Business ‘got’ digital 20 years ago, charities got it 10 years ago, and even the government got it five years ago with the creation of the Government Digital Service. The trade union movement needs to engage with digital at a strategic level, not just with ad-hoc tactical use of campaign tools. I call for the (gradual) creation of a Trade Union Digital Service to amplify and co-ordinate our efforts.

About me:  I’m a trade unionist that works for Outlandish – a worker co-operative (asset locked, not-for-profit) that is seeking to transform the UK’s digital industry into a worker-owned and -controlled sector that can be a driving force of the workers’ movement. We built Jeremy Corbyn’s website before he was famous, helped create CoTech and Space4 and created School Cuts (which apparently cost May her majority) using surplus that we made from commercial projects, so we’re making some progress.

I recently judged the annual Trades Union Congress Digital Communications Awards which was inspirational but also revealed that there is not enough co-ordination of digital effort across (or even within) trade unions. If we’re to become more effective – and carry on existing – then we need to co-ordinate our efforts much better.

If you’d like to help make this happen please email me at or call on 07738536552.

What is digital, and why should we care

The growth of the internet, web and social media has created a lot of new ways of working, communicating and organising. Businesses, charities and public bodies are taking advantage of these new technologies – Uber’s car booking platform is a vital part of it’s business model; Amazon use performance data to choose which workers to hire and fire; the Red Cross uses new mapping technologies to get aid where its needed faster; the NHS is using data analysis to plan future services.

Digital technologies are also making some old ways of organising less effective – when I was at university the weekly clubs and societies were empty because the old “we meet in the main hall on the last Thursday of the month” had been replaced with “Wat u up2 now m8?” text messages.


New Methods

I love a good rally, and a march through London can be a great way to get everyone’s attention, as Wat Tyler showed in 1381. However, it’s notably not a tactic employed by many rapidly growing organisations such as Facebook, Uber and Amazon. While I’m a big believer in face to face meeting and think this will always be the key to effective political organising, I think we need to at least consider whether some of these digital approaches could turn around the fortunes of the trade union movement.

Because we don’t have the resources of Google and Facebook, and because we have a common interest while they don’t, I think we need to start collaborating to build common technical platforms and understanding to further the workers movement in the UK and around the world.

Functions for the Trade Union Digital Service

Improving commissioning and contracting:

There’s a lot of variation in how unions go about it, how open it is, how successful and how much it costs. We need to share best practice to ensure we’re getting good value. As a movement, we also need to investigate collective purchasing opportunities, and areas where we can collaborate on common tools.

Introducing user-centered service design:

It’s fairly common knowledge that unions tend not to be very ‘user’ (e.g. member/activist/potential member) orientated. If you’ve tried emailing the other members in your branch, or calling the switchboard of your union you’ll know what I mean. Prizes if you send me a postcard with the name of the union that encourages you to ‘fight the Trade Union bill’ for 20 minutes when you call them (it was passed in 2016).

Capacity building:

There appears to be a shortage of developers, designers, social media specialists, product managers and data experts in trade unions, and while unions can outsource a lot of this work there need to be some people in the movement doing the commissioning. To make matters worse, these technical skills are often highly siloed into campaigning, organising, marketing, member services and IT/infrastructure. We need to know what capability we have, where it is, what we need more of and how to grow it.

Technology alignment:

Unions use every technology available which increases the burden on their already stretched technical resources, and makes collaboration harder. Unions have not un-similar requirements – websites, client-relationship-managers or membership systems, branch organising platforms, campaign platforms, websites, etc. There’s a lot of scope for doing better together.

Strategy development:

The changing world of work and rapidly developing technology and use of technology affect all unions in a similar way and we need a shared understanding of the opportunities and challenges. Once we’ve agreed what those are we can all pick tasks – there are plenty to go around and, unlike tech giants, we don’t have the resources to all duplicate each others’ efforts.

Knowledge sharing:

Less of an end in itself and more a first step towards achieving the above – we need to get much better at meeting each other and sharing information. Charities have the eCampaigners Forum, Digital Charities Group, Centre for Accelerated Social Technology, NetSquared, DataKind and thousands more meeting/sharing events and platforms. As a movement we don’t seem to have any – other than the ad-hoc efforts by groups like Outlandish, CoTech, Unions21 and the TUC. It’s certainly several orders of magnitude smaller.

Structure for the Trade Union Digital Service

Unlike the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Trade Union Digital Service will not spring up overnight or be imposed from the top down. The GDS was created largely because the cabinet office (who hold huge power over the civil service) ordered its creation and demanded that departments fall in line or face the consequences. That’s neither possible nor desirable in this case.

My proposed structure (no surprises here) would be to have a co-operative owned by the unions it served (and possibly by its workers). This model has worked for the world’s largest federation of worker co-ops (Mondragon has 75,000 workers and a turnover of 12 billion euros) which has a number of secondary co-operatives that provide services to the main manufacturing co-operatives.

One advantage of this model is that it’s not ‘all or nothing’. Two trade unions could decide to give it a go and it would be better than nothing, and other unions could join later. There can also be more than one of these companies, so if there turn out to be insurmountable political/technological/scale/budget differences we can always split – something that I’m sure will be reassuring to those who’ve spent much time on the progressive left. We also don’t need to get sign off by any person, committee or council – unions just opt in if they want to.

I’ve put a lot of ideas out there, and I’m very keen to hear people’s thoughts (see below).

We are [ten or twenty] years behind the [employers]. We must make good this difference in [three] years. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed”

A man I don’t often paraphrase

Next Steps

The next step is to get some unions to buy into this idea. I’m pretty sure I’ll be ground down and crushed against the walls of the established trade union movement, but if we pile enough bodies up someone will eventually get a clean run over. It’s a question of when not if this needs to happen. Hopefully the pile of broken tech people won’t be too large, and I thought CoTech would be a slog but it turned out to be a pleasure.

As with all user-centered design we’ve got to start by asking the ‘users’ – different types within unions such as would-be members, rank and file members, activists, reps, officials, employees, leaders, etc. – what they actually need. It may turn out they don’t need a digital service at all, but I rather doubt it.

Asking the unions about their digital needs is not that easy in itself. Few unions have a Director of Digital or equivalent – responsibility is often split across operations (IT), campaigns and membership, and often none of those roles/departments really see tech as their responsibility.

In the immediate term I’m going to try:

  • To get letters of support from unions and other supportive parts of the Labour movement – if you’re a politician, union official or interested branch member get in touch
  • Identify key digital people and invite them to a short series of meetups, and use this to start auditing our current capacity
  • Find some funding to get this off the ground – ideally directly from unions but, failing that, some seed funding to explore the idea further
  • Meet key people who want to be involved

If you can help with any of the above, please email me at, call me on 07738536552 or say hello to me (@harryrobbins) on Twitter.

UPDATE 14 Aug 2018: I mentioned to a journalist that we were using technology in a trade union and it’s made it into the paper: – nice that someone’s interested even if they’re not your classic trade unionists!

[Red Umbrella image credit: bady qb]