Did the Internet change the trade union protest?

By Raquel Rego

Following a general trend, there is a growing usage of new ICTs within trade unions over the last decades, some unions having inclusively internal guides to help to adapt. Scientific literature, mainly from Anglo-Saxon origin, has been adopting mainly an optimistic approach on the new ICTs contribution to the so called union revitalisation (check Green and Kirton in 2003 or, more recently, Wood in 2015). However, not much empirical evidence is provided and thus actually known on how new ICTs are deployed in union protest and how far new ICTs changed the union’s protest. Some talk about cyberunions, like Arthur B. Shostak , underlining the impact of the Internet in small organisations life, but to what extent can we talk of cyberstrikes?

A collective paper I wrote together with colleagues from academia and union movement related, entitled ‘The use of new ICTs in trade union protest in five European cases’, to be published in 2016 at Transfer – European Review of Labour and Research, presents empirical data of cases from very different industrial relations patterns. This paper does not intend to present a comparative study but to address the question of how new ICTs are effectively getting deployed in union protests, concluding on six challenges raised by the new ICTs and providing a future research agenda.

The five cases are summarised in the next table.

Country
Acronym and union name
Year of creation
Number of members (2015)
The use of new ICTs in recent protest/strike
Bulgaria
SSZB-ITUPEB – Синдикат на служителите в затворите в България – Trade Union of Prison Employees
2009
1,300*
On the 10 January 2015 march protest, SMS and emails were used to spread information and recruit members, while the website helped to diffuse documents and news.
Italy
FLC CGIL-Federazione Lavoratori della Conoscenza – Federation of Knowledge Workers
2004
202,456
The general strike of school workers on 5 May 2015 was prepared using several online tools, some of them interactive, like a blog, an online game, and a survey addressed to workers in order to know their position. A flash mob was also used in a phase of increasing protest.
Netherlands
FNV
(Abvakabo)
2015
(1976)
1,100,000 (345,000)
In 2014-2015, face-to-face meetings in the workplace and social media were used to discuss the future union action in order to force the employer to negotiate. Later, the union informed members by social media, including an electronic ballot on the results of each negotiation.
Portugal
SPGL – Sindicatos dos Professores da Grande Lisboa – Trade Union of Lisbon Area Teachers
1974
13,267
The 18 days’ strike of June 2013 was decided based on a survey both on paper and online addressed to teachers. The website and Facebook facilitated the debate and mobilisation together with face-to-face meetings in schools.
United Kingdom
UNISON
1993
1,300,000
All websites, both static and interactive, are used in a strike to mobilise workers. The electronic ballot is considered to be crucial if the government succeeds to increase the strike threshold.

*2014

A first finding of this study I would like to highlight is that new ICTs are deployed in conjunction traditional means of communication during protests. Workplace meetings seem particularly crucial to gaining the support of workers even when new ICTs play also an important role, like when the Dutch union adopted an integrated action strategy informing its members within 24 hours by social media after each negotiation to keep them involved in the process and to increase pressure on the employers. In fact, all the five cases combine means of communication in union protest. If this is not completely new in literature, it contributes with empirical data to stress that, inclusively when new ICTs play an important role in protest, they do not exclude the traditional means of communication since they enable trust in a particular way.

A second finding I would like to stress is related with the emergence of social actors gaining in dimension and competing with the labour movement. In fact, less institutionalized movements also drawing upon socio-economic motivations are mobilizing with the help of the Internet and gaining the support of people that unions have difficulties to recruit, like young. If this was mentioned in literature also before, this study illustrates clearly that the labour movement is being challenged, not only by these movements but by individuals too. In fact the Portuguese case provides the example of how blog authors assumed a crucial role in teachers protest.

Finally the study shows the existence of a gradation in terms of development and empowerment which means that the new ICTs do not seem to overcome inequalities in the union movement. While in the UK the trade union movement is making pressure to be settled secure electronic and workplace strike ballots considering that the government intends to impose that 50% of members must turn out to vote for a strike in certain public services, the Portuguese and the Bulgarian cases demonstrate that the Internet is mainly seen by the union board as a disseminating channel.

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