Sunday, July 18, 2010

The New Unionism Page or How I Learned to Love the TUC

I’m giving serious consideration to renaming this column “The New Unionism Page.” I mention something from the New Unionism website too often, I know. But then, if you have visited the site you know how rich it is and so, perhaps, you’ll forgive me if I again point you towards it.

Recent additions to the site include a debate around an article on the future of global unions; the failings of the current versions; and a (rather bizarrely) interesting piece about the need for a new definition of “managing.” My fave, though, is a call by Poul Erik Skov Christensen, general secretary of the United Federation of Danish Workers, for a fundamental restructuring of the Danish labour movement and the creation of One Big Union.

Another bad habit I have developed is that of pointing to things happening in Great Britain. UnionLearn is less a resource for Canadian trade unionists than it is an example of what’s possible, including one-stop shopping for a wide range of on- and off-line courses for staff, stewards, activists, local leaders and new members. Take a gander at


Crank it up a bit and go drool over The site, run by the TUC (Trades Union Congress), is a combination professional development and social networking site for union staffers. Not just for one union, but all unions in Britain.


If you’re a union researcher you already know about GURN, the Global Union Research Network. Sponsored by the ILO, the ITUC and all the GUFs (global union federations), here you can download PDFs of publications from around the world. All from unions or a labour perspective, and on topics ranging from precarious work to climate change, to the uses and mis-uses of economic history. See See, as well, the ITUC’s youth blog:

Your local could probably use its own domain name (the bit of your e-mail address after the ‘@’). But if you thought about it you probably concluded it was beyond either your resources or your technical expertise. However, it’s really simpler and cheaper than you think. Here’s a simple how-to:

As I write this the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution has just passed with demos all around and teachers and sugar workers union activists sitting in jail. Events of the last year in Iran have been cause for a lot of comment and enthusiasm about various online organizing tools, with Twitter being the flavour of the month for the past year or so. Balanced analyses of how the Iranian pro-democracy organizing took place and what role social media played are pretty few and far between, so please excuse the referral to this article in Business Week:

Surprise, surprise: when you’re asking people to do something risky and trust you, it’s the face-to-face organizing that works. But if “technological determinism” is just a way of making sitting alone while sending millions of e-mails and Tweets into the void seem like an organizing campaign, ignoring the utility of gizmos like Twitter and SMS is equally goofy. This LabourList post on the subject is worth thinking about:


Ever just go ahead and do something routine, in what you think is an ordinary way, and get feedback indicating you’re a genius? Genius is pushing it a bit, perhaps, but that’s what recently happened to us at LabourStart. As I write this we’re in the early planning stages for our first-ever open-to-all global solidarity conference.

It’s being organized by a small conference committee that was held over from our Washington conference in 2009, plus some energetic folks in Hamilton, Ontario. But this time we also opened up part of the planning to our 700 or so volunteer correspondents, including decisions about what workshop topics we would offer. We used our internal blog and posted a draft agenda. Within a couple of weeks we had over 100 suggestions, plus e-mailed suggestions from folks who were often in places where having your name out there on a LabourStart blog might cause you problems.
The input ranged from funding offers from unions through workshop-in-a-box offers from academics, to health and safety issues for LabourStarters. And a whole bunch of thank-yous for what someone called a “unique chance” to have some direct input into what would be on the agenda at a union event.

The agenda changed regularly as a result, making it something of a live document. While not all the suggestions made sense to the conference committee, members at least did some follow-up before rejecting a proposal. So, even those LabourStarters whose ideas didn’t make it onto the agenda knew we were taking them and their thoughts seriously.

The result? A better conference, for sure. But also a bunch of folks with a real sense of ownership over a project, and a bit of a feeling of community, despite the fact that most LabourStarters will never meet each other.

As it all evolved I couldn’t recall a single union conference I’ve attended anywhere in the world where that kind of input was provided for.

If I’ve missed something please let me know about it. Please. Otherwise I have to conclude we’ve missed another easy opportunity to use the net for internal organizing, for building our unions.

Podcasting Intro

Podcasting is probably the online tool we’re least likely to use in our union work. But that also means that when we do use it, we get a lot of attention. Here’s a podcast starter’s kit for you.


Podcasts are audio files that are made available on a regular (daily, weekly, monthly) basis. You can register your podcast with a service like iTunes, and then each time you post a new edition to your website (or rented space elsewhere), the people who have subscribed to it through iTunes will automatically get a copy of it.

Think of podcasts as radio shows that come at you from your computer rather than your radio and you won’t go far wrong.

There are union pods out there, but they’re pretty few and far between. Podcasts require a lot of work and an ongoing commitment, so they have tended to come and go. They disappear either because they were created for a specific situation (the wonderfully creative lockout pods produced by Canadian Media Guild members at the CBC for example), or because the volunteer producers just ran out of steam.

A notable exception has been the audio pod produced by a member of the Electrical Trades Union in Australia called, inevitably, The Spark. But even The Spark is, after three years, being produced much less frequently now. (See Still racing along with as many as four video episodes a month is the Union Show, produced by Phil Cleary in Victoria Australia as a TV show and then podded via iTunes. (See

Less ambitious have been the pods that pop up for a specific purpose and which are intended from the get-go to disappear once the need for them does. Podcasts to do with bargaining, strikes/lockouts, campaign, conventions and elections (union and otherwise) are all doable. And they are easy and cheap as far as technology goes: all you need is content. Still, it’s best to have a team rather than relying on one person to do it all.

Is there anyone who doesn’t own an MP3 player these days? Nothing like taking a bargaining update to the gym or a picket line or listening to it on the bus on the way to work in the morning. Especially if it’s blended-in with some interviews with co-workers, maybe some music for the line, a cheering line or two from the national president, and a Q&A segment for members on what the new collective agreement means to them.

Think of it as a membership meeting members can turn on and turn off at their convenience over the course of a day. Just make sure you pay enough attention to the format and content that it doesn’t get turned off and left that way.

For more details on webcasting of various kinds check out the Webcast Academy at You’ll find free information, tutorials and discussion forums, lots of open source software reviews and links, and even live online tutorials.

Once you’ve browsed the academy and have an idea what your podcast will sound like (or even look like: a video podcast is an option for the ambitious), you’ll want the software needed to get started; something that allows you to manage the recording as it is taking place, and then to edit the results.

Audacity ( open source software, free and with a large community of users who can provide tips and tricks when you start to push the limits of what it’s capable of. The developers even provide free online tutorials for using Audacity at

Like much open source software these days, this isn’t a second-best option to a commercial product. Audacity has won awards for “best product” in its class in direct competition with commercial software.

Once you have the software, all you need is a decent microphone (average cost about $20), and a laptop (desktops are a little awkward for those “streeter” interviews) or an MP3 recorder.

One obvious use that podcasts haven’t been put to by unions is education and training. If you know of an experiment along these lines, please get in touch.

Of Women and Wikis

A wiki is an online document or collection of documents that can be edited or changed by a number of people. A collaborative project of some kind.

On more than one occasion I’ve encouraged a visit to a wiki of one sort or another. The Canadian Activism Archives is one and Wikipedia another. In both cases the idea behind visiting is not just to access what’s there, but to record working people’s own experiences and opinions.

For the webbish amongst us, wikis embody the Web 2.0 ideal: a founder may have at some point defined the project and started handing out the passwords, but, at some point, a successful wiki takes on a life of its own. It becomes an ever-changing, fluid document that is the result of co-operation and collaboration amongst a group of people with a common interest.

There are others besides the propellor beanie crowd watching the phenomenon with interest. Historians, present and future, sure are. It wasn’t too long ago that the history of us (workers) was written using materials produced by them (bosses and friends). So, if you wanted to write a history of a strike in Halifax in the 1890s, you pretty much had to use sources like hostile newspapers and contemporary accounts by people who had the time to sit down and write about what was happening (likely not the strikers) and whose family circumstances were such that their account of what had happened would be passed down a few generations (fairly well-off).

Imagine what the history of your union would look like if it was based entirely on what the National Post had to say about it. Even if a history is written by a sympathetic historian, what gets covered (if not the how) will be determined by the source of information to a large extent.

A few brave souls in the history biz have made imaginative use of odd sources and given us “history from below,” which is wonderful stuff. But it, too, is often dependent on materials that weren’t consciously generated by workers: things like tax and court records.

Wikis like the Canadian Activism Archives and the Wikipedia (or at least its entries about workers, their unions and their struggles) are potentially the start of us creating our own histories, or at least the sources for the histories to come. We can speak directly to the future and for the record.

So, go to these wikis and make some history (literally): and

Now that the preachy bit is done, here are links to wiki services you can use (for free) to create a simple wiki: and and These wikis can be really helpful if you’re working in a group on a common project (such as conference or campaign planning, or newsletter or website creation – just about anything a committee would be responsible for) and are having trouble meeting as much as is needed to get the work done. Give one a try.

Members don’t need to be in the same room at the same time to contribute to the project, so participation is easier for people on different shifts or in different geographical areas. And, unlike a series of e-mails, there’s no confusion about where the discussion is at. Even better, no long silences when someone asks, “Who’ll make the changes to the draft?” The discussion is the draft and, when the discussion is done, so is the agenda, minutes, article, plan, proposal or whatever else you might be working on together.


With IWD upon us it’s time to point out one of the richer and better thought-out bits of the Internet that relates to women and their work.

The Gender and Work Database consists of six modules or themes (health care, migration, precarious employment, technology, unions and unpaid work). You can search the database on any of those themes and access the research, a thesaurus (particularly useful for non-academics) and stats it contains or directs you to.

The GWD is (mostly) a York University project. Some of the names connected with it will ring bells and say something about the quality of the materials: Leah Vosko (Director), Pat Armstrong, Barb Cameron, Kate Laxer; Laurell Ritchie and many, many others.

I can’t recall ever seeing a resource as rich as this online. Or as accessible. Even if you don’t have a need or an interest, this is a site worth playing with. But, since you’re reading this, you have both, so go here ASAP:


The TUC (Trade Union Congress) in Britain recently held a conference on the future of unions (and of minor things like the shape of work and such). Great conference (hello Canadian Labour Congress), and, better yet, it has spawned a website that is not just a detailed report on the conference, but an ongoing and public conversation on the issues raised there. Check it out at:

Our Times Column on Open Source Software

Ever wonder why you’re using Microsoft products on your (and probably your union’s) computer? There are some good reasons for it, I guess, but likely it’s just because they came that way. But are they right for the job? Overall, I remain unconvinced. It’s always felt like what I imagine shopping at Wal-Mart would feel like. Kinda creepy.

There are alternatives. Free. Fully-featured. And eating away at Microsoft’s marketshare. They’re the “open source” class of software. This is software whose innards, the code that makes it work, are made available to anyone who wants to add features or tweak the way the software works, making it better or faster.

At the top of the open source heap are the Mozilla family of Internet applications. They’ve been around for a while and a non-profit company has grown up around the software so that you know what you’re getting, and what you’re getting comes with no surprises.

Until recently there was still a reason for many of us to stick with the Microsoft Monster: the online and voice support that has been available. No more.

Open source products have always had an edge in cost (most were free) and, believe it or not, features. Internet Explorer, for example, is definitely following in Mozilla Firefox’s footsteps. And Firefox is recognized for being the features leader. Despite the “stigma” of being non-commercial, Firefox now holds about 20 per cent of the browser market worldwide. The recent release of Version 3 may very well increase its share significantly.

Less quantifiable than a features comparison or marketshare has been the perceived security issues surrounding Microsoft products. Whatever your thoughts on Microsoft and their security and privacy problems, one of the nice things about open source software is that you can look at the innards of the software you’re using and see if it is doing anything it shouldn’t. Well, maybe not you, but lots of other people who would shout from the rooftops if they found anything.

Plus, because this stuff has literally tens of thousands of enthusiastic amateur and professional coders out there, when bugs or new security threats appear, the fix is generally available quickly.

Support isn’t the issue it used to be either. Free online support has always been there. And, as the support and advice often comes from within the community of users, you’ll find its available 24/7. There’s not just advice on problems, but ideas for doing things in new ways. So, for example, you’ll find all kinds of free add-ons for products like Firefox that either automate tasks for you or make it possible to do things you didn’t know you needed done. In the latter category are products like Foxmarks Bookmark Synchronizer, which allows you to synchronize your bookmarks (“Favourites” to you IE users) across several computers and even to access them remotely from someone else’s computer.

A more recent development has been the appearance of computer techs and consultants who specialize in open source systems. Making a living at this or at least making it a big part of a tech’s business is now possible: the installed base of open source software is now big enough to support it. Chances are you can now buy support if you need it, but the chances are you won’t need it: this stuff is that good.

So if the support is there, the stuff is free, it does everything the commercial stuff does and perhaps more in some areas, and it’s the product of a collaborative, non-profit approach to building applications for your computer. . .you’re running Microsoft products on your system for why?

When the next upgrade to one of your Microsoft applications comes out and you’re looking to make a change anyway, consider some of the open source stuff out there.

You won’t be sorry. Love it or your money back. 

To download a complete office suite a la Microsoft Office visit To download Firefox (web browser) and Thunderbird (e-mailer) visit If you decide you want to strike a blow against Microsoft in a big way, consider installing Linux, an open source operating system, by visiting


If Microsoft is the Wal-Mart of the software world, Facebook has a similar lock on social networking, which has been a problem for unions that have tried to use it. The major issues have been privacy, and a distinct lack of union-friendliness.

Now there’s an alternative: Unionbook. It won’t replace Facebook for staying in touch with the grandkids or trolling for organizing contacts. But it will do a lot of other things we now use FB for, better, and without the risks associated with being dependent on a commercial site we don’t control.

Unionbook, unlike FB, belongs to us. It’s a project of LabourStart, and has been designed specifically to meet the needs of trade unionists. It aims to feature most of the tools we use on Facebook – and more. As it's an open source system, we can customize it as much as we want. Need a feature? Describe it and we might just be able to build it. For example, UnionBook offers free blogs to every trade union member, every steward, every shop steward and every union committee. You can create groups and the groups themselves can have blogs, documents and discussion forums of their own. In other words, mini-websites, and highly interactive ones at that.

There are groups for a number of unions around the world, several global union federations (GUFs), groups for issues like health and safety, one for lapel pin traders, and even one (started by yours truly) for trade unionists who build model airplanes.

All free, all union.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Holy Solidarity Batman!

Close to 200 (still counting) activists at LabourStart 2010. Report to come but suffice it to say: great!

Follow on Facebook or on Twitter (#lsconf2010).

Friday, July 9, 2010

Follow LabourStart 2010 Online

Join the LabourStart 2010 Flickr photo-sharing group HERE and follow the fun or post your own photos for others to view and use.

On Twitter? Tweet the happenings or follow what's going on with #lsconf2010.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

One Week to LabourStart 2010

150 trade unionists from 28 countries (from Albania to Trinidad and Tobago). 9-11 July, McMaster University School of Labour Studies, Hamilton Ontario Canada.

See the list of workshops and register HERE.