Open Source Unionism

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“open source unionism,” = a way to describe unionization via Web technology.



From the article Online Education, Contigent Faculty, and Open-Source Unionism, by Eileen Schell :

"Like the open source software movement—“open source unionism embraces the utopian, collaborative ethos of the Internet revolution”. As Julie Schmid notes in her excellent article “Open Source Unionism: New Workers, New Strategies.” [r]ather than depend on the traditional means of union organizing—leafleting at the plant gate, holding organizing meetings in the break from, or ‘house visiting’ workers after hours. . . open source union organizing relief on cybertools such as listservs, chat rooms, and web Sites. These tools help bring together people who as a result of the new economy, are employed at separate locations, often as temporary or contract workers, and lack a common work experience.” There is great potential here to organize workers across borders through open-source unionism, and there is also great potential here to organize students as compatriots in the struggle." (

2. From the Wikipedia:

"Open-source unionism is a term coined by academics Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers to explain a possible new model for organizing workers. In the June 24, 2002 of The Nation magazine they explained:

- A labor movement that embraced this vision - taking its own historical lessons with diversified membership seriously and relying more heavily on the Internet in membership communication and servicing - would be practicing what we call "open-source unionism"." (



Open-sourcing labour conflicts against global neo-liberalism, Justice for Janitors: New forms of shared strategy and campaigning are taking on the worst effects of fiercely competitive neoliberal service economies. Globalization from above can be fought and resisted effectively by processes of globalization from below


"The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) has involved higher education contingent workers from the U.S. Canada, and Mexico, and the movement has been successful in building solidarity and resulting in increased visibility and gains for wages through local unionizing campaigns." ( Italic text


Walton Pantland:

"Is Open Source organising the way forward for trade unions? Some people seem to think so, but are we even sure what it means?

Trade unions in the West have been in decline since the late 1970s. This is because the capitalist crisis of the early 70s was caused in part by a powerful labour movement, and to solve the crisis capital disciplined labour and instituted a wage repression that has remained with us for a generation.

Nowhere has the decline in union strength been more dramatic than the US; and yet it is from the US, among the most vulnerable and unorganised groups of workers, that new organising forms have emerged.

This article gives a really good overview of the model developed in the Justice for Janitors campaign.

- New forms of shared strategy and campaigning are taking on the worst effects of fiercely competitive neoliberal service economies. Globalization from above can be fought and resisted effectively by processes of globalization from below

It’s an important piece that’s worth reading. The author argues that by sharing tactics unions are embracing an Open Source methodology, and creating communities of resistance to neo-liberal globalisation.

It’s a very good summary of this organising model, which is considered best practice by many unions, including the one I work for. It is successful because it begins to realise that autonomy is a powerful mobiliser, and that by giving activists ownership over campaigns in their workplaces, you build confident and dynamic local structures that are able to respond fluidly to complex and shifting circumstances. The industrial relations landscape is changing rapidly, and hierarchy and bureaucracy are the death of innovation. This organising model creates some free space for new activists to find and develop a voice.

However, I am not sure if it’s accurate to describe is as Open Source – I think the feature of fluid structures and sharing good practice is typical of social movement unionism.

I have worked with our organising department using technologies and there is an intuitive understanding that for organising to succeed, hierarchical structures need to be removed and local activists given ownership over activity at their workplace.

Dissonance comes after the organising phase, when the workplace, with newly signed recognition agreements, has to fit into the existing union structure, which is still hierarchical. Unions have not yet applied the principles of networked organising to the rest of their structures.

The article would be useful if it was more explicit about how Open Source principles can be applied to union organising. There is an existing Industrial Relations model called Open Source Unionism, developed by Freeman and Rogers. In my view it’s nonsense – it removes the organising function from unions and uses technology to service members cheaply:

- At essentially zero marginal cost, unions can communicate with an ever-expanding number of new members, and they can deliver all manner of services to them through the Internet.

Why would anyone join a union that was little more than a bot? It is workplace structure and collective bargaining that make the difference.


For what it’s worth, I also think the authors use the term ‘Open Source’ without understanding what it means, as a synonym for ‘unstructured’ or ‘loosely organised’. Genuine open source developments are highly structured, due to the need to organise the work of thousands of volunteers. Open Source trade unionism would be structured, but transparent." (

Joel Rogers and Richard B. Freeman

"Under open-source unionism … unions would welcome members even before they achieved majority status, and stick with them as they fought for it–maybe for a very long time. These “pre-majority” workers would presumably pay reduced dues in the absence of the benefits of collective bargaining, but would otherwise be normal union members. They would gain some of the bread-and-butter benefits of traditional unionism–advice and support on their legal rights, bargaining over wages and working conditions if feasible, protection of pension holdings, political representation, career guidance, access to training and so on. And even in minority positions, they might gain a collective contract for union members, or grow to the point of being able to force a wall-to-wall agreement for all workers in the unit. But under OSU, such an agreement, which is traditionally the singular goal of organizing, would not be the defining criterion for achieving or losing membership. Joining the labor movement would be something you did for a long time, not just an organizational relationship you entered into with a third party upon taking some particular job, to expire when that job expired or changed.

OSU would engage a range of workers in different states of organization rather than discrete majorities of workers in collective-bargaining agreements. There would be traditional employer-specific unions, but there would likely be more cross-employer professional sorts of union formations and more geographically defined ones. Within any of these boundaries, the goal of OSU would not be collective bargaining per se but broader worker influence over the terms and conditions of work and working life. Because OSU unions would typically have less clout inside firms or with particular employers, they would probably be more concerned than traditional unionism with the political and policy environment surrounding their employers and employment settings. They would be more open to alliance with nonlabor forces–community forces of various kinds, constituencies organized around interests not best expressed through work or even class (here think environmental, feminist, diversity or work/family concerns)–that might support them in this work. As a result, labor as a whole would likely have a more pronounced “social” face with OSU than it has today." (

More Information

For updates, see

Lloyd, John P. “Outsource U: Globalization, Outsourcing, and the Implications for Contingent Academic Labor.” Accessed March 5, 2005. Available as a PDF Download at < Llloyd.pdf.>

Schmid, Julie. “Open Source Unionism: New Workers, New Strategies.” Academe. (January-February 2004). Accessed March 7, 2005.

Freeman, Richard B. & Joel Rogers. 2004. "A Proposal to American Labor." The Nation, June 24, 2002 issue.