12 August, 2007

A Trades Union For Bloggers

I like trades unions. I think they are the best thing since sliced bread. The demise of the unions since the late nineteen seventies is one of the tragedies of our age – and something we will all live to regret. I've been in several trades unions in my time. I even sat on a picket line during a strike back in 1976 – it was boring as hell but I'm glad I did it. So you'd think I might be in favour of the current push to form a trades union for bloggers. After all, I'm a blogger aren't I?

But I'm not.

The thing is, unions exist to protect the interests of working people. Ordinary people like you and me don't have much clout when it comes to negotiation with our employers. In fact, employers can roll right over the interests of their employees if they feel like it and the current employer-biased legislation we all live under (of which Australia's IR laws are a typical example) grants employers legal support for the exercise of their already-one-sided power when it comes to negotiating employment contracts, removing and restricting benefits, and terminating employment. It is only by organising, by acting together, that working people have a power that is even vaguely comparable to that of their employers. It is only through collective bargaining and collective action that working people can possibly hope to get fair treatment from employers and from conservative governments.

That's why the trades unions exist. They are simply groups of working people, acting together to give themselves some say in the conditions under which they work.

So a trades union for bloggers doesn't even make any sense to me. Bloggers don't work for anyone. They don't negotiate their work contracts because they don't have any. They're not paid, they don't have conditions of employment, they don't have 'benefits' to win or protect and they can't be sacked. So what's it all about? Says Gerry Colby, president of the U.S.A.'s National Writers Union, “Bloggers are on our radar screen right now for approaching and recruiting into the union. We're trying to develop strategies to reach bloggers and encourage them to join."
The NWU has done a lot over the years to help freelance journalists. Journalism is one of those areas of employment which uses a lot of freelance labour and where employers were quick to understand the value of having a low-cost, vulnerable and dependent pool of casual labour. Many other employers have caught on and there is a big push on to reduce permanent staff and replace them with casual labour. My own area – information technology – has created a large body of freelance 'contractors' who live by taking individual, short-term contracts with employers, often through intermediary employment agencies (which take a big slice of the money they earn). The movement to casualise labour is so extensive that governments have had to change the tax laws to prevent these casual professionals from benefiting – at the taxman's cost – by running their own companies and taking the tax breaks. These days, for casual labour, there are almost no tax breaks at all and operating your own company to sell your own labour no longer offsets the financial disadvantages of casual labour in any way.

In this climate of throwing people out of full-time employment and then taxing them as if they were employed full-time, freelancers need the protection that only organisation in trades unions can offer – to set standard contracts, to help negotiate, to provide standard benefits (like healthcare, in those countries like the US where the state doesn't provide it) and to defend people against unfair dismissal, discrimination, harassment, and so on.

Now, some bloggers are essentially freelance journalists. It's a tiny, tiny minority but they are, of course, vocal. There may be only a few hundred of them worldwide, possibly a couple of thousand, but for these guys, membership of the NWU or a local equivalent would make sense. They're trying to sell their services as freelance writers and they should try to get the same union support. For the rest of us – the other 55 million – the idea of a union of bloggers, or of bloggers joining a union, is just nonsense. A bloggers' mutual support society or shopping club - so we can get 10% off our motor insurance or whatever - might make some sense, but not a bloggers' trades union.

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