Saturday, 22 August 2009

Fire-fighting in Cyber space: An exploration of Internet Use for mobilisation and democratic accountability

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Fire-fighting in Cyber space: An exploration of Internet Use for mobilisation and democratic accountability

John Hogan, Reader in Industrial Relations, University of Hertfordshire, UK (

Andreja Zivkovic, Lecturer in HRM, University of Hertfordshire, UK (


This paper examines the use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) by Firefighters in the UK to generate solidarity and maintain collectivism. This is pursued through the examination of how ICTs were utilised in the conduct of the national industrial dispute that raged within Britain’s fire service between 2002 and 2003. It seeks to conceptualise this rich experience of cyber-organisation through the use of the analytical template of distributed discourse. From this perspective ICT has profound implications for collective deliberation and organisation, in that it facilitates communication to occur rapidly, at low and distributed cost; attenuating the time-space poverty of participants by allowing for asynchronous communicative exchanges and by bringing together those separated by distance. Flows of information may now escape institutional boundaries as never before. The communicative possibilities are for more extensive interaction, greater density of communication, sharper visibility and higher levels of transparency.

Through the examination of official and unofficial firefighters web sites, combined with virtual and real time in-depth interviews with key actors, this paper examines the specific domain of union governance, and suggests that tendencies towards oligarchy (sustained by control over the flow of information, access to superior knowledge, skill in the art of politics and a membership diverted by the pulls of work, family and leisure) are challenged by the distributed discourse that lies at the heart of organizing in the information age. In particular, we draw out the possibilities for greater equality of knowledge, distributed control over the means of communication, the enhanced communicative skills of more ordinary union members and a reconfiguration of the time-space dimension of communicative practice. Finally, the paper explores the role that distributed forms of communication and organisation can play in trade union renewal, particularly in promoting participatory democracy and overcoming tendencies to bureaucratic inertia in trade unions.

Paper presented at Trade Unions in the Information Age workshop, Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Lancaster, June 28th-29th, 2006


Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language….In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.
Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”

There is little doubt that we are living through a period of profound transformation, not least when confronted with the new possibilities unleashed by the seemingly permanent revolution in the world of information communication technology. The revolution in communicative possibilities is highly significant for trade union organisation and mobilisation. It is our contention that the space created for “the spirit of the new language”, distributed discourse, might well be opportune for a movement seemingly locked in the embrace of failure. However, there are compelling reasons to conclude that adaptation to the language and logics of the “Information Age” is labouring under the unbearable weight of tradition, most notably the obsession of centres of power to remain within the paradigm of the “native tongue” of control. In fact, it is rather telling that when a major conference was hosted by the TUC to discuss the implications of the internet in May 2001, one of the central calls was for the establishment of an “Internet Czar” to codify legitimacy and oversee union activity and presence on the internet.

Between the autumn of 2002 and the summer of 2003, a bitter national industrial dispute raged within Britain’s fire service. Fire fighters under the leadership of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) mounted an ambitious campaign for a substantial increase in wages. Events over the period included widespread demonstrations, a large number of meetings between the FBU and National Employers, high profile government-sponsored reports, moves to change the law governing the service, deep divisions between the labour and trade union leaderships, and most dramatically, a series of national strikes, all of which received wide spread media coverage. The dispute ended on June 12th 2003, when a delegate conference ratified the recommendation of the FBU leadership to accept a highly controversial, and for a substantial minority unsatisfactory, settlement, one that may yet unravel and ignite further conflict. It is perhaps ironic that people at times accused of embodying the spirit of “old” labour should pursue their struggles into cyber-space. But that is precisely what they did and continue to do.

The web campaigns associated with the Fire Fighters’ Dispute stand as a clear example of the way in which trade unionist in Britain, from every level, have been making increasing use of new ICTs (information communication technologies), especially the internet, within their union-related activities. This is a significant change. In 1999 we argued (Hogan and Grieco, 1999) that the level of activity had been low and reflection slow to develop. Much has changed. There has been a notable development of interest within academic circles and within official trade unionism, along with increased union activity in cyberspace. Within this paper we provide a brief summary of these developments. Here we indicate that while there consideration of the ways in which internet use might complement and change the conduct of existing trade union activities (servicing, organising and mobilising), there is little understanding of the ways in which democratic structures and processes of trade unionism might be challenged. To develop our understanding, it is important to move outside of the realm of national official union presence on the internet, to incorporate an appreciation of the contributions of local, unofficial and individual activists. Our contention is that it is the lay member web sites which illustrate the impact of the internet on processes of union democracy, voicing of lay members, and the ways in which the who, the what and the where of trade union activism are changed by the capabilities of new ICTs. Hence, we return to the Fire Fighters’ Dispute to indicate how its associated web activity illustrates some of these key themes.

Surveying the Terrain

Debates about the place of new ICTs and their use by unions have formed part of the most recent segments of the ‘union renewal debate’ concerned with how unions might reinvigorate membership numbers, collective bargaining coverage and gain a renewed organisational, political and societal role after twenty five years of derision. Views that trade unions must engage with new technology or die are common: “what does seem certain is that unions that do not get to grips with the digital world will atrophy” (IRS, 2001; Lee, 1997; Diamond and Freeman, 2002). Space constraints only permit a very brief overview here. The main features of the internet, which are seen as having the potential to affect conventional modes of trade union activity involve: the ability to access information on a 24 hour basis, the ability to transcend the need for physical presence, the speed of communication, the extended reach of communication (particularly across dispersed populations), and relatively low cost..

Optimism has been derived from the observation of the ways in which the increased information provision and dissemination potential of the internet can improve the services that are provided to members, including contact with representatives, advice and guidance, and education provision (Diamond and Freeman, 2002; Greene et al, 2000; Greene et al, 2003; Kirton and Greene, 2002; Greene and Kirton, 2003). Furthermore, the internet is seen as an alternative tool of organising new segments of potential membership, particularly younger workers (Greene, 2001). In addition, web sites can provide mechanisms to aid activists and encourage participation of more of the membership, particularly those currently under-represented (Greene and Kirton, 2003). This fits in with the general diffusion of an ‘organising culture’ within the British trade union movement, moving away from the servicing of existing members (Heery et al, 2000; Gall, 2003). The medium of the internet has also been identified as a means to strengthen international labour co-operation and solidarity (Bailey, 2000; Lee 1997; Carter et al, 2003), while, in labour disputes specifically the internet is seen as providing a vital networking and campaigning tool, leading to the enhanced maintenance of solidarity across dispersed membership bases and facilitating the co-ordination of conventional physical pickets and demonstrations (Pliskin et al , 1997; Carter et al, 2003; Greene and Kirton, 2003)

The issue of union democracy has also been the subject of debate, and one of our own areas of particular interest. We have argued in particular that internet and email communication hold with them the potential to facilitate processes of ‘distributed discourse’. In a trade union context, this involves greater equalities of knowledge to a larger number of people across a wider area, offering enhanced spaces for voicing of interest and dissent. Processes of distributed discourse through internet communication mean that knowledge need no longer to be subject to centralist iron laws of oligarchic formation, where the line is dictated from a hierarchical centre. Part of this is the way in which the internet provides mechanisms whereby voices which may be silenced or marginalised within official channels can be heard, and whereby ordinary members are able to impose transparency on their elected officials and representatives, contributing to increased accountability (Hogan and Grieco, 1999; Hogan and Greene, 2002; Greene et al, 2003; Carter et al, 2003).
Unions Online?
Moving on from optimism of potential, scepticism makes an appearance when the conservative nature of internet use by trade unions in Britain is observed. Admittedly, initial research indicates that use of ICTs is widespread. (Fiorito, 2001; Diamond and Freeman, 2002). In addition, most of the larger TUC affiliated unions now have a significant web presence, (Ward and Lusoli, 2002). However, it is clear that unions have not been as innovative as they could have been. Indeed, Ward and Lusoli see them as ‘dinosaurs in cyber-space’. Unions appear mostly concerned with basic information provision rather than with mechanisms to facilitate interactive discussion. Some (primarily very small ones) still without a web presence, while visibility for local branches is very limited (Ward and Lusoli, 2002) A survey by Poptel also supports views that unions are fairly conservative in their aims; for example, while respondents ranked most potential uses of the internet highly, they were much more equivocal about innovations such as on-line voting. Overall, there is still a strong preference for trade union participation of the face-to-face, physical form, confirmed by other evidence in the education sphere (Kirton and Greene, 2002). In addition, it is clear that there is some resistance to the notion of distributed discourse. In fact, when the LSE staged a conference on Unions and the Internet in 2001, hosted and co-organised by the TUC, at the centre of discussion was the proposal that Britain’s unions need an ‘Internet Czar’, to oversee the web presence and web activities of the UK trade union movement.

In the end, it should be noted that the most persuasive commentaries on unions and the internet recognise that ICTs are not a panacea for the ills of the trade union movement (Greene and Kirton, 2003; Greene et al, 2001; IRS, 2001). Nevertheless, it is also clear, that much of the research and commentary, as well as TUC and union policy suffer from an almost exclusive focus on official and nationally-based union websites, where arguably the most resistance to distributed discourse may be found. We have argued elsewhere (Hogan and Greene, 2002; Greene and Hogan, 2001) that the examples of the most innovative use of the internet, which offer the greatest challenges to conventional trade union activities are to be found outside of official structures, within lay or ordinary member locations. This is where we turn to next in looking at the Fire Fighters’ Dispute.

Fire Fighting in Cyber Space

As the fire fighters’ pay campaign unfolded, one FBU union activist, Simon Hickman, established an unofficial web site in the June of 2002, the 30k site ( Given space limitations, it is impossible to convey its full extent and depth. However, there are a number of features that are particularly noteworthy. The site is a very rich information resource, containing electronic archive and news materials, links to notices of rallies and meetings, news of strike schedules, and directed links to the facility to lobby MPs electronically and to view the official strike bulletins on the official/national FBU site. There is a search engine, invitations to contact the site and facilities to directly communicate the address of the web site to friends. The links to external sites is limited to those dealing specifically with the dispute. Following an attack on the site in November 2002, Mr Hickman was compelled to move to a dedicated server, a cost that viewers are invited to contribute to, made possible by amongst other things an online electronic debit payment facility. Perhaps most interesting of all is the space made to interact and discuss the campaign and other matters of concern in chat rooms and forums. The registration process to enter discussion is quick and straightforward, interactions are moderated and the product of debate is openly available for view in separate interest groups.

There is no doubt that the 30k site has been seen as important. By the end of 2002, the site came third in an international poll of the best labour movement websites (official or unofficial) for the year ( and has generated a staggering volume of visits and participation. While space constraints prevent a comprehensive assessment, there are a number of key observations that can be made.

Multi-Voicing and Visibility

Between August 19th 2002, when the site began to monitor and record site visits, and July 8th 2003, the site was visited 487,418 times, with the viewing of 2,959,367 pages, while there were nearly 5,000 visitors registered as members of the chat rooms and forums, who combined to contribute to the posting of over 126,000 messages. Both the 30k site and the FBU official site deploy the same software for generating statistics about visits, which allows easy comparisons to be made. On the available evidence, we can see that the unofficial site1 clearly outperforms the official site2. The average number of visits per day at the time of inspection, July 8th 2003, stood at 1,168 for the official site and 1,875 for the unofficial site, average visit length was 1 minute 37 seconds for the former and 9 minutes 20 seconds for the latter, in terms of the average number of pages viewed per day, the official site scored 1,538 while the unofficial site registered 9,744. Thus, while mindful of the perils of relying upon polls as well as raw statistical data, such evidence suggests that the 30k site did achieve a significant level of visibility for the cause, while providing a communicative space for the multiplication of voices in a manner that could not be achieved in real time and space. Furthermore, the evidence suggests support for our contention that the relatively low cost and distributed character of the technology provides ready means for actors outside of official structures and with far fewer resources to access the means of developing and transmitting information, to such good effect that they can even out perform established institutions.

Skill Development
The power provided to the non-expert is illustrated when one profiles the web master of the 30k site. Hickman is not a computer professional. He is a fire fighter and an FBU station representative. As he explains,

“The initial set-up took a couple of days if that. I run a few personal sites so I had the hang of it really. was the first one I set up and that site has changed allot since that was started in '98 but has given me the tools to run this site. Day to day running of the site….Normally a couple of hours updating it daily, that's searching for news and any other ideas that have been passed to me.

The time consuming part is the forum. I have 5 people helping me moderate it...” (correspondence with authors)

A number of key issues are suggested here. The task and cost of managing the site are distributed, from the many who supply information to the few others who share in the task of moderating remotely. That said, cyberspace does not exist as a ‘virtual’ paradise, free from the burdens, ties and demands of everyday life, for as Hickman has also pointed out, his activities have placed upon his domestic space and time considerable pressures, indicating that internet communication still takes considerable time to do properly. However, there is no doubt that the costs of matching the product of his efforts through conventional communicative means would have been prohibitive.

While it is evident that Hickman developed his skills over time through practice on the web, it is also the case that his site is a space in which skills are developed. Beyond the development of understandings that might come from debate, the site also allows individuals to share ideas about how to systematically analyse documents and to draft responses and to then share the products of their efforts with other visitors. For instance, in one stream of discussion a contributor posted their thoughts on the White paper put forward by the government to modernise the fire service, asking for critical comments so that the quality of response might be improved. Another stream included the posting of a letter that one activist had published in his local newspaper, outlining the arguments in support of the pay claim, an intervention that was greeted favourably by others, many of whom committed themselves to use it as a template for their own letter writing efforts. These examples illustrate our argument that virtual asynchronous meeting has the advantage of allowing for communicative skills to be developed and confidence to be built through rehearsal in safe spaces (Greene et al, 2003).

Transparency, Performance Auditing and Accountability

The 30k site also illustrates our arguments about the implications of internet communication for the enforcement of transparency, performance auditing and accountability. Many contributors to the site commented on what they perceived to be inadequacies in the democratic credentials of the FBU and its leadership:
“…the only truly democratic point of this dispute was the initial strike ballot. Since then democracy has been placed back on the shelf where this union has kept it for many years. This site ….is the only democratic outlet left to us. Meetings are re arranged or called at short notice, motions are ruled out of order by archaic rules intended to stifle debate, huge branches are cancelled out by groups of 5 or 6 who's branches carry equal weight.

Democracy also works on the majority making an informed descision based on all the facts and they haven't exactly been forthcoming have they? (posted at 21:39 on 5/6/03).
When the FBU leadership attempted to persuade the union membership that they should settle, the site became a forum in which the offers were discussed Amid accusations that the centre was attempting to restrict the flow of information between branches to prevent a momentum of opposition developing, some of the contributors to the 30k site used the space to organise opposition, part of which involved exchanging information about how the campaign to reject the proposals was developing in different locations. The site also became a forum for complaint about the voting methods used to conclude the dispute Since the conclusion of the pay campaign, the site has carried a number of messages calling for the resignation of the General Secretary and other leaders. Here readers are reminded of the transformation of the positions adopted over time, allowing the easy comparison of statements of defiant confidence early in the dispute with the “resignation to realism” at the close. Furthermore, amid allegations that the union leadership was so wary of criticism that it was attempting to postpone the 2003 annual conference, the 30k site became a place where activists from different branches and regions could post the result of the resolutions passed in their localities calling for the conference to take place, while it was noted that such information would be useful to collate for the purpose of exposing the extent to which the leadership of the union were prepared or not to accommodate the wishes of the membership (see:

Union Democracy, Disintegration and Distributed Discourse?

In noting the critical voices released on the 30k site, one might be left with the impression that the FBU nationally was completely unwilling to entertain the possibility of constructing such an open forum. However, interviews with an FBU official reveal that such an experiment did take place at the beginning of the dispute. An open forum for the posting of messages was made available and the site was inundated with communications, but the decision was made within two days to close the space, for while a very high proportion of the postings were supportive of the pay claim, there were a significant minority of emotive and critical remarks from “army wives”, as well as abusive and vulgar interventions. From then on, messages were solicited, but before being posted they would be checked to see if they were “appropriate”. The rationale provided was that the union was involved in a high profile dispute, there was intense and hostile media attention and that to make the web site a host for the defamatory and critical could only damage the reputation of the fire fighters and their organisation. Commenting on the 30k site, the observation was made that the site had been “loyal” at the beginning of the dispute, but that it had lost its value as it degenerated with postings abusive and insulting to the leadership, while revealing an unwillingness to accept the majority democratic decision to accept the final settlement.

There are plenty of notices on the 30k site that give credence to the above position. However, while it is practically impossible to know how far the practice of censorship extends, an inspection of content does reveal a remarkably open dialogue, with postings from opponents of the strike, advocates of the final settlement (see for example:, as well as the critical of leadership performance. It is clear that sharp divisions can surface when debate reigns relatively unconstrained, but should this be regarded as necessarily damaging to a union and if so, more than the hidden resentment that may lie undetected and therefore all the more difficult to redress when silence prevails? While the FBU site concentrated mainly on image management, the unofficial site provided this space. What is more, every branch and region of the FBU that has a web site maintains a link to the 30k site, emphasising the point that cognitive policing on the internet can be readily subverted as centres of control are by-passed. In any case, there are different and at times more effective ways of maintaining unity. Processing individual dilemmas and doubts through collective communicative spaces, where participants have the time to consider their responses and suggestions may take the raw emotion out of debate. This is shown on the 30k site in the discussions around whether or not it is worth retaining union membership following the bitter disappointment at the perceived failings of the FBU’s leadership ( What is more, although it would be na├»ve to suggest that endless debate is a worthwhile end in itself, we would suggest that to make a virtue out of repression, whether in the name of collective discipline or for the sake of effective marketing, necessarily closes off openness to the expansive imagination and creativity that are seen as so lacking, yet necessary for renewal (Hyman, 1999)
While there is no doubt that the 30k site is regarded as important by many of those who have and continue to participate within its realm, success or otherwise is difficult to measure with precision, while the contours of future development and impact are yet to be seen. However, as a lived and living experience it provides a number of significant lessons: the internet is an increasingly important space for the conduct of union-related activities; its low and distributed cost of operation makes it a more accessible space within which visibility can be gained and for communication skills to be nurtured and developed; and, by providing space outside of institutional restraints, it can be exploited in more innovative and interactive ways, to highlight and perhaps attenuate the deficiencies of official union web presence and communicative practices. Yet, Unions are caught in a dilemma; on the one hand, between engaging with a communicative form that is popular and in many ways expansive and on the other, with the traditions of “collective responsibility”, combined with maintaining unity in the face of adversity. How this is to be resolved, is an open question. We suggest that it is fruitful to begin with reflection upon the emerging reality that is distributed discourse and the proposition that,

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