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 Qu├ębec 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?