Saturday, August 7, 2010

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About LabourStart, But Were Afraid to Ask

One morning we (one in a small town in Canada, the other in metropolitan London) got up, went to work, made a pot of coffee, settled-in at our desks and checked on the latest union news from Fiji (where unions are leading the charge against the military regime), India (where we have friends), and Palestine (where we can’t imagine how they get any union work done at all).

As we watched, the news from each country was updated and new stories appeared.

We then checked to see if there were any news about organizing Wal-Mart worldwide. While one waited a few seconds for a database to generate a list of stories, the other looked at a minutes-old photo of police breaking into a Korean union office after the union was declared illegal.

When the coffee kicked-in we sent support e-mails to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, checked a newswire reporting on health and safety news from around the planet, and made note of a job with a union in Australia for a friend there.

All on one website. And while union news and music provided by the same website was playing in the background:

Modest Beginnings

LabourStart began modestly enough as the website set up to accompany a book by LabourStart’s founder, Eric Lee: The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism (Pluto Press, 1996). The idea was simply to include updates on new and innovative uses of the new communications technology by unions.

By March 1998, the website had evolved and was given the name “LabourStart: Where trade unionists start their day on the net.” That wasn't strictly true, at the time. It was an aspiration. Increasingly, it has become a reality.

In its first incarnation, LabourStart was simply a list of links to union-related news stories on other websites, and also links to some online union campaigns. An early example would have been a link to the global campaign to compel the Russian government to pay its workers back wages.

LabourStart was updated every day by Lee, but increasingly individuals would provide, by email, links to news items or campaigns.

Most trade union websites back then, and today, are managed by single individuals. There is often a fear of losing control, and there is a lack of understanding of how the web works by many trade union officialsThe content is the same as print publications, the ‘top-down’ model of one-way information distribution is the same, and the sites fail to take advantage of the web’s ability to make communication two-way and interactive. It is not used as the organizing tool it is.

LabourStart is different. As Lee became overwhelmed by the number of stories readers were sending him for inclusion on LabourStart, he opened it up by giving posting privileges to readers. Readers he had never met for the most part – and never will. But as the number and diversity of stories rose, so did interest in doing LabourStart work.

Of course LS is taking a risk by giving over 500 [now over 800] people the opportunity to add their own content – meaning links to news stories – to LabourStart. But the result has been an unqualified success. Those people are posting an average of 250 news stories a day, every day, to our news links database

In 2001, LabourStart launched its first editions in languages other than English as we pooled resources with activists in the Netherlands and Norway. Both editions became huge successes, well known in the labour movements of their countries. We followed with editions in dozens of other languages. Today LabourStart appears in more than twenty languages, including Russian, Indonesian, Creole and Chinese.

Those editions are not translations from the English – they are autonomous, with their own editors and correspondents. In many cases, they cover news solely, or primarily, from one country or region. French and English are the exceptions; LabourStart in those languages covers union news from around the world.

Who is LabourStart and What Do We Do?

Everything about LabourStart is volunteer-driven. The enthusiasm of those volunteers has allowed us to do things that large organizations which may be well-funded and have big staffs have been unable to do. One example is our experience with global online campaigning.

When LabourStart was first launched in 1998, we would link to online union campaigns. By 2002, we had set up our own ActNOW online campaign system and were being used by unions around the world to conduct online campaigns on their behalf.

One of the very first ActNOW campaigns that we ran was done at the behest of the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions – now the International Trade Union Confederation). This concerned a number of leaders of the sugar workers union in Congo who had been jailed.

By this time LabourStart had amassed a list of some 3,000 email addresses, and we informed all 3,000 of them about the campaign. We had no idea what the reaction would be – would we get five percent or ten percent to respond? Within days over 3,000 people had sent off protest messages using our system. In other words, instead of getting a 5% response, we were getting a 105% response.

How was this possible? This was one of our first lessons in online campaigning - people on our mailing list were forwarding on the message to their own mailing lists, and where we thought we were communicating with our 3,000 subscribers, we may actually have been talking to an audience ten or twenty times that size.

In the last five years we've waged dozens of these campaigns, and in the largest one so far, were able to deliver over 8,000 protest emails to Gate Gourmet when that company was in dispute with its catering staff at London's Heathrow Airport. [we now have campaigns of over 10,000 messages]

We now have the capacity to deliver as many as 1,000 protest messages to an employer or government within the first few hours following a campaign's launch.

In other words, thanks to our ActNOW campaigning system, for the first time ever trade unions are able to react to violations of workers' rights anywhere in the world in real time.

In mid-2006, that campaigning system became multilingual itself, and a recent campaign waged in support of security guards in Indonesia appeared simultaneously in English, Spanish, French, German, Norwegian and Indonesian editions.

People who participate in these campaigns, who send off messages, are automatically added to LabourStart's mailing list, unless they ask not to be. That list has been growing exponentially over the years, growing almost at the rate that Moore's Law predicted for the power of computer chips, doubling every 18 months. From 3,000 subscribers in 2002 it should be up to the 53,000 by early 2007. [now approaching 70,000]

Those subscribers are sent a message about once a week, usually on Thursdays. The message can include all kinds of things, and it almost always includes an appeal to send off a message of protest. Thousands of readers of those messages almost always participate, and not only when their own country is involved.

In early 2006, for example, we publicized the case of a young shop steward who was sacked from her job at Dunnes' Stores in Ireland because she refused to remove her union pin. The union asked LabourStart to launch an online campaign, which delivered thousands of messages from every continent, from rank-and-file workers – but much more than that. The online campaign had a ripple effect offline, with real-world protests in parliaments and city councils, street protests and leafleting. The shop steward got her job back within days in a stunning victory for the Irish trade union movement -- and a further vindication of the strategy of using online campaigns.

What’s LabourStart Really About?

Something new is happening here, something that has never happened before in the international trade union movement.

And it is happening first of all in the minds of those tens of thousands of trade union activists around the world who now regularly participate in global, online campaigns.

Those activists are increasingly beginning to think the way their opponents in global corporations think. Those corporate ‘leaders’ operate in a world where companies seek out the cheapest possible sources of raw materials and labour, regardless of where they are in the world. This has been the case for decades, and increasingly corporations have lost whatever specific “national” identity they may have once had. The big global players may still have their corporate headquarters in their companies of origin (or not) but the goods and services they provide increasingly come from halfway around the world. There is no room for any kind of old-fashioned loyalty to one's country here. If a cheaper deal can be had by sacking thousands of workers who have given their lives working for a company and moving the business to a union-free, low-wage country, that's what companies do.

Unions, on the other hand, have tended to lag far behind, making occasional references to global solidarity but mostly retaining the same national structures that have served them well (or not) since the late 19th century. This means in practice that the international institutions of the labour movement remain small, under-funded and under-staffed. And that individual unions and their members often struggle in futile campaigns in support of protectionism or encouraging the public to buy locally, instead of building a countervailing power to the global corporations.

In many unions, there seems to be a real confusion about this, illustrated by the fact that in some unions in the USA, the terms “buy union” and “buy American” are used synonymously.

To survive, unions will need to adapt and most of all to adapt their way of thinking. This means increasingly seeing that they have more in common with their fellow workers in other countries than they do with their employers at home.

There was some evidence even a decade ago when Internet use among trade unionists was just beginning, that for some of those online, they were beginning to think exactly that way. As the cost of communicating across continents dropped to zero, more and more trade unionists found themselves in frequent – often, daily – contact with colleagues in different countries. The mailing lists they would join, the websites they would visit, were slowly having an impact on the way they thought of themselves.

Ten or twenty years ago, a rank-and-file trade unionist would have little opportunity to engage with colleagues on the other side of the world. Today, he or she is likely to do this frequently, by participating in online campaigns, or by following global labour news.

This has lead to a situation where a kind of critical mass may now have been reached. With over 53,000 activists on LabourStart's mailing list, who in turn forward on the messages to tens of thousands more every week, online campaigns are getting larger and larger, week after week.

More and more of them are producing successful results. A global campaign requested by a Canadian union (PSAC) run using LabourStart's ActNOW system produces thousands of messages in support of striking diamond mine workers – and the employer capitulates and agrees to recognize the union for the first time. In Indonesia, one of the world's largest private security companies is compelled by a global online campaign to back down from its refusal to re-hire workers it illegally sacked. In Thailand, a multinational public relations firm withdraws its legal action against a local activist following a big online campaign.

All three of those results took place within a two-week period in June and July 2006. There have been dozens more, but what is extraordinary is that there are any victories at all to report. After all, in a globalized world economy, employers supposedly have the upper hand. Victories for unions are supposed to be few and far between.

The successes so far in these campaigns would not have been possible without the new technology. A decade ago, there would have been no way possible to rapidly mobilize thousands of workers around the world within a few hours to flood a corporate headquarters in London with messages in support of striking security guards in Jakarta.

LS and Your Union

Generally unions are still not fully exploiting the internet.

LabourStart can help. Indeed it’s one of the reasons we exist: to encourage unions in their use of the internet and to spread the word about particularly interesting innovations and successes.

So, for example, we run a contest each year. The Labour Website of the Year contest draws everyone’s attention to particularly interesting uses of the web by unions. Global, national and local unions participate. The number of votes LabourStart receives determines the winner. This encourages unions to collect their members’ addresses and mobilize them in support of their site.

Our hope is that the experience of organizing their members for our contest will encourage unions to think more about running online campaigns. And that’s really the point of the contest. The real winners are the unions that get the idea and start using the internet to organize their members.

Want a basic intro to online campaigning? Call on us. Our volunteers have conducted workshops at union conferences and conventions worldwide.

Most people who see LabourStart news today do not see it on our website – using a couple of different kinds of syndication we have made our news feeds available to unions that wish to have current labour news on their sites. More than 700 union websites are using LabourStart's news feeds, including over 200 in the USA.

Our newswires help make union websites more attractive to members. With continually updated content the wires mean workers checking-in will always find something new on their union’s website. Nothing discourages regular visits to a site more than stale content.

LS newswires are available in a number of languages and are broken down by country, priority, and themes. Adding them to a union site is simple and free.

LS’ ‘open source’ structure means stories about struggles that most of us would never have heard of now greet us each morning as we work on that first cup of coffee. International solidarity is, for LabourStart readers, a daily activity.

Every union’s struggles can become news around the world. Many unions, even national unions and global federations, make being a LabourStart correspondent part of an official’s job. Your stories get out, and traffic to your union’s website rises. And for unions without a presence on the web, LabourStart offers the Labour News Network where workers can place stories before posting them on LabourStart proper.

Most importantly, you soon find that some one in the Philippines who saw a story about your struggle on LS, read about it on your website, is now e-mailing to say she has is dealing with the same employer, the same issues, wouldn’t it be a good idea to swap ideas, do some online brainstorming.

Welcome to the workers’ version of the wired world.

Eric Lee, Editor, LabourStart
Derek Blackadder, Senior Correspondent for Canada

PS Since this was published in 2007 we’ve expanded, adding new languages, many new list members plus we’ve held our first wide-open global solidarity conference in co-operation with the McMaster University School of Labour Studies in Hamilton, Canada.

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