think unions should have different categories or membership options, that lower barriers of entry for the mass of unorganised workers. We need to rapidly increase the numbers of workers in our movement — fully paid-up members or not.

If we continue on our current path, we are effectively saying that we want to give up our one remaining advantage: “strength in numbers”.

Third – we must resist the urge to “build our own” if there’s a better option available from our opponents.

Historically, insurgents have armed themselves with the tools and weapons of their enemies. Rather than manufacturing guns or ammunition, insurgents seize them from enemy soldiers. Rather than growing their own food, they raid enemy supply trains.

In the area of data and technology tools, there are a vast number of venture-capital funded tools: the best CRMs, the best data-warehouses, the best “business intelligence” tools. All of these far exceed in capabilities anything the union movement could dream of making ourselves.

Yet a large number of unions are still using Nationbuilder, a tool that was poorly made and outdated even when it debuted a decade ago.

Unions should also favour “maneuverable” tools, that can be adopted and implemented quickly, and discarded when something better comes along. Many unions are still “dazzled” by salespeople and vendors that sell complex solutions that “lock in” the union for a decade.

Worker and workplace data

Uniglobal is one of the Global Union Federations that is doing incredible thinking on the issue of worker and workplace data, through their Future World of Work program.

As coroprations introduce new technology and systems, there is a whole host of data that is created that has fundamental consequences for the future of power at work.

Examples, identified by FWW, include:

  • Semi-autonomous systems like HR and hiring platforms
  • Scheduling tools, that impact on who works, where and when
  • Productivity monitoring, including warehouse scanning, call-centre seat monitors, and keystroke monitors
  • Fraud detection and facial recognition, including data-mining of social media accounts of employees

What should unions do? Uniglobal identifies the “Data Lifecycle” as a schema for unions to conceptualise collective action to the various stages of data capture, use and sale.

The Workplace Data Lifecycle figure by Uniglobal

All of these lifecycle stages have potential for collective bargaining claims. And the truth is that workers can only truly negotiate collectively in the face of data collection on individuals by corporations.

Uniglobal suggests unions advance the following:

  • Delegate training: We need to improve delegates’ data literacy, so they know what systems are in place and their consequences, understand the business and personal value of collected data, and can practically think about data governance. (This will obviously mean that industrial officers, educators and organisers will need data-literacy as well.)
  • Collective agreements: In Australia, this is obviously limited by the FWA; nonetheless, unions need to develop strong, mandatory data control clauses that provide both basic and specific rights to workers. These clauses need to extend across the full data lifecycle.
  • Law reform: As noted the Centre for Responsible Technology is already looking at this, but unions need to actively be involved in crafting of data laws. In particular, most data laws focus on consumer protections, but utterly neglect workers.

There are other collective responses to this (which I’ll go into below in the “Workers Data Trusts” section).

The work of Uniglobal on this issue is very advanced in its thinking. For example, I commend their 10 Principles of Worker Data Rights and Privacy. They have also prepared a good paper addressing data rights as one of the major “megatrends” facing the global union movement — and this paper also provides practical ideas for unions.

(Thanks to Dr Christina Colclough.)

Workers Data Trusts

The idea of Data Trusts was recently promoted by Peter Lewis in a Guardian article:

So, the thinking goes, if money or property can be held “in trust” to serve a defined purpose, why not our personal information?

Rather than simply giving over the rights to use our information to any platform we visit via the never-read consent box, we would assign these rights to a third party who we would entrust to act in our interests.

Of course, our individual data would probably not be worth much. But because the trustee would represent many of us, they would have bargaining power to set terms when dealing with those who want access to a pool of information.

A few generations ago, unions were instrumental in the creation of credit unions — member owned, citizen controlled cooperative organisations to represent their members financial interests. These were set up in the 1900s as a counterweight to the predatory and unregulated pre-Depression banks. Super funds and ME Bank are a more contemporary manifestation of this.

The question is now: can unions harness the same powerful principles to create a new set of institutions to rebalance the extreme economic and social inequality that exists in relation to data. (A big shout out to this Prospect UK data maturity tool for unions).

There are already a number of organisations going down this path: The UK’s NESTA Trust or the USA’s MIT Data Trust Consortium.

But to really transform power relationships, it must be unions as institutions that build these types of trusts: Workers Data Trusts.

I cannot stress how important it is for unions to quickly grapple with this issue. Surveillance capitalists have a huge time and resource advantage: but the union movement has the potential, through collective action and bargaining, to take back control of workers’ data from predatory corporations.

We must act now!

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