It's time for geeks to organise

Last Wednesday I bagged myself a Pitch slot at Oxford Geek Night 27, which gave me a minute’s worth of attention from the 150 or so assembled geeks. That minute wasn’t enough to get my point across, even given how fast I talk; hence this blog post.

My basic point was pretty simple: it’s time for geeks to join the union. I was there in my capacity as chair of the Oxford & District branch of the NUJ. That’s short for National Union of Journalists, but like the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy, it’s increasingly unreliably named.

The NUJ was originally just for journalists, but its scope has grown and changed along with the job market over the past century or so. Now there’s a whole host of jobs which qualify you to join, including (but not limited to):

  • Front-end developers
  • Web designers
  • UX designers
  • Copywriters – including web copywriters
  • Content editors
  • Content uploaders/assistants
  • Social media officers/assistants
  • Bloggers

Current recruitment practice defines people performing these roles as “creative artists working editorially” and/or “editorial computer systems workers”, which is what allows them to join. Sadly, back-end developers, CMS/CRM developers and database developers are defined as “completely technical” roles, which means they don’t qualify. There’s probably an argument brewing about that, but right now that’s what the rules say.

I will freely admit that until pretty recently, the NUJ has been crap about recruiting and organising people in those types of roles. We’ve focused way too much on heartland members like newspaper reporters. But that’s changing. In 2005 the NUJ established a New Media Industrial Council, officially putting new media on the same footing within the union as other sectors such as newspapers and publishing. At the 2008 delegate meeting, delegates voted overwhelmingly to make new media recruitment a priority, and that’s when things started moving properly. There’s still a long way to go, but the more people who join from this sector, the better the union will get at understanding and helping them.

So why should you join? Well, we fight for better pay and conditions and more job security. We fight for higher professional standards and giving workers the tools they need to do their best work. People in unionised workplaces earn on average 12.5% more and get more paid holiday than their non-unionised equivalents.

Some people think unions are about conflict. I’d say that was the precise opposite of the truth. A good union works to formalise workplace agreements so that there’s less scope for misunderstanding. A good union works to negotiate on tricky issues with the aim of reducing, not increasing, conflict. Yes, sometimes disputes lead to a strike. But that will only happen at the end of a fairly long process, and after the majority of members in that workplace have voted for it.

Our branch sometimes sees people joining in a hurry because they’re facing redundancy or dismissal. They “don’t see the point of unions” until they actually need one - and then they really, really need one to help them with stressful discussions and complex employment law. Why wait until then? The rational move would be to join immediately, to get the union on your side straight away. Even better, persuade colleagues to join and then form a “chapel” (workplace union group) for collective negotiations.

Now you can probably see why I found it tricky to pack all this into a minute-long talk. And there’s still lots more to say. If you have any questions, please do get in touch with me.

As a final note, I should add that my work with the union as Oxford branch chair is completely voluntary. I don’t have any financial motive for wanting to sign more people up. I do it because I believe in it.