New communication technology opens massive opportunities for rail workers and our unions to get better organised. But it offers employers those opportunities too - and at the moment, it is the employers who are making the most of it.
Many rail employers are now using the 'Connect' intranet system, giving them a voice in every signal cabin, depot, station and other workplace, through which they provide regular reports, friendly blogging from the Chief Executive, and web forums where the minority of anti-union workers vent their spleens at will.
But while some people's reaction is to demand that these forums be shut down, the answer is rather that the unions should compete more effectively in the information war. Activists should get on the forums and argue with the scabs. After all, even if the employers agreed to shut down the forums (which they won't - why should they?!), then scabs will just spout their anti-union nonsense round the messrooms unchallenged. Better to get their 'arguments' out in the open and pull them apart.
Our national unions' own websites leave a lot to be desired. The basic problem is that each one comes across as an online glossy brochure trying to 'sell' the union rather than what a union website should be - an online resource for activists and members, and a site that convinces its visitors of the union's case. It is usually easy to see what the union wants you to see, but a lot harder to find out what you want to know. How can I get representation? How can I tell the union about an issue in my workplace? What's the union's answer to management latest propaganda?
One reason this happens is that the unions don't seem to have grasped that a website is not just a magazine on the internet. Most items on the RMT, ASLEF and TSSA sites are articles that were written for something else - the union's journal, a press release, a circular - and then put on the website. While these things should be on the website, there should also be other content that is designed for the website itself.
When the union does recognise the power of the technology available to it, it can be dazzled by the flash stuff but ignore the basics. So, for example, it is great that RMT members can watch webcasts of the union's conferences - but what about being able to contact your rep? or look up your rights? or find out accurate information as to where you branch meets?!
The websites need to be fast-moving and up-to-date. Particularly during a dispute or important talks, the union’s website is the easiest way to get minute-by-minute reports. After every session of talks, our negotiators should post reports - management will be circulating their version! During the shipyard strikes by Solidarnosc in Poland in the ‘80s, workers gathered outside the building to hear the negotiations broadcast live over a public address system. Website technology enables things like this to be done much more widely.
On a brighter note, some union branches and similar groups have set up their own websites, which tend to be more responsive to the needs of members. But they do tend to rely on one enthusiast, and if s/he moves on, the branch can struggle to keep the site going. The key to preventing this is to motivate and train others within the branch to get involved in administering the site.
An effective union website would involve its rank-and-file reps in running the site. The current national unions' websites are not as effective as they could be partly because the unions are not using the technology to best effect - but partly because unions remain bureaucratic organisations which tend to fear too much membership involvement, and don’t actually want us to know too much.
Check out these sites:
RMT on Arriva Trains Wales
RMT Bristol Rail branch
RMT LU Engineering branch
RMT Finsbury Park branch
TSSA TfL branch
ASLEF Ramsgate branch
ASLEF Waterloo and Nine Elms branch