If its database is to be of use, Unison needs to be more computer-liter ate, says Paul Gosling
Starting this month, local councils or hospital managers negotiating with Unison, Britain's largest union, will find a secret hi-tech weapon being used against them - a computerised, on-line database that union officials can tap into either from t heir offices or from portable computers in the tea-breaks between bargaining sessions. But there are doubts about how much use the new system will actually be to the union's 1.4 million members.

Unison represents health, local government and other public service workers, whose pay and conditions have traditionally been nationally negotiated. Local pay bargaining is now being introduced, which fragments the negotiations and creates a need for union representatives to know what their counterparts elsewhere in the country have agreed with employers.

"Local negotiator", as the software package is known, is designed to give branches the information they need when meeting local managers. It includes a program that calculates the effect of a pay offer on the branch's own membership, which can be run on a portable computer during negotiations. An on-line database provides up-to-date details on the outcomes of similar negotiations elsewhere, as well as advice and model agreements.

Much of the material is provided by the Labour Research Department, publishers of Labour Research and Bargaining Report (which are themselves available on the database). Other LRD publications are placed on Unison's bulletin board, along with reports from universities and pay research bodies. The new system is the latest step in a 10-year process by which LRD has been moving towards computer supply of pay-bargaining information.

In the late Eighties, the three public service unions that merged last year into Unison asked LRD to establish a computer system to support their national office, regions and branches. The resulting on-line database has been introduced this year on the Poptel network, a not-for-profit service specialising in working with trade unions and the voluntary sector.

On top of its standard features, the package includes a welfare benefits program, which enables members to check their entitlement to state benefits. Branches can also calculate the cash value of any proposed non-pay benefits their members are offered, such as subsidised canteens, reduced hours and improved maternity and holiday arrangements. A pilot programme involving 140 Unison branches has allowed some mistakes in the calculations on non-pay benefits to be ironed out.

But one insider, who asked to remain anonymous, says that even in the pilot programme hardly anyone used the facility - because too few branch officers are computer-literate.There have also been complaints that the system is an inefficient way to reach the target audience. One branch officer says the software has been sitting in her office for several weeks, but cannot be used until new hardware is purchased to cope with the large memory space required to run the system.

Adrian Lanning, the consultant who has been advising Unison and Poptel on the system, believes most branches should be able to run it on existing computers, with any personal computer purchased in the last six to eight years able to cope. Branches will, however, need a modem to log on to Poptel.

"It should change radically the way research is conducted in a union," says Mr Lanning. "It copes with information that previously would have sat in a research officer's pile, accessible to only one person."

Dave Godson, secretary of Unison's North Lincolnshire health branch and a member of the project group to implement the system, is one of the enthusiasts. "The problem will be getting users involved in it," he says. "But lay members have been giving very positive comments."

Mr Godson says that written material is more likely to be read on bulletin boards, rather than lying in an office in-tray.

He believes it will also make unions more democratic, by assisting them in consulting with members whose details will in future be held on computer file. But union officials will need to be computer-literate before their members can reap the full benefits of the system.