Following the announcement of the Italian trade union Fim Cisl that it has started testing the issuing of union cards on the Ethereum blockchain, we had the opportunity to interview the general secretary, Marco Bentivogli, in order to get a better understanding of this project.
Secretary Bentivogli, what are the objectives of the ongoing tests for the issuance of union cards on the blockchain?
The objective is to develop the “app” designed together with the Alkemy Research Laboratory led by Alessandra Spada, as part of the Secure Open Nets project – Horizon 2020 programme – and with the specialist support of the companies Geckosoft and Security Pattern – since there are many aspects of both the membership supply chain and the technology for which an experimentation phase is needed.
With the card, within trade union organizations, in the context of territorial federations and at a national level, delegates have a comprehensive and reliable view of their members. The card on blockchain – a distributed application based on natively secure technologies – will provide a reliable count of member workers with certified and useful data to offer new services and analysis. Without forgetting the reduction of costs related to the printing of paper forms and, later on, also of plastic holders.
We are introducing already existing union cards, a process that will take several weeks and will involve several territories from North to South Italy. The objective is to evaluate the scalability and usability of the system, collecting information to understand if it is possible to make some steps easier and more intuitive in full respect of the principles of security and privacy.
In addition to cards, are you planning in the future to expand the services offered that take advantage of this technology?
This technology opens up completely new scenarios for representation, labour is undergoing great transformations, space and time are beginning to be independent variables where representation is increasingly difficult to implement without the appropriate technological tools. This is why we will need increasingly more Smart Unions and trade unionists able to deal with technologies such as smart contracts, blockchains, big data, etc.”. These are tools with unprecedented and unexplored potential, we outlined them together with Massimo Chiriatti in the manifesto published in 2018 in the Sole 24 Ore newspaper: Blockchain Italia, a manifesto for a new digital public good – Intertwining the potential of blockchain and the Industry 4.0 digital manufacturing, the implications can be truly remarkable. In particular, where innovative solutions need to be found, such as managing the remuneration of services linked to complex and articulated supply chains both upstream and downstream of production. But also the so-called “Smart Contracts”, which render such environments fully programmable and automated for the first time by simplifying legal relations, bringing advantages in terms of transparency.
As far as we know, you are the first trade union in the world to experiment with such a solution. How much do you think it is necessary for a modern trade union to keep up with the times also from a technological point of view? And how important is it to experiment in this area as well?
It is not only necessary, but it is also indispensable. If the union fails to anticipate changes in the labour world, it will have ever more problems in its representative role. In order to keep this idea up to date: “together as promoters of social justice”, we need to keep up with the times and use all the tools that technology provides us with. The experimentation that we have started today moves in that direction in order to anticipate the times and be prepared. The future, as I have already said, will increasingly need Smart Union and trade unionists capable of handling technologies such as smart contracts, blockchains, big data, etc.
Is there any precise reason for choosing the Ethereum blockchain, or is it just because it was best-suited for testing from a technical point of view?
The Ethereum blockchain is among the most widespread and stands out for its ability to natively support smart contracts and digital tokens, not just cryptocurrencies. Digital token transactions are all recorded on the blockchain, allowing a secure record to be maintained. This makes it possible to uniquely associate the union card to a token, which is given to the cardholder at the time of creation. The choice of Ethereum was also made after evaluating the tools available to support the development and use of blockchain-based applications. In the phase just concluded, it was essential to have mature tools available to support the rapid development of a prototype, and we are sure that in the next phases they will play a decisive role in ensuring greater usability of the final application.
To record data on the Ethereum blockchain it is necessary to make transactions for which fees have to be paid in Ether (ETH): will the union buy ETH on the market?
The system developed can be implemented either on the public version or on a private instance of the Ethereum platform. When it comes to the public Ethereum blockchain, we refer to the main network (the one on which Ether is exchanged, the Ethereum cryptocurrency) and the official test networks. These are distributed networks, in which no single entity manages the totality of nodes. A private Ethereum blockchain is instead an independent network created by a single (or few) entities that manage the totality of nodes. While on the public Ethereum blockchain the transactions have a cost in Ether (ETH), on a private blockchain there are no direct costs for the transactions.
To make testing faster and more agile, at this stage we decided to use the public test blockchain: this will allow us to test our system using an infrastructure equivalent to the real network, without having to buy real Ether. The possibility to switch to the main Ethereum network or to a private network will be evaluated only at a later stage of the experimentation. Together with the results that will emerge from the first field tests, we will consider a number of aspects associated with the technical-functional properties of the two solutions: security, scalability, transparency, and of course the cost of transactions compared to the cost of maintaining a private infrastructure.