Friday, December 31, 2010

Free Guide to Social Media for Unions

Alex White is an Australian trade unionist and webhead who publishes his thoughts on unions and the internet online. Now he has made available a quick guide for unions in their use of social media.

More sophisticated communicators won’t find much new here, but for the rest of us this will be an invaluable intro to integrated online communications. I'd especially recommend it to local union folks looking to build a more effective online presence and organizing capacity. If nothing else it can act as a kind of detailed checklist for new folks or activists and unions moving online.

Free to download HERE.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Online Workers of the Future Unite!

Corey Doctorow is a well-known speculative fiction writer who is also something of an online activist and a new media critic (see his work re. Creative Commons licensing and his time at the New Frontiers Foundation.

Corey's latest book is about the struggle of young online workers to organize. If that doesn’t grab you the title will: For the Win: Organize to Survive. It's tagged with 'young adult fiction' but I had a fine time with it (OK, that might say more about me than about the book) and it's getting great reviews.

Download it for free at Corey’s own website HERE.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Twitter Ups and Downs

Our Times column, vol. 29-4.

Sometimes we need to hear about organizing tactics hurting employers – enough for them to spend money countering them – before we take the tactics seriously. That’s why I’m giving SMS (texting) even more space here in my WebWork column.

Text messaging to organize flash mobs in support of strikes or to otherwise put sudden, organized and unexpected pressure on an employer is becoming a common tactic in Europe,particularly in the retail sector. Last Christmas, the Association of German Retailers filed a complaint with the nation’s highest court in an attempt to ban the use of flash mob tactics by thepublic sector workers’ union, Verdi, in labour disputes. Using SMS, strikers and supporters could converge on a single store on short notice. Large numbers of people lined up at cashiers’ stations to buy a single item. Others filled carts with food, and then abandoned them for managers to re-shelve.

These are effective tactics – a surprise to the company. No one aside from a small committee knows where or when the action will happen. Volunteers provide a mobile phone number and get less than an hour’s notice of the action. No posters, no newsletters, no overnight lags while a phone tree operates that an employer can use to prepare. A flying squad on steroids. Fast, flexible, nimble.

As I write this, a second wave of strikes is hitting Chinese auto parts plants. Seen the photos the Globe and the Guardian have been carrying? Those workers are staring at their phones not because they have nothing else to do. They’re getting directions and updates from the strike committee.

Both text messaging and micro-blogging (using the Twitter site) from a mobile phone are also becoming useful (or possibly not, we’ll see) tools in internal local union organizing. Recently I’ve started to see members at meetings tweeting and texting summaries of discussions at membership meetings to co-workers who couldn’t or wouldn’t come to a meeting. Unions need to give some thought to the implications of this increasingly popular practice.

A while back I mentioned Twitter and the tweeting that went on during last fall’s CUPE national convention. I’ve since compared notes with a few members and staff. We’re pretty sure that, on several important resolutions, there were more people in the hall tweeting their thoughts on the resolution being debated than there were delegates at the mics. And that’s just the tweets using the “official” hash tag (tweets organized around a topic) for the convention. Opining online is faster than waiting to get to a mic; it doesn’t induce stage fright; and it allows for a back-and-forth debate that the rules of order don’t and can’t allow for. It also, and this deserves some thought, allows for members at a meeting, conference or convention to have input from members who aren’t in the room before they cast a ballot. My reflexive reaction to this is to think: “Wow! Representative democracy gets a boost!” Delegates will no longer just be elected and then sent off to do whatever and then report back; members can now provide them with feedback and direction in real time.

But there are down sides too, and they’re worth considering. (Or am I just past it?) For sure there is the question of whether we’re creating two classes of members: one that is techsavvy and gets more input into the union’s direction, and one that isn’t and so loses out as we have fewer face-to-face meetings and more interaction online. Are we at the point where we can say that those who don’t tweet are those who don’t want to rather than those who can’t?

The recent LabourStart 2010 conference in Hamilton, Ontario, saw some less serious use of Twitter. The hash tag (a text string starting with the “#” sign that you can use to find tweets on the same topic) “#LSCONF2010” was created and advertised to the 200 participants. We suggested it be used by people looking for rides to and from Pearson Airport and such mundane things. Instead, we were treated to realtime reviews of workshops, speakers and even the quality of the lunches.

Judy Rebick, our keynote speaker, may have been responsible. In her opening address to the conference she made a point of looking at the screen over her head on which the conference logo appeared. She explained that she had recently attended an event where Twitter postings on speakers were projected over their heads where they couldn’t see them, but where everyone else in the room could. Sounded a hoot and worth setting up. Unless, of course, you’re the speaker.


The AFL-CIO has created a nice one-stop-shopping site for unemployed workers (union and not) at A nice bridge to workers often lost to their unions or never a member. The Association for Progressive Communications advocates for an accessible and open Internet available globally for use in creating a more just world: New (at least to me) is the online journal Global Labour at

The always interesting Cyberunions ( has posted the results of their survey of unions online. Aside from the health and safety content, is worth looking over if you’re thinking about setting up a members-only discussion forum. My favourite model airplane and travel forums use the same software.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Alexei Sayle on Union Conventions

From Stalin Ate My Homework:

“To be at the congress of a large trade union in the 1960s was a little like attending a rock festival where the stars up on the stage were balding alcoholics in ill-fitting suits talking gibberish.”

No comment. :-)

For more on Alexei, my favourite Marxist stand-up comedian, see HERE.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2010 Global Labour Photo Contest Up and Running

The latest LabourStart Labour Photo of the Year contest is up and running.

The panel of three distinguished labour photogs has selected five finalists. You can view all five and vote for your favourite HERE.

At midnight GMT on 31 December voting will close and the finalist with the most votes will be declared the winner.

Some great images here, be sure and visit and vote soon.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Podcasts and Tweet-ins

Webwork column in April-May 2010 Our Times.

According to an Ipso survey, Canadians now spend more time online than watching TV. Does your union’s communications strategy reflect that? We have far more access to the web in getting out our message than we ever had to TV, including through podcasting. So, let’s get to it.

Wayne McPhail’s session on podcasting at this year’s LabourTech conference in Windsor, Ontario, got rave reviews from participants and generated a lot of talk over coffee and dinner about the technology, and about ideas for content. RadioLabour 5 is past the talk stage and available now. (See It’s the summary version of the 30-minute RadioLabour weekly global news pod. RadioLabour, itself, is becoming well-established, with 30,000 weekly listeners. Yep, you read that right: 30,000. RadioLabour is also carried on 140 radio stations in the U.S. via a partnership with the Workers Independent News Services (visit

RadioLabour isn’t the only labour podcast around that focuses on international issues. The venerable and well respected China Labour Bulletin has its own audio pod. It does mini-documentaries, interviews, and reports on changes within China’s trade unions, and on worker protests. If you think that China’s union scene is monolithic and static, that’s proof you’ve not been listening.


Union pods are slowly growing in number and sophistication. Chances are that pods, at least for special events, will soon be as de rigeur as websites — and as expected of unions by the members. Union Hour is a UK podcast also available on CD. Listen in to a sample of a regional union news and national issues pod at


I’m just not certain what the lesson here is yet but. . . . Paul F. Tompkins is a comedian who committed to a Toronto gig — not through an agent, but through a Facebook group. He set a lower limit of 300 fans for the group and when it got there he rented a venue and appeared. He pretty much guaranteed himself a few bucks and a full house instead of risking an empty house and the bill for the room.

Have you spent months, or even years, collecting friends on Facebook only to find yourself daunted by the prospect of inviting them all, one by one, to join the new campaign group you’ve created? One Man’s Blog (subtitled “Specialization is for Insects”) has a solution for you: simply follow the instructions at


I remain personally unimpressed with Twitter, but I think I’m gradually being proved wrong. In May, the Council of Canadians organized a “tweet-in” in opposition to the free trade agreement with Colombia. Twenty-five thousand tweeters participated, virtually, in the Commons Trade Committee’s debate on the proposed agreement. To see how a “tweet-in” works visit the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ global justice committee’s tweet-in campaign against free trade with Colombia:

More tweeting followed a LabourStart campaign in support of workers in a Taiwan electronics factory. As the workers make touch-screens for some of the most popular smartphones around, using the Twitter fan groups for those phones (phones have fan clubs?) to get the word out was a pretty effective strategy. It helped put pressure on the companies whose names are on the phones to squeeze the manufacturer.

On a less savoury note, Twitter and other social networking sites are becoming a labour relations battleground. Andy Hanson of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) wrote in to report that at least one Ontario school board has retained a security company to search such sites for comments by employees. Hanson has had to represent his first member disciplined for tweeting. And workers at the
Ville de Québec are going to court to challenge a $90,000 contract to monitor employees’ use of sites like Facebook.

In the good old days, you could stand in line at the grocery store and complain about your supervisor and not have to worry as long as a manager wasn’t in the line next to you. Say the same thing with the same intent on Facebook or Twitter and you might get toasted. It’s as if employers were hiring security guards to follow workers outside of work time. The 21st century version of that grocery check-out line has Big Brother waiting at the cash.


“Big Brother is watching” can take on another, perhaps less ominous, meaning though. Local 615 of the Service Employees International Union at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has proposed that the bargaining table have webcams installed so that negotiations can be webcast for members.

I could, and might yet, spend a whole column listing the pros and cons of something like this. But, for the moment, I’ll restrain myself and simply say that it, and things like it, are things we should be thinking about now, not later.

And while you’re trying to come up with a policy on webbed bargaining, you might as well think about one regarding tweeting from the bargaining or grievance table or strike vote meeting, and what to do when a member walks into a meeting with a Thumbtack mic stuck into an iPod. Is this stuff good? Bad?

Or just another way people will do what they’ve always been doing?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

William Gibson Meets Ginger Goodwin

Published somewhere in 2007.

I ran across a story on the other day that made me think some one had taken the brains of two Canadians, one well-known and read and alive, and the other not-so alive, but just as deserving and had thrown them both into a bender.

William Gibson the speculative fiction writer and inventor of cyberspace, and Ginger Goodwin, mine union organizer, shot in the back while viciously attacking the police.


I am getting old. I can tell: mostly because I keep finding more opportunities in life to say ‘I am getting old’. The biggest and best of those was when a granddaughter picked me up at the airport and drove me home.

The latest came when I stumbled across a story about 9000 Italian IBM workers, members of the RSU, taking job action against their employer – virtually.

As in online. Not real. Using little cartoon-like characters to represent real workers. This just a few years after I wrote an article saying such things would never happen, that organizing workers requires face-to-face contact.

Turns out that may be true of me my generation, but what’s coming up behind may have a different take on things. Note I resisted the temptation to make reference to ‘whippersnappers’.

There will be picket lines (though mebbe no oil drum heaters), leaflets for shoppers and other workers - everything you’d expect in a strike. Just no people. But lots and lots of avatars, because this is happening (if it can be said to be happening at all), in Second Life.

Second Life, for those of you who don’t know, is a virtual world in which 9 million users adopt facsimiles of themselves called avatars. Avatars then live out their lives at the direction of the users, interacting in most if not all the same ways their users do (so far as I know actual reproduction isn’t possible). But anonymously.

To the point where you can now buy real estate on Second Life, undertake all kinds of financial transactions find romance and figure out if you really could have made it as a painter.

You can also, now get this, visit a real embassy. Several in fact, with more coming. Get a visa, plan a vacation. Or take a university course.

While technically a computer game, Second Life resembles the Pong of my day the way I resemble whatever it was that first climbed out of the primal ooze.

Except mebbe a bit around the eyes…

Second Life has become so popular that a wide spectrum of corporations have established themselves there, the better to advertise themselves and their cutting-edginess, and to sell stuff to the online-addicted.

IBM is one. A big one. It has reportedly been spending big time on the establishment of a variety of online presences. On Second Life IBM has it’s own virtual island.

Corporations on Second Life actually use the environment for what they consider to be meetings that are more productive than conference calls or video conferencing. They sell stuff. They test stuff (especially graphic-intensive applications). And they advertise stuff. Oh boy, do they advertise stuff.

So what is this? The shape of strikes to come? A publicity stunt? Just a way of avoiding taking real action? Or just one more reminder from the Universe that I am getting old?

It’s perhaps all those things, but mostly it’s a case of whiplash for IBM. If transnational corporations like IBM have invested heavily in a presence on Second Life, then the workers would be stupid to ignore the possibilities for getting their employer’s attention it presents.

IBM can run, but it can’t hide.

Transnational virtual corps spawn transnational virtual unions. IBM doesn’t play nice with its workers; their union organizes something embarrassing on Second Life. And for some corporations it may actually be possible to have an economic impact on their business. If they are well established on Second Life (or any other social networking site), dependent on it for a significant chunk of sales or advertising or meeting time, then a virtual strike like this could have an impact back here in the real world of profits and share prices.

A virtual job action also the potential to make building support for unions, especially unions representing professional workers, workers with a long tradition of workplace conflict.

Better yet, potential for organizing high-tech home workers and telecommuters. These are workers that unions have traditionally had a hard time reaching and organizing. It’s hard to convince workers like these that what they are doing by organizing and mobilizing is real when you have nothing real for them to do. As unreal as second Life is, the action the RSU members are taking against IBM is very real. Not concrete mebbe, but real.

For workers in a sector not traditionally union, the RSU is organizing a kind of job action that allows workers (if they work at it just a bit) to stay anonymous. They don’t, unless they want to, have to make it easy to identify who is behind their avatar. As a way to build confidence amongst workers who need and want to take that first action against an unfair employer this may have some advantages. Start out slow and work your way to more direct actions.

In and of itself it’s unlikely a virtual job action will bring IBM to its knees. Ten years from now I’ll be even older, both granddaughters will have driver’s licences, and perhaps the odds will have shifted, but not yet.

But the confidence in themselves, their co-workers and their union, that an action like this could create might just make possible and successful more, dare I say it, traditional, forms of job action.

Workers are not stupid. They may be in the position of having to react to their employers’ actions, but when you react you go looking for new weak points. IBM’s Second Life image may be that point. We’ll see. But if it isn’t, who cares? The workers may be, as a result, just a little more ready to move on to actions out here in meatspace.

Look at their press releases and statements: nothing new in their goals, incremental pressure on IBM to meet some well-defined and limited goals. With the exception of the details of the action that’s planned, there’s nothing exceptional in what the workers want (respect), or in how IBM has behaved (badly). Just in how the union is reacting.

Like the Borg, unions are adapting.

Ginger Goodwin might not approve (though William Gibson sure would), if he understood, but if you work for a tech company that does business in non-places like Second Life, you gotta fight them on their ground.

Even if that ground doesn’t really exist.

But the really nice thing about a virtual strike is that even if a car on a picket line hits your avatar, even if the riot squad shows up, you don’t wake up in hospital or spend an evening trying to get the stinging to stop.

Stay tuned. We’re going to see more of this.

Evaluating the Virtual Picket Line

Published by Straight Goods in 2007.

Four weeks ago in this space, we looked at the announcement of an impending "virtual strike" by the Italian union RSU against IBMs establishment in Second Life, the online game/social-networking site.

The announcement alone generated a lot of interest, albeit in fairly restricted circles. But for most trade unionists and observers, the protest (which went ahead on 27 September) didn't exactly send shockwaves round the world. While union strategists debate how many participants would be an impressive number, this was a rare opportunity to walk a picket line alongside a giant banana.

Run a Google search for IBM Second Life strike, and you'll see a lot of ho-hum commentary, and a smaller but louder group hailing the protest as the end of strikes as we know them.

This tepid response is reminiscent of other early computer efforts. In 1985, Marc Belanger at CUPE brought something called SOLINET online. At the time it didn't get much (perhaps not any outside CUPE) attention. For perhaps a decade SOLINET was something of an underground phenomena in the global labour movement.

Only years later did SOLINET win recognition as a landmark event for unions and their members: the creation of the first online discussion forum that connected union members around the world at low (or no) cost. Now long gone, the network and Marc are honoured for having pioneered the use of computer-based communications for unions and between union members.

There's a distinct possibility that the IBM protest of last Thursday will be similarly recognized twenty years from now. But for the moment it isn't getting the considered attention it very likely deserves.

The virtual strikes effects still are not clear. At the senior leadership levels it generates some mild curiosity; amongst union propellorheads there's a tendency to see it as heralding the end of the real life picket line, at least for workers in high tech industries.

On the down side, there are clearly some bugs to be worked out, and some thought required before applying the virtual protest elsewhere.

Some minor glitches last Thursday appeared to be due to the increased traffic to the picket locations, which is not necessarily a bad thing, if frustrating for those affected.

There were also problems you certainly wouldn't have to worry about on meatspace picket lines like one picketer teleporting onto a picket line only to land on another picketers head and deciding to stay there. Or picketers appearing as giant bananas, looking for IBM execs to throw rolls of toilet paper at.

The protest wasn't, and wasn't intended to be, a strike. It was more like the information picket that you might see outside an office building or a retail outlet. Any discussion of its success of failure suffers from the assumption that it was intended to be a strike.

Union members regularly picket retail outlets or hotels before a strike in an effort to inform those using the picketed location. This is an early job action, as a warning to the employer, a demonstration of their solidarity.

With a hefty investment in its Second Live operations (rumoured to be around $100 million US), IBM is certainly taking its presence there seriously. Inevitably, anything happening in or near that investment is going to be taken equally seriously.

By any standard that makes IBM in Second Life a juicy target.

There aren't many retail stores out there, which cost $100 million US to build.
For the computer workers' union to ignore IBM's facilities in Second Life would be like the food workers union ignoring Safeway's biggest and newest and best-publicized store when ramping up for a strike against the grocery chain.
No union can afford to overlook the employers largest operations. If it did, the union might do more than lose an opportunity, it might send the message that there some things it's not capable of doing.

Another crucial point is that the protest was merely one component of a more complex campaign.

Christine Revkin (interviewed on a picket line as UNIglobalunion Oh) of UNI spelled out the major components of the RSU bargaining campaign, which included traditional approaches as well as the novelty angle:

1. Second Life — the hype and accessible to fast computers with good internet and graphic cards.
2. Traditional email protest.
3. Real Life (RL) protests at IBM plants.

Clearly, the organizers of the Second Life online action see it as a tool, a tactic as part of a larger campaign — not necessarily a campaign-wining strategy, even for high-tech workers like the folks at IBM Italia.

Numbers are important on picket lines. They send a message. And a virtual picket line is no different. Trouble is, while everyone enjoys debating the importance of the numbers, no one really knows how many would be enough. This is a first.

Organizers and others are still trying to figure out how to measure success and failure.

UNI, the global union that worked with RSU to organize the protest, is saying that just under 1900 people participated. Is that impressive? When was the last time 1900 people were on one picket line?

But if the potential participants include every union member around the globe with access to a highspeed internet connection, perhaps 1900 isn't so many. Further, UNIs count includes only those folks who joined the protest by going through UNIs access point. Many didn't. Perhaps the total participation was even higher if only there was a way to track all participants.

The anonymity of the participants is an even bigger problem. Though UNI provided access to a petition for participants (and those who couldn't or wouldn't join Second Life), keeping in touch with and organizing those supporters in future is impossible if they are and remain anonymous.

At least the online debates about the protest aren't about whether it was successful in moving IBM from its bargaining position with RSU. The trade unionists in the discussion know better. Only time or IBM itself will tell us if it helped push the company into a more reasonable position. And IBM isn't talking especially if the answer is yes.

Of course, the protest organizers may have some thoughts on the question sometime soon.

UNIglobal union Oh: So we will analyse this protest and hopefully bring the results to other unions, which might help them in their own initiatives. Also, I hope by the time of the next UNI Communicators' Forum in April 2008 — Cape Town, we'll have other people's experiences in Web 2.0 campaigning and organising to bring together.
Whether IBM feels the heat or not, the lasting effect of the Second Life protest may turn out to be the discussions it is generating. Not only about the efficacy of virtual picket lines, but about the role of global union federations like UNI in directly organizing workers to take action on a global scale.

However it all shakes out in the end, union leaders and activists are out there examining possible new tools in their collection. That doesn't happen every day.
And for that, as much as for the opportunity to walk a picket line alongside a giant banana with an Italian IBM employee on your head, the folks at UNI and RSU deserve our thanks. They may just have started something.

Avatars of the World, Unite!

Published by Straight Goods in 2007.

The effective use of the Internet by unions has long been a subject for discussion inside the labour movement and amongst labour-friendly academics.

The debate just took a big, fast, sharp left turn with an announcement last week from the union representing Italian IBM employees.

With the decline of trade union density in the face of globalization and new forms of work organization (home work, telework and such) in the North, the Internet seemed to offer at least a partial solution (where access was relatively easy) to retaining members and recruiting new ones.

To some segments of labour movements in crisis, particularly that of the US, the internet took on the role of a life raft. Unions, this school of thought went, were to be judged on the extent to which they effectively used the net. Those that did well by these criteria would survive and grow; those which didn't, were likely to continue to decline.

But even amongst the most fervent of internet advocates, within the labour movement there was a recognition that certain kinds of very basic organizing and action would require, demand really, face-to-face contact and communication between workers.
Last week those nay-sayers may have been proved wrong.

Rappresentanza Sindacale Unitaria IBM Vimercate (RSU), has, announced online (naturally) that sometime this month its 9,000 members, employees of IBM, will mount a job action, an information picket designed to inform the public (but especially IBM clients) about the company's employment policies — online.

They won't be refusing to touch their computers. This isn't really a strike. To the contrary, union members will probably be spending more time at their keyboards than ever, when the action starts.

What the union is organizing is a picket of IBM's "island" on Second Life, the online alternate world.

The RSU's statements indicate absolutely nothing odd or unusual or groundbreaking in what the RSU members are looking for from IBM:

"While IBM is one of the companies with major profits," said the RSU, "its employees are receiving very few fruits of this big mountain of money. (sic)"

What is unusual, to say the least, is the choice of Second Life as the place to confront IBM.

Second Life is an immense computer game (for lack of a better word) in which something like nine million users adopt cartoon characters called avatars which they then direct, (anonymously if they wish), though an online existence. The avatars shop, eat, buy, sell, work, paint, talk, romance and vacation.

Second Life is one of several current flavours of the month when it comes to social networking websites. Corporations (and some governments: you can get investment and tourism information for several countries at their Second Life "embassies") have been quick to see the advantages to having a presence there.

You can take your avatar shopping and buy stuff for your avatar to use within Second Life, or buy merchandise for use by the real you in what Internauts call "meatspace".

There's been some use of Second Life as an alternative to tele- and video-conferencing, but for the most part corporations see Second Life (and other sites like it) as one big advertising/retail tool. IBM has made what most observers agree is a large commitment to its corporate avatar or presence on Second Life.
So, on the face it, it only makes sense for RSU to follow IBM onto Second Life and fire something of a warning shot by having a small army of avatars inform the Second Life population about the their employer's behaviours.

The job action would be no different than picketing a store or a meeting or a conference and handing our leaflets, right?

Yes. But there are a few added dimensions to this effort that have the potential to add some new items to the workers' toolbox.

First, the action involves 9,000 people (or their avatars) converging on one location (albeit virtual). Something that, if it happened in the real world would take a lot of time and resources to organize and execute.

More importantly perhaps, this is an action that can literally take place at a moment's notice, which makes it much harder for an employer to react to.

Second, and the RSU itself recognizes this, this is the kind of action which could unite IBM employees around the world:

"The high offices of the company are worried, because this action will spotlight the creation of a global union alliance — that is, engaging the unions from over 16 countries worldwide, including the new IT boundary: India."(sic)

While technically the dispute is between IBM Italia and RSU, there's nothing to stop IBM workers around the world from expressing their unhappiness with the corporation by joining in.

International solidarity is nothing new to the labour movement, but this is something remarkable: focussed, simultaneous, potentially global and, quite possibly effective in drawing in workers who are not (yet) unionized. To date, non-union workers have been largely left out of actions like these. As well, international actions are almost always an afterthought and are effectively time-delayed and step-removed from the target employer (eg, dockers refusing to handle struck goods).

Third, the labour movement globally has had huge difficulty in organizing home workers generally, teleworkers in particular.

Unlike in a factory or office, teleworkers don't have routine, non-task-related communication amongst themselves. There is no lunchroom, no after-work beer for these workers. They don't, in other words, have informal opportunities to organize amongst themselves.

In addition, teleworkers tend to perceive themselves as "professionals", a term used by their employers to distinguish them from "workers". The Second Life job action presents an unusual opportunity for contact, communication and organizing among and between the IBM workers.

Lastly, this is an action and a venue for that action that speaks the language of the workers themselves. It is a high-tech picket for high-tech workers aimed at a high-tech employer.

Unless IBM changes its tune, sometime later this month we'll see just how effective an action like this can be.

On paper — er, on screen — this looks like it may mark a significant shift in the way unions in some industries can effectively confront employers, all while organizing workers in industries with traditionally low union density.

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.

Forget the Numbers or Learning to Love Low Union Density

An old piece from Our Times. This is seven years old but I had this argument again last week and so thought it was an easy way to generate 'new' content with some relevance.

I should admit up front that, in 30 or more years of having a chequing account, I have never had a properly balanced chequebook. Numbers, columns, rows and totals all drive me crazy.

What I like most about Bill Murnighan’s piece is that it's forward looking and balanced. We have the benefit of having watched what's happened to the movement in places like the U.S. We have the luxury of being able to learn from others' mistakes and victories, and to move more deliberately. I’m especially impressed by Bill’s resistance to the enthusiasm that's so common today for the “everything into organizing” approach. New members are good, but first contracts are even better. And good first contracts mean satisfied new members, who become great organizing contacts.

Bill's piece has got an “organizing is not just about certification” tinge to it. I'm an organizer. I guess you could say I certify people for a living (no jokes please! I've heard them). But too many of us see organizing as a process that's political – one that radicalizes workers – to the point where labour boards say, “You can stop all that stuff and get structural: elect a committee or two and start sitting down with the employer.” Bill isn’t saying that. He doesn't start out that way in his article, and he doesn't finish that way.

But, while Bill sees recruiting new members as part of a seamless process of organizing workers in the broadest sense, he's using analytical tools and methodologies that I'm not sure still hold. He's talking numbers – quantifiable indicators of success or failure in recruiting new members.

I think there's a relationship between the way most of us think about organizing as a process separate from the other things we do in our unions, and the obsession we all have with measurements of union density (the percentage of workers who are unionized in a given area of employment).

I can see the need to conceptualize what organizers and activists do, and how unions should be changing those things: we need and want a way to figure out if what we're doing is working. But there's a problem inherent in this approach that we need to think about. It's an approach that follows a structure to labour relations that the labour movement didn't ask for or determine on its own. In fact, if I remember my labour history correctly, we were headed in another direction entirely: towards industry-wide unions, not workplace-specific bargaining units. Then along came the state and the employers.

We got stuck with a legal structure to labour relations that evolved in the U.S. It wasn't imported because it was American; it migrated north because it had been proven to be useful and workable – for employers and the state, not for workers. The state, through labour legislation, tells us what we can bargain for (or not), when we can bargain, and when we can and cannot strike. The process is beyond structured: it's straightjacketted.

Anyone who's talked to a trade unionist from a country other than the U.S. knows that the North American system of workplace or enterprise based bargaining units is far from the norm. And if you look at places like Britain, which has recently begun to migrate towards the North American
model, you'll see that the effects favour employers, not workers.

It's not for nothing that staff who do what in Canada and the U.S. would be considered largely servicing work, such as bargaining with the employer and handling grievances, are called “organizers” in Australia, among other places. There, and in most other advanced capitalist countries, a union (or even more than one union) can often represent workers in a workplace, or across an entire industry, without having demonstrated majority support. Members work alongside non-members, and the number of members – those who make the effort to pay dues each month and who see the advantage of supporting the union – may even be a small minority in a workplace. So, in places like this, the strength of the union is determined not just by the percentage of workers in an industry (“union density”), but, more importantly, by the extent to which the demands of the union have the support of the non-members in the workplace.
It's a very different system of labour relations and one that doesn't always lend itself to the numbers game. Instead, the proof is in the pudding. Or the strike. Bill points out that French unions have about nine per cent membership. That is, about nine per cent of French workerspay dues to a trade union. But French unions can mobilize industry wide strikes in the public and private sector in which the vast majority of workers participate.

Think about that for second.

In Canada, we count bargaining units. Before we get to a bargaining unit we count heads. Then we count cards. Then we count votes.

I'm a little leery of the numbers game we all tend to fall into when looking at our successes and failures in “organizing.” Compare our numbers with the French numbers. We have a bigger percentage. They succeed in having a million or more workers (not all members) strike over changes to the equivalent to CPP/QPP. Clearly there's something more at work than percentages.

I'm not saying we're more or less militant; only that I think we need to move outside the box of thinking in terms of bargaining units and votes and certifications. More than anything, we need to remember that the box wasn't of our making. So throwing it away isn’t a betrayal of anyone or anything we hold dear.

A small example of how the box and the numbers mix: We measure our success in terms of the percentage of eligible workers who choose to join a union. But we don't define who's eligible. The government(s), largely at the behest of employers, do. Presumably, the day the Ontario government took the right to organize away from agricultural workers, the percentage of organized workers in Ontario actually went up.


I get even more confused by the numbers and what they mean when I look at what our sisters and brothers are doing in countries like India, Argentina, Zimbabwe, and in the unofficial unions of China. Some of the most vibrant unions I know of don't have a single member in the Canadian sense of the term. They have no formal structure, and collect dues on a pay-what-you-can basis. All they may have are contracts (sometimes not even that, just an unwritten understanding between the workers and the employers), and a wildly active – well, not membership exactly, but – well, a bunch of workers who get together to do things for themselves.

In the South, workers often strike over social rather than simply economic issues, including issues like the privatization of water, or reductions in old age pensions. And they strike against systems. These unions, and their members, are less likely to be minor partners in political parties and more likely to dominate those parties (and the policies they put forward), or to act as a political party themselves.

In some ways our labour movement is starting to look and (to a lesser extent) work outside the box. Many of us have already recognized that political parties aren't the be all and end all for political action. Our (initially) younger members and, more importantly, those in sectors where they're not likely to become members in the short term, are turning away from established parties, including the NDP, and playing a new game. They talk about “affinity groups,” not riding associations. They don't play electoral numbers games. They act outside the boxes the state and political traditions created for us. They've forged a whole new set of tools and are probably responsible for the fact that just about anyone with a TV or a radio has a working definition of the word “globalization.”

I can't say I have any answers, nor even many of the questions. But the best starting point for any re thinking of what we do and how we do it is to throw out all our assumptions and see if we can't generate an ongoing debate.

Let's start with tossing the numbers. If nothing else, it's a lot more fun to fight over ideas and concepts than percentages and totals. And, in the end, it'll take us a lot further, too.
Bill touches on one of those concepts, but skirts it a bit as well.

Centralizing bargaining, negotiating neutrality agreements, and many of the other ideas Bill presents all work, but only when the workers in those fragmented workplaces have some structural solidarity in the form of one union. Does it really make sense to keep reconstituting councils of unions (bringing several unions together to bargain, as one, with an employer) when what the workers really need is one union? Does union density of more than 50 per cent in an industry mean anything if that density is spread amongst five or 10 or 20 unions? With that many unions representing one employer’s workers, can any one union negotiate a neutrality agreement? How effective is a council of unions when each union has a significantly different organizational culture and resource base?

Does union density mean much if we don’t or can’t do anything with it?

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.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

KISS Too Often Ignored

I just finished a couple of weeks of training and PD with my co-workers. There I co-facilitated a workshop on new tech and what to encourage local unions to look at and use.

A rough survey of what's out there and in use provided the expected feedback regarding online tools. Websites, blogs, Facebook, even Twitter are in use. Scattered and not often integrated use, but in use.

SMS/texting on the other hand gets no respect. A pity really. Simple tech, everyone has it, works well elsewhere and gets great reviews from some of my favourite unions (the Botawana Miners Union comes to mind) but we don't use it.

How many campaigning and organizing rules does that break? Pretty much all but the one that says 'don't punch the people you're trying to organize in the head'.

The lost opportunities were underlined this week as the stories about how the recent strikes by autoworkers in China were organized and sustained. Even the New York Times took notice. Click HERE to view their coverage.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Canada: End the Harvest of Death!

It's been 14 months since a public enquiry into the death of farm worker Kevan Chandler told Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach that farm workers in the province should be granted the same health and safety rights as everyone else.

To date, Premier Stelmach has ignored that advice, and since then 13 more people have been killed on Alberta farms in work-related accidents.

Despite asking for Alberta Justice Peter Barley's advice, Premier Stelmach doesn't want to hear it, and farm workers in the province are paying the price. After being asked by the Premier to investigate the workplace death of farm worker Kevan Chandler, Justice Barley found that farm workers must be included in Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) to prevent future workplace injuries and deaths.

Send the Premier an e-mail demanding that his government implement the inquiiry's reccomendation. 30 seconds of your time might literally save a life.

Go HERE to send a message.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Know anyone who's looking for a four month communications gig?

PSAC is looking for a Communications Officer.

Competition start date: April 1, 2010
Position title: Communication Officer
Competition number 9020-0001A-010
Position number: 9020-0001
Branch/section: Membership Programs Branch – Communications and Political Action
Employment type: Term assignment – up to 4 months
Classification: Band 11
Language: English (bilingual preferred)
Group: AEU I
Location: Headquarters, Ottawa
Purpose of position:
The Communications Officer offers a broad range of advisory and support communications
services to the PSAC.

* This position requires a Post Secondary diploma in communications, public relations,
journalism or a related field is required, with a minimum of seven years related
experience. Prior experience working with a labour or political o rganization will be
* Knowledge of the political and operational structure of the PSAC;
* Knowledge of union and social issues;
* Knowledge of issues affecting the union movement and PSAC members;
* Knowledge of government decision making and of th e Canadian political system;
* Ability to assess and analyze in order to develop appropriate communication strategies;
* Ability to conceptualize and design variety of communication materials;
* Ability to strategize in order to mobilize members into action;
* Ability to plan and organize in order to meet deadlines;
* Demonstrated ability to communicate both orally and in writing in French and English;
* Ability to edit for style and length and proofread French and English documents;
* Knowledge of media relations including the ability to establish a working relationship with
and influence members of the media;
* High degree of initiative, tact and good judgment;
* Candidates are expected to demonstrate their commitment to union principles and social justice.

Interested individuals who wish to submit their application to HR may do so by April 9, 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

NGWF Follow-up on 21 Worker Deaths

National Garments Workers Federation (N.G.W.F ) submitted a Memorandum on 30 March to the Labour Ministry of Bangladesh Government, related to the fire at Garib & Garib Factory on 25th February 2010.

NGWF claimed that this is not an accident case rather than the case of 21 garments workers killing . its mentioned that – Gazipur Local Government Investigation team identified 4 causes for this death that report submitted on 3rd March,2010. All these 4 cases are directly related to violation of labour law and negligence. And within the last 8 month it is the 3rd fire case. But before this 3rd fire factory Management didn’t care about it. So NGWF consider this case as a workers killing because of violation of labour law and negligence.

NGWF also mentioned that for this killing the Factory Owner is responsible. Also the Buyers, BGMEA and local Government can’t ignore this responsibility too.

So NGWF demanded to Labour Ministry to take immediate action against the issue they mention before in the memorandum, as below:

1. the immediate arrest,trial and punishment of the owner of Garib & Garib Sweater factory against the violation of labour law, negligence and 21 workers killing.

2. Tk. 5,000,00/ (Five Hundred Thousand Taka) cash Compensation for each of the Death Family.

3. Proper treatment & Compensation for the injured workers.

4. Greater compensation from all Buyers, BGMEA, Government & owners for the Death Family.

5. Payment of the whole workers for the period of factory closer.

6. An investigation committee must firmed with the proper representative of Trade-Union to investigate the 3 fires in this factory including the 25th February,2010.

7. Ensure the Health & security, proper working condition and basic rights of the worker’s in th factory.

Before submission the memorandum to the labour ministry there was a big gathering on muktaanggan, central place of the capital city at 12:30 P.M. Presided by Mr. Amirul Haque Amin NGWF leaders including Miss Safia Pervin, Sultana Akter and Arju Ara spoke at the gathering.

Representatives of Aal the trade unions alliances like : Dr. Oajedul Islam Khan – co ordinator of the SKOP (umbrella of the multi sectoral national trade union federation), Ray Ramesh Chandra – president of the BNC ( umbrella of 14 affiliates of the ITGLWF), Salauddin Swapon – co ordinator of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Unity Council (umbrella of 17 garment workers federations), Advocate Mahbubur Rahman Ismail – co ordinator of Garment workers action council (umbrella of 9 garment workers federations), Mr. Sahidulla Badal – co ordinator of the garment workers and industries national protection alliance (umbrella of 16 garment workers federations) also express their solidarity.

After the rally started the procession towards the Ministry, Police Barry gate them and 5 Federation central Leaders handed over the memorandum to the Ministry. They also mentioned that NGWF will continue the campaigns ,struggle and action until the demands are met.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

International call for a fair and just labour law in Iraq

From the General Federation of Trade Unions of Iraq:

Almost seven years have passed since the fall of the former regime, yet many of its laws and decisions continue to apply, denying workers the most basic of freedoms. Workers in the public sector are denied the right to organise and join trade unions and collective bargaining is almost impossible. Without laws guaranteeing freedom of association, various state ministries are threatening to seize union assets and ban their activities.

These laws are undermining the immense contribution democratic and independent trade unions can make to Iraq’s fledgling democracy.

We support the Iraqi Labour Campaign and its call on the Iraqi Government and the Parliament to put in place a fair and just law labour law which would:

* Enable workers to make workplaces safer, prevent discrimination and harassment, ensure equality of opportunity, improve skills and education, increase workplace productivity and morale, collectively bargain for fairer wages, protect the most vulnerable workers and be part of a mature system of industrial relations.

* Allow trade unions to be supported by their members, accountable to their members according to internal rules and free from outside political interference.

* Finally give workers their fundamental rights as provided for in the Iraqi constitution and the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

* Help build a free, fair and prosperous federal Iraq for everyone.

Take 30 seconds out of your day and jo join this campaign by going HERE.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

LabourStart Conference Reg Now Open!

Registration for the 2010 LabourStart Unions and Global Solidarity conference is now open at:

Friday, March 5, 2010

Free Seher Tümer!

Union activist Seher Tümer, Branch Secretary of PSI affiliate SES (the trade union of public employees in health and social services), will spend International Women’s Day 2010 in prison.

But international solidarity action could open the door to freedom for her.

Ms Tümer has now been detained in an F-type prison for almost a year, with no clear charges being brought against her. PSI is convinced that her arrest is linked to her activities in the labour and women’s movements in that country, including participating in International Women’s Day activities last year. Tumer, who is Kurdish, was arrested and imprisoned in April 2009. Her case mirrors that of fellow union leader Meryem Özsöðüt, who faced similar charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation. (Özsöðüt was released after eight months in prison following a major international protest campaign led by PSI.)

PSI has been closely following this case. Ms Tümer’s next court appearance is planned for 9 March, PSI and EPSU have sent a joint letter of protest to the Turkish Prime Minister demanding that all charges be dropped and that she be immediately released.

PSI urgently calls on trade unions and concerned organisations to write similar letters of protest. Join the Labourstart Campaign and send a letter of protest now.

Just go HERE.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Support Mexican Miners LabourStart Campaign!

Some 1,200 members of Mexico's National Miners' and Metalworkers' Union, or Los Mineros, have been on strike since July 2007 at the Cananea mine over health and safety and other contract violations.

Grupo Mexico, the mining giant which operates Cananea, and the Mexican government have continuously tried to end the strike and crush the union.

They have threatened and jailed union leaders, illegally frozen union bank accounts and failed to investigate or prosecute assassinations of union members.

On February 11th, a federal court gave Grupo Mexico permission to fire the striking workers and terminate the labor agreement. The government has threatened to use armed force to gain control of Cananea.

The Los Mineros members at Cananea are resolved to continue occupying the mine until a fair labour agreement is reached. Los Mineros is one of the strongest and most democratic trade unions in Mexico.

Take a moment to send off your letter of protest today from the LabourStart website today by going HERE.

Monday, February 22, 2010

LabourTech 2010 Registration Now Open

2010 looks to be a big conference year. LabourStart in July in Hamilton Ontario, Canada, LabourTech in Windsor Ontario, Canada 13-15 May.

The organizing committee has decided to link Labourtech to the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Labour Media to expand our networks and benefit from the workshops offered at both conferences.

* Conference Schedule HERE
* Deadlines:
o Conference registration:April 23
o Hotel rooms:April 14
o Residence rooms: April 30
* Cost: $195 or $100 for individuals not funded by an organization or union

To register online go HERE.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Judy Rebick to Open 2010 LabourStart Conference

Judy Rebick, long-time labour/feminist/you-name-it activist and author will be the keynote speaker at the LabourStart Conference this July in Hamilton, Canada.

See more about and from Judy HERE.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Solidarity Report now on iTunes

RadioLabour’s Solidarity Report, the global union news podcast, is now available through iTunes. Subscribe HERE.

Monday, February 1, 2010

RadioLabour Online!

A new weekly presentation of international labour news is now on the Internet.

The audiocast - called Solidarity News - started on Monday, February 1. The audiocast will remain on the RadioLabour site throughout its current week. New audiocasts will be posted every Monday morning.

RadioLabour is on the Internet at It is also on Facebook, please join the RadioLabour page.

RadioLabour is the brainchild of Marc Belanger -- the founder of SoliNet, which was the first trade union online network back in the 1980s.

Solidarity News will focus on union and workers' activities and issues from around the world with special emphasis on emerging market and developing countries.

RadioLabour reporters will provide regular weekly presentations, but a special feature of the audiocast will be reports from unionists who want to report on particular events or publicize an activity of their organization.

Scripts of the audiocasts will be available as aids for unionists who want to learn the use of English as an additional language in the international labour movement.

For more information about RadioLabour, listen to the audiocasts, or provide reports, visit the RadioLabour site. Or write directly to Marc at