On unions and Open Source

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.

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2 thoughts on “On unions and Open Source

  1. I’ve often wondered why unions don#tmake more use of open source software. On the one hand, moving business away from the biggest of big businesses is generally a pretty good thing but is that the case if it’s being moved to what amounts to a new take on the voluntary sector?

    Having said that, and (I think) more relevant to your blog, trade unions are held together by activists doing stuff on a voluntary basis. If all reps did nothing outside their facilities time allocation there’d be few weekend rallies and conferences, TU use of new media would probably be at a standstill and pretty much any campaigning beyond that directly related to, and staged in, the workplace would never get off the ground.

  2. Very true Dave – and lots of the OS use in unions indeed seems to be grassroots – or in the US, it’s at the level of the Local rather than the Internationals. As unions’ central functions start to use OS though, it’s not always a voluntary thing. Smaller companies like Prometheus Labor Communications in the States seem to be doing okay charging for design and maintenance based on open source web tools, and of course, organisations don’t just need to buy software (intellectual property costs with a bit of distrubution), they need ongoing support contracts for training, tech help and upgrades. Sun/Oracle’s Star Office is free software for example, but it still comes with a $50 price tag. The old cliche of “free as in speech rather than free as in beer” could hold appeal for unions I’d hope.

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