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Issue No. 131 12 April 2002  

Cry Freedom
If there's a common thread running through this week's issue, it's the continuing crisis faced by workers around the globe confronting the practical reality of Free Trade.


Interview: Cross Wires
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance chief Chris Warren surveys the fluid state of the Australian media.

International: Two Tribes
As the Middle East burns, Andrew Casey shines a light into one of the world's darkest corners.

Activists: Beneath the Veil
A young Afghani woman has travelled to Australia to put a human face on the suffering of her people - and her gender.

Unions: Terror Australis
When push comes to shove, it appears the Howard Government is more scared of the Maritime Union than Osama Bin Laden, Jim Marr reports.

History: A Labor Footnote To The Royal Funeral
Stephen Holt reports that an intriguing Australian connection has been overlooked amidst the supposedly blanket media coverage of the end of the Bowes Lyon era.

Economics: Private Affluence, Public Rip-Off
New Labour's enthusiasm for business is matched only by its lack of business sense, as the private finance fiasco shows.

Review: The Great Hall of the People
In an extract from the latest issue of Labor Essays, the ARM's Richard Fidler looks at the symbolism behind the Republican debate.

Poetry: Waiting for the Living Wage
The Living Wage Case was heard this week. The workers’ voices in this poem have been adapted from the evidence presented by low wage earners to the living wage case.

Satire: Israel Recruits NAB To Close West Bank
Israeli security forces have successfully enlisted the expert help of the National Australia Bank to close down the West Bank.


 Baby Company Punts Netball Mum

 Dairy Workers Win Global Breakthrough

 Treasury Modelling Backs ACTU Claim

 Bank Nabs Huge Sales Targets

 Come Clean – Insurance Giants Challenged

 May Day Jam and Toast

 Job Security Win For Cabin Crew

 Workers Gear-up For Pollution Fight

 Shuffling The Deck On The Yarra

 New Push On Workplace Crime

 Super Child Care Win

 Doubts Over Ettalong Wharf Funding

 The Sane Monk Stands Down

 Fabians Debate Refugees

 Activists Notebook


The Soapbox
Unions and the Web – Where to Now?
Peter Lewis argues the time has come to revisit how trade unions interact with workers and how the Web could be the catalyst for such a change.

The Locker Room
Free To Where?
Parents with kiddies who play a bit of sport will have noticed the escalating costs associated with their kids being involved in sport.

Week in Review
The Joys of the Chop
Workers come and workers go, right? Well, it’s the way of the world but while some get stiffed, others are stuffed with obscene amounts …

 Labor and Unions - What About the Workers?
 A Voice for the Shareholders
 Noses in the Trough
 Bugger Off
 Memo: Carmen Lawrence
 Police: Make the Boss a Woman
 Baby Faced Brogden
 Workers Online - Aoteroa
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The Soapbox

Unions and the Web – Where to Now?

Extracted from The CyberUnion Handbook (ME Sharpe)

Peter Lewis argues the time has come to revisit how trade unions interact with workers and how the Web could be the catalyst for such a change.

Peter Lewis

The Story So Far ...

I've spent the past three years working inside the Australian trade union movement attempting to build an online presence. I came into the scene as a journalist excited by the possibilities of this new technology to deliver new types of information. In a country where the mass media is dominated by a couple of media dynasties, it has been increasingly difficult for trade unions to have a say. The web has given the labour movement a wonderful opportunity to reach their membership and the general public, unfiltered by commercial interests and priorities.

Through the NSW Labor Council -a state-based peak union body - significant advances have been made in creating a space for trade unions in cyberspace. Workers Online, a weekly online zine, has established itself as the most popular political website in the country. Union officials, activists and members can get an overview of the issues driving the movement in any given week, providing the forum for synergies to develop across industries. The zine has also become an important primary news source for journalists - who not only follow stories broken on Workers Online, but report on comment and opinion mediated through our site,

But probably the most enduring impact of Workers Online has been the way it has shown union leaders that they can create an online culture for their membership - provided they have right tools and the appropriate content. The discipline of putting a message out every week creates a demand for activity that creates its own momentum. Trade unions are learning that creating an online culture is an important part of developing a modern trade union presence.

What We Do Well

The Web has a natural fit with the labour movement because it is driven by the same concept that has always sustained us. It is a network builder. Trade unions emerged because people were motivated to work together to promote their mutual interests. For the last 100 years these networks have deepened and strengthened between working people. Through industrial campaigns, political activism and international solidarity, the ties between workers have become ingrained. Even in an era where consultants are paid huge fees to break the union, the culture continues to resonate amongst large numbers of working people.

The companies that rose and fell on the Internet bubble were, in essence, trying to do what we had done in 100 years overnight. They went out and rose capital on the promise of creating a network of people who would use a particular technology, application or service. Largely, they fell because it soon became apparent that, while the new technology makes any network conceptually possible, it takes more to actually consolidate that potential into a real culture.

In contrast, the trade unions that have made the transition to cyberspace have found it fits neatly with tradition functions. Communications between official, between delegates, activists and rank and file members have been enhanced by email lists, web --to-fax applications and even web to SMS. Online journals like Workers Online give information in real time to members. And online forms that target political decision makers by generating multiple email postings to groups of politicians provide a new political lobbying tool that makes it easy for rank and filers to participate in campaigns. The web is also emerging as a potent campaigning tool; in a recent campaign for workers compensation the web became THE mainstream story, when MPs who opposed the legislation were named on our site. So looking at the reasonably limited applications to debate: there's no denying that unions are the type of network organizations that should not only make a smooth transition to the Internet, but also will gain much from its enabling technologies.

The Curse of the Industrial Age

The big problems trade unions face in Australia (and no doubt internationally) is that they have become institutions in their own right. A recent survey of young people found they saw trade unions as part of the power structure - sitting alongside bosses and the state as instruments of power. The irony is that the workers structure have become so entrenched that they are now seen as 'them' rather than as 'us'.

In Australia this has been extenuated by a policy of amalgamations through the 1990s which has created a number of super-unions, all struggling to forge an identity out of the myriad of smaller unions that have been created. In Australia, think trade unions and you think an acronym - you have the CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, mining and Energy union), the CEPU (Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union) and ALHMWU (Australian, Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union) and, my favourite, the SDA (Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association). Other unions have managed tighter branding, such as the Finance Sector Union and the Australian Services Union, but even here the unions are often a group of disparate branches. In my state alone, the ASU's three separate divisions all have their own separate websites.

What does this mean for workers? Even where trade unions have established a web presence - the web presence revolves around the institution, rather than the worker. Click on to your average trade union web-page and you are more likely to see a photo of the national secretary, than you are to find any relevant information about your working life. Even, relatively advanced web-sites, tend to trumpet "union victory", "union does this", Union opposes that", rather than focus on the practical working needs of its membership.

It's the Workers, Stupid

If trade unions are serious about connecting with workers, I think it is time they started developing web presences to match the needs of their members, rather than reflecting the structure of the institution. I'm talking websites based on the nature of a particular job, rather than the institution. The trade union should be the sponsor of these sites - and would be responsible for the industrial information on the site. But I see a broader opportunity for trade unions to provide the online cultural space for groups of workers.

A hotel workers web-space, for instance, would clearly have relevant information on pay rates, conditions, health and safety issues. But it would also have a place for members to share info on where they go after work for a drink, what training is available to move within and outside the industry, even tips on where to get their tax done. It may also include members-only chat facilities where members can unload after work - not necessarily to be used in an industrial sense - more as personal therapy. (Taxi drivers are one group who I think would take to this type of initiative).

The first signs of this Workers-Over-Union strategy are beginning to appear in Australia. Call central is one attempt to provide a space for call center workers - covered by a myriad of unions which few care to join - and incorporate news, services and career -related information. But the site is struggling because of constraints in budget to provide ongoing content. The LHMU has also attempted to build specialist sub-sites for both Casino Workers and Childcare Workers.

My organisation, the Labor Council is also endeavoring to go down this track through the establishment of an IT Workers Alliance website. The idea is to make the site de-institutional. Information and space will be provided for members of existing trade unions as well as people who have never been in a union, to - over time - generate their own online culture and create their own issues. The concept is what I am advocating - sponsor the site as a trade union - but do not constrain the space to the organization or the industrial domain.

Too Much to Gain

Of course, for this strategy to work, the old barriers of political alliances, turf wars and power plays need to be subjugated. Membership communications are still closely guarded assets by ruling cabals, who see the sharing of this information as an invitation to challenge their leadership. But tempering these dangers is the potential of creating an environment where trade unionism again plays a central role in a worker's life by providing an online space to supplement the work they do on the ground.

We've come the full circle. For most of the last century industrialism isolated people and fragmented communities. Now that same industrialism has spawned a new technology that offers some hope of a better way of existing. People may not necessarily so out to meetings that have a community benefit, but they can still collaborate to create their own forms of public participation. By developing a web presence and doing it smart - in a way that connects with workers on their terms - not ours' - we can help speed up this process and place organized labour firmly in the center of a new activism. To do so, they need to shed their institutional garments and hand the power to their members.


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