Unions look to Net future

Trade unions are turning to the Internet to boost their numbers and offer services, though some are struggling to get past the 'brochure' stage.

Trades union are turning to the Internet to boost their numbers and offer services, though some are struggling to get past the "brochure" stage.

Peter Hall-Jones, who maintains the PSA intranet/Web site, says union sites are likely to evolve into "virtual communities" like Yahoo and Geocities, but some are struggling to get past an "online leaflet mentality".

He says New Zealand's good communications network and high uptake of the Internet gave Kiwi unions an early start into Web sites but "we will now lift our game". Hall-Jones, who has also created two CTU sites, sites for the PSA, AUS, Post Primary Teachers Association, NZ Seafarers First and an inter-union online library, plans to redesign the PSA and PPTA Web sites, along with other "surprise" projects.

Meanwhile, a raft of New Zealand unions have recently set up or upgraded their Web sites. The push into IT for Kiwi unions comes as they enjoy friendlier times under the new Employment Relations Act. The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), which covers the IT sector, is upgrading its www.epmunion.org.nz site. It features a new employer line (employer.line@epmunion.org.nz) to assist employers, though a "bad employer of the week" is being considered. The EPMU is planning an online organiser in about six months' time, says spokesperson Adelia Hallett.

The ERA will see unions do more than bargaining and is likely to mean more cooperation with each other. Technology offering faster communication and better information will also give members a bigger say in their workplace, as well as unions. "With the 'open source' revolution, workers will be closer to the heart of production," says Hall-Jones. "The political implications of this may not sink in for a while."

He sees enormous potential for unions to negotiate discounts for e-commerce and other services. "If you're a union member in the UK, now you get 15% off your power bill, and access to a huge range of goods at reduced prices," he says.

"What's also pleasing is this new technology does not seem to be costing jobs. The most wired countries have very low unemployment rates. Last year in the US, 650,000 new jobs were created in the Internet industry," Hall-Jones adds.

The Internet is being widely used to mobilise workers. Earlier this year, the Council of Trades Unions used its Web site to send more than 1000 "electronic postcards" to Prime Minister Helen Clark about the former Employment Contracts Act. Meanwhile, Canadian unionists claim to have been using the Internet since 1985, with striking journalists at the Calgary Herald recently posting pictures of "scabs" on their Web site. Both the New South Wales Trades Council at Labor.net.au and Britain's Labourstart.org offers a daily news service.

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