Unions for Teleworkers?

Way back in 1974, after we had completed the first successful quantified test of telecommuting, I was stunned by an announcement of the president of the test company. He said that, while the project was a great success from several points of view,  the company would discontinue offering telecommuting to its employees. When I asked why he said: “Our company is non-union. We’re concerned that, if the company allows telecommuting from these satellite offices, the unions will be able to recruit the employees at one office after another.  Before we know it, because of NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) rules, the company will become unionized and we don’t want that.”

A few months later I was part of a panel discussing the possible impacts of telecommuting. One of my fellow panelists was the head of strategy for the AFL/CIO. At one point he turned to me and said: “You know, this telecommuting is a terrible idea.” When I asked him why he thought so re replied: “Well, if a company’s employees are scattered all over the map, how the hell will we ever get them organized?”

We have what turns out to be a standard dilemma: The fear of becoming organized on the one hand vs the fear of not being able to organize on the other. Telecommuting/telework were  in the middle.

Why unions?

So what is the point of having/forming a union? The unions claim that they are necessary when employers unfairly subject their workers to undesirable or dangerous working conditions and/or do not compensate them adequately for their work, particularly when they negotiate with workers individually. Non-union employers counter, among other things, that unions introduce excessive regulation and costs and hamper their flexibility to react to market changes.

The consequence of these contests has been that union membership in the US has declined from about 30% in 1950 to about 10% today. In the OECD countries the median union membership has declined from more than 50% in the 1980s to about 18% today.

A good part of this change is the result of the global economy’s shift from manufacturing — where unions clearly were powerful — to information work. Information workers, including all forms of teleworkers, constitute more than 40% of the workforces in OECD countries. Information workers collectively perform a huge and changing variety of tasks that are difficult to describe. Many of these tasks are location-independent and, as the AFL/CIO strategist pointed out, difficult to organize.

But are some information workers being subjected to undesirable/dangerous working conditions? Are some being unfairly compensated? The answer to the latter question is yes, particularly when compensation includes health benefits and pension/retirement savings. This may be especially the case when it comes to contract workers, freelancers, independent or remote workers or however they wish to characterize themselves. Such workers typically do not have adequate representation when it comes to compensation negotiations: the reason for unions.

Some possibilities for the future

Social media, such as Facebook, Reddit, LinkedIn and WhatsApp can serve as connective action places where teleworkers can share knowledge about working conditions, contractual arrangement, compensation ranges and the like. They can also serve as coordination points for developing unionesque services. Workers can also compare notes on crowdsourcing platforms such as Mechanical Turk and Freelancer.

Coworker.org was formed in 2013 to help workers in companies develop organizational skills similar to those proffered by unions. Similar organizations are starting to appear, often as part of large companies for the benefit of their employees. And some unions have developed sites that “could become service providers for self-organising groups, helping them with things such as legal advice and lobbying”, according to The Economist.

The possibilities will continue to expand, if belatedly, as unions adapt to the information age, information work expands and workers opt for more and better choices than those of the sooo-20th-century workforce. Technology is providing ever more options. Teleworkers will adopt them.

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