I was thinking today about why trade unions don’t make a bigger deal of Open Source software – not just to use themselves more often, but as a model for the businesses their members work in. We like co-ops well enough, for example, or social enterprises.
I guess there could be an element in some quarters of resistance to the intially strange idea of amateurs voluntarily taking on work that’s been traditionally done by paid staff in formal companies – the same issues we see wherever the internet is perceived to be pitting people’s leisure interests up against the work of professionals. More likey though is that it’s all a bit new to us. I don’t know many unionised coders myself, let alone union Open Source coders.
I think there’s a pretty good match to be made though. I remember listening to an amazing presentation on the structure of Mozilla a couple of years back, by Mozilla Foundation President Mitchell Baker. She talked about the pressures of running a large organisation, but one with a staff mostly made of volunteers – people who gave their time for free to the projects, and in return got more fulfilment than they did from the dead end coding jobs they often did to fund their volunteering leisure time. Some of the workers are doing it professionally, some as a hobby, but they create something bigger by pooling both these interests. No-one could accuse Mozilla of turning in products worse than their commerical competitors – there are clearly good and bad providers on both sides of the divide.
What’s interesting to me is where value is held in the Open Source model. It’s not locked away in the intellectual property, with every product aimed at capturing a bigger market share than the costs the company paid for the work, and seeking to milk that as long as possible to maximise unearned gain. In Open Source, the code is at once ultimately valuable and financially valueless. Open Source companies generate their value through labour. You earn more by doing more jobs and by striving to do better work on each of them. Good companies need good staff on a permanent basis, not just armies of alienated temps to move in and out with the product cycle.
It’s hard to grasp – like every building firm getting a free loan of diggers and cranes whenever they want, because the act of using them actually improves them for the next company to borrow. But I think it might be a model unions could be looking at making more play of – putting a proper value for once on the labour and skills of our members and prospective members.