Saturday, July 26, 2014

Eric Lee, Gaza, LabourStart, Me and 900 Comrades- A Screed

LabourStart is composed of almost 900 volunteer trade unionists around the world.  101 in Canada alone (where I reside).  We operate largely autonomously from each other.  While Eric is prominent among them/us as webmaster and founder, he does not determine LabourStart editorial policy. 

He can’t because other than ‘collect news from and about unions and workers organizations’ we have none.  Nor do we need one or have any structural mechanisms for determining one.  Or, and perhaps I speak only for myself, any interest in developing one.  Frankly I am not sure I would remain involved if we attempted to develop one.

We are not subject to any organizational discipline beyond the most basic (guided by, I am rather pleased to say, a modified version of the CUPE Equality Statement). We are not a political formation.  Anyone joining our merry band with that expectation quickly moves on.

LS has other volunteers, including myself, who have taken much different positions than Eric on the current events in Palestine and on the BDS movement in their personal capacities and whose unions have taken a wide variety of positions as well.  And many, frankly, who are of no opinion or who have not heard of the boycott call.  Believe it or not there are places and unions where the issue is not pressing or is unknown to most union activists.

In fact LS has taken no position and won't - because it doesn't need to in order to do what it does.  With or without a policy regarding the Gaza invasion or BDS it is our task to cover the trade union news relating to Palestine as we would in any other nation. You may have noted that to date LabourStart has covered both sides in the debate on a boycott of Israel and a wide variety of positions taken by unions around the world regarding the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

In the past we have covered similar controversies from all perspectives when unions took positions.  When unions did not take a position then there was and will be no coverage on LabourStart.  We reflect the activities of and debates within and between legitimate trade unions.  We will continue to do so.  Taking a position in any such debate would be both structurally difficult if not impossible for LabourStart, but would also (in my opinion) be contrary to our goals.

It would also likely be the end of LabourStart.  Any very broad, inclusive global coalition like ours which tried to impose discipline on its participants on more than a very few very fundamental issues would be splitting on a regular and frequent basis. 

LabourStart is a coalition of trade unionists who share only our interest in using the internet to better connect and inform trade unionists around the world.  Beyond that we may or may not share analyses of any number of situations but this is irrelevant to what we do at LabourStart.  We work hard at ensuring this. 

Another, though not as extreme, example of this is the question of faith-based trade unions.  In my country, Canada, such things are anathema and the one ‘union’ that operates on this basis is shunned by the rest of the labour movement here.  I personally will not post stories from this 'union' to LabourStart and I encourage others to stop when I see such stories on our site.  But I am not in a position to impose any organizational discipline on them and stop it from happening.  I may wish I could at times, but I can't and shouldn't.

In other parts of the world confessional trade unionism is the norm.  Where LabourStart volunteers from those countries have posted stories about the Christian Labour Association of Canada to LabourStart I have asked that they be removed and they have been.  However I am not inclined to attempt to impose a ‘no-confessional-unions’ policy on LabourStart.  Nor is there any mechanism for me to do so.  If there was and I was successful in pressing the case for a ban on religion-specific union news then we would see virtually no news from countries like The Netherlands and Belgium.

All that said, as volunteers all of us connected to LabourStart have other lives.  We work, we write, we do our union and political work.  In those capacities we have opinions and we express them.  Eric is perhaps more identified with LabourStart than any of us, but that does not make his opinions LabourStart policy on this issue.

If Eric’s views are somehow to be made synonymous with something perceived to be ‘LabourStart’s policy’ or ‘LabourStart’s position’ on the Israel-Palestine conflict then why not mine?  Or why not those of our Indian or Ukrainian or South African or Cambodian or Dutch volunteers?

We as LabourStart have none now and have no intention of taking a position in future.  What we do plan to do is cover as much of the trade union debate on the subject as we can find.

As individuals we of course do and we will, I would expect, organize and act in support of our personal positions and those of the unions and political formations we are affiliated with.

As LabourStart, other than collecting news, we provide a campaigning service available to the global labour movement – as we are currently doing by running a campaign the ITUC wanted regarding its call for a ceasefire in Gaza.  If the critics of that call and the analysis behind it want to take it on I would suggest they do that through their unions and national central labour bodies.  As a very loose coalition of volunteers, most of whom are rank-and-file trade unionists with day jobs, LabourStart is incapable of and has no desire to develop the capacity to analyze struggles around the world, determine if they are legitimate, decide if they conform to a shared political analysis and position  and build a strategy that does more good than harm.  For that we (must) rely on the decisions of the institutions of the labour movement – unions, national centres, the GUFs and the ITUC.  Otherwise we risk doing far more harm than good, despite our intentions.

My only (comradely I hope) suggestion for those who regularly try to make hay by attacking LabourStart as a way to get at Eric or as a backhanded way of taking on his analysis is that you take him on directly.  It’s not like he is hard to contact.

But threatening, as a few people do each time this 'debate' erupts, to somehow undermine Eric's position by denying support to workers out there somewhere engaged in a struggle with an employer or a government, sometime a life or death struggle, strikes me as...well, I said I would try to be comradely in this so I will withhold my opinion on that point.

But I will say this: I challenge those who attack LabourStart because of Eric’s association with it to present evidence of a bias in the stories we collect.  Further, I’d invite them to apply for a LabourStart account and post the stories they think we’re missing.

And in the meantime, recognize that LabourStart and Eric are two different entities and that attacking LabourStart only serves to undermine not just the most successful effort at global digital solidarity for workers there is, but the ONLY such effort around.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Take Back the 'Net

I often make references here to “digital utopians,” the folks of the ‘90s who kept telling us the internet would set our minds and news media free from the constraints and censorship imposed by corporate ownership. We could all be our own newspaper, TV and radio outlets. Always implicit, and sometimes embarrassingly explicit, in the online utopian screeds of that decade was the hope or assumption that nastiness like racism and sexism were ideological impositions on workers and that, once free of corporate media, we’d be free of that, too. Nice sentiment.

I still hear folks defending this position that racism and sexism will “wither away” once we own our own, online, media: they remind me that corporate control of the media really hasn’t disappeared, it has just evolved so as to acquire a significant hold over digital media, along with broadcast outlets, newspapers and the rest of the traditional media, and that all we have to do is push back online and we can bring about the digital millennium. It turns out they’re wrong. The (not so) new media is as bad a place to be as the old. Perhaps worse, in that the bad things that used to happen slowly, in print and at a distance, can now take place instantly and in our homes, on our phones.

For a few years now I’ve been babbling here about the need for unions to make more and better use of the new media. I’ve often pointed to the labour movement’s internal barriers to that. But, to my shame, I’ve not spent any time at all looking at some of the many ways in which the new media can be used as a platform for targetting groups in a way that old media never could.

I’ll touch on other targeted groups in future columns, but, in a belated salute to International Women’s Day, let’s take a peek at what women face. It ain’t pretty. In fact it’s so ugly I had trouble finding examples fit to print without censoring them to the point of uselessness. To illustrate the problem, check the CBC News post, “Sexist tweets aimed at female politicians captured on blog ( At lot more productive, and less prone to offend to the point where you just want to avert your eyes, are conversations about the problem taking place here and there between women online, a great example being the Facebook group “Feministas of Canada.” Check out, as well, Huffington Post blogger Soraya Chemaly’s recent commentary, “Online Threats Against Women Aren't Trivial and Don’t Happen in a Vacuum.”
“Sexist commentary – the jokes, the asides, the slights, the tweets – is hostile,” she writes, “but it’s just the very surface of what we’re dealing with. This isn’t about being ‘offended,’ it’s about feeling marginalized as a result of hate and disdain.” More than a few explicitly feminist online publications have been tackling the silencing of women. Jezebel’s editor Jessica Coen did in “When There’s So Much Bullshit Online, You Forget How to Feel” (
Amanda Marcote responded in Slate, in “Online Misogyny: Can’t Ignore it, Can’t Not Ignore It” (

And just in case you doubted that online misogyny transcends borders and class, read the piece by Jane Fae in The New Statesmen, called “Misogyny, intimidation, silencing – the realities of online bullying.” It’s about the hostile online reaction women politicians face in the UK when expressing an opinion about pretty much anything, including the weather.

What’s most distressing is the inescapable conclusion a few minutes reading leaves you with: whether it comes in the form of a threat of physical violence (sometimes accompanied by a reference that implies the sender knows where you live or work); or “joke” polls about which celebrities deserve to die; or supposedly moderated groups and discussion forums that ignore complaints about abusive comments, the internet is not a safe or comfortable place for women trying to organize.

And I do mean “organize” in the broadest sense. Want to attract some nasty boys? Watch what happens when a woman trys to use Facebook or Twitter to get women friends together for a pub night or a bus trip. Fake something completely innocuous, with no explicit political content. Just make it clear it’s a women-only event, and watch the abuse fly your way.

I appealed on Facebook for anecdotes about the nasty side of online organizing, and one of the women who responded did exactly that, and the most striking thing about the nasty boy’s reaction was the absolute casualness of it. As astounding as what she described was, it wasn’t directed at me and so I can only imagine what it’s like to be on the receiving end.

Usually I end a rant like this with a prescription for a solution. I don’t know what to say, except: Do in cyberspace what has worked out here in meatspace. Find or build safe spaces and work outwards from there. I’d end by saying how depressed my little investigation made me, but there are a bunch of sisters working through and around this shit, so really it’s more a matter for constructive anger than depression.

Trying to wean your union off Microsoft/Apple corporate software? Here’s a useful checklist on getting there from The New Internationalist, called “10 Steps to Software Freedom” (

If you’re the webhead for your small website-less local union and see the advantages of having a union domain for your activist’s e-mail addresses, go here for some simple instructions for setting it up:

Not yet signed-on to Alex White’s e-mail list? Here’s another reason to do so. See “Five Essential Elements of Startegy for Unions to Win,” at:

When LabourStart’s Twitter feeds first got up and running, we were posting one item per hour 24 hours a day to the global feed, and one per hour, 12 hours a day, to the Canadian English and French feeds. (Note to newbie readers: I’m LabourStart’s senior Canadian correspondent.) A couple of weeks in we surveyed our followers for all those accounts. The results were interesting in that the global feed’s followers were clear: cut it back to eight per day, evenly spaced. The Canadians, however, were equally clear: stay at one per hour.

Surveys like this are worth doing for all your social media accounts. After complaining and seeing no change, I’ve unliked a couple of Canadian union pages on Facebook just because their updates were flooding my newsfeed, making it hard to find anything not from them. Did they really think I wanted something from them every 20 minutes? Worse, most of what they were throwing at me didn’t originate with them but instead was something they were just passing along,  often from a source I had already “liked” or followed.

Speaking of asking people what they want, building global solidarity at the rank-and-file level is why LabourStart tries to organize a conference somewhere in the world each year. To test the waters for another conference in Canada, we ran a short survey to gauge interest. So, it looks like we’ll be in the Vancouver area in 2014. But, most interesting were the responses to a couple of throw-away questions that were added. Almost 80 per cent of respondents either didn’t know if their union was engaged in international work, or knew it wasn’t. And these were Canadian trade unionists with enough of an interest in international solidarity actions to be on our mailing list.  If anyone would know, you’d think they would, but they often didn’t.

When was the last time your union used an online survey, or even a smartphone app, to systematically survey its members about what they think of their union and what it does, and what they know and don’t know about it – and then educate and maybe organize  them in the process?  I suspect not in a long while, if ever. Online, such things can be done a lot more frequently than was possible when we needed to rely on polling firms to do the work.

Union Solidarity International (British union Unite’s international arm) has made available a nice piece of video on the uses to which Brazilian unions are putting social media. See Watch, listen and envy. Then emulate.

Twitter Tips and Tweetfests

I’ve harped on (and on) before about the lack of interactivity in unions’ use of so-called new media. Readers have responded in two ways, saying either, “It takes resources we don’t have to manage it all;” or, “What do you mean! We respond to every email we get.”

Everyone, from local union recording secretaries to national union communications directors, will understand the first excuse. But the second one is based on a misunderstanding of what “interactivity” means. In a trade union, being interactive doesn’t mean one person having a conversation, one at a time, with different people – especially when that one person is a union official and the others are rank-and-filers. Being interactive, in an organizing sense, means having a collective conversation more akin to a union meeting. Ideally, we should be able to hear and weigh the opinions of others, make a collective decision, and then leave the conversation knowing where we’re going. And then begin to organize more effectively towards our goal.

Some unions are making great use of both old technology and new media, testing the limits of new media and using tools that members already have. Unifor, for one, seems to breaking new ground on a large scale, with 80,000 members calling in to its telephone town-hall meetings. The same open-organizing approach, applied to their online communications, is also making a bit of a splash, including a monthly Twitter question-and-answer with the union’s president.

Here’s the text of an email I recently received from Unifor communications officer Katie Arnup:

Social media activists and tweeps, this is for you: Unifor President Jerry Dias will be holding his monthly Twitter Q&A TODAY from 6-7 p.m. ET/ 3-4 p.m. PT. All you have to do is send a question to @JerryPDias during this time and Jerry will be sure to answer. Easy-peasy. Also, please be sure to RT some of the promo tweets from @UnifortheUnion.

There are some small but important details to note in this email. The language, for one thing. The message is directed at a specific audience, and constructed for the twitterverse. (My granddaughters get this: the new-to-me term “tweeps” is old hat to them. In fact, this column almost didn’t get finished when I suddenly realized that my granddaughters are about the same age as the Unifor rep who sent the email.). And the sender asks the tweeps to retweet (“RT”) messages, making the often-forgotten pitch to pass information on to others. Why doesn’t everyone do this, you ask? Because many still see communications as a one-way, hierarchical relationship between a sender and a consumer.

What’s behind this is worth speculating about. (I’d interview Unifor staff and activists about their social media tactics and logistics, but, as I write this, the union has just applied to Ontario’s labour board to become the bargaining agent for more than 6,500 workers at three Toyota plants. I suspect they are all busy. Besides, speculating is more fun.) The message was directed at Unifor members and supporters who use Twitter to communicate – and to organize. That means someone at Unifor is building a database of tweeps. (“Tweeps,” in case you haven’t figured it out yet, are peeps who tweet.). Or, they have identified tweeps amongst the folks on the union’s general mailing list. (So, how is your members/supporters/tweeps database coming along?)

All this, leading up to the main event: a social media bearpit, with the national president of the country’s largest (mostly) private sector union in an online free-for-all. Everybody and anybody with a Twitter account could watch and participate, and they did.

A session like this may not be identical to a meeting out in meatspace, but it’s pretty close. And, in some ways, it’s superior to the town-hall phone call, despite the latter’s impressive (to say the least) numbers. Calls take longer, and may make more sense when you’re making an announcement and then taking questions from a small proportion of those on the call. A tweetfest (have I coined a term?) of your union’s tweeps scoops a wider audience and builds your union’s presence online, with less mediation and filtering possible (a good thing).

Tweetfests (has it caught-on yet?) have a different and evolving audience. The old saw about Twitter being for politicians and journalists is less true than it used to be. Studies of Twitter’s user base seem to agree, more or less, that Twitter is riding the smartphone wave, meaning the average age of users is dropping. If you’re looking to connect with younger workers, whether they’re members or not, this is good to know.

The best thing about this tactic is that, unlike town-hall calls, it’s free, which means it can done more frequently, and by local unions as well as the larger, better-heeled bits of your union. If your membership is relatively small, tweetfests may not make sense. Does a local union with 100 members, 20 of whom are on Twitter, need to do this? It’s doubtful, although, if those 100 members are scattered all over the place and hardly ever able to get together for meetings in meatspace, a tweetfest might be useful. Just don’t get so enthused about talking to your tweeps that you forget about the other 80 members.

Don’t forget, this is a great way for non-members to connect with the union. And not just nationally, as with Dias’ tweetfest, but also on a much smaller scale. Your local union represents education workers heading towards a strike? A tweetfest might be one of several ways in which you could get your message out to student and parents. It would beat, or, at least, supplement, having to walk your leaflets all over town. Unlike a TV advert, a tweetfest would  allow you to interact with supporters and opponents, alike, as well as, and most importantly, the undecided.

One final benefit of tweetfests: the move from communicating with your target group and organizing them to taking action can be relatively seamless, compared to the effort required during mass calls, or even at meetings. All you need to do is end your tweetfest by asking your tweeps to tweet or retweet (say that three times, quickly) something, to someone, about something connected to the tweetfest’s subject.

Time for a tweet tip, and a tweet tiff with my tweeps. (There. It’s out of my system. I’ll stop now. Is there such a thing as alliterative-compulsive disorder?) One of the things I take a turn at while wearing my LabourStart hat is managing some of our Twitter feeds. I use Hootsuite to manage a few accounts and load the tweets each morning. Hootsuite is an alternative to better-known services like Tweetdeck. Hootsuite’s free version has pretty much all the features a local union communicator would need, and lets you manage up to five social media accounts on a variety of platforms – not just Twitter, but Facebook and the others, too. It’s web-based, which means I can set the French and English Canadian union news feeds to tweet stories from LabourStart once an hour (in English) and once every two hours (in French). Then I shut down my computer and go off to work, while Hootsuite makes it look like I’m busy tweeting and posting all day (which can cause some interesting misunderstandings. . .).

Loading up Hootsuite for the day with labour news should take only 30 minutes or so; something you can do over toast and coffee. But it often takes longer because of the way most unions put their online news together, with little apparent thought about the 140-character limit to tweets. Sometimes it’s hard not to conclude that some unions are trying to make it impossible for their online news to get tweeted.

Look at a story on your union’s website. Copy the title, and add a compressed URL. If there isn’t space left for a hashtag or two, you’re going to miss the boat, unless you’re also using a Twitter feed to push a more tweet-friendly version of the title and URL. Look at your tweets. Did you leave enough space for them to be retweeted without losing their meaning? Small things may drive us crazy, but shorter titles and tweets will allow your messages to get out to more of your tweeps.

Mail Chimps and Changing Walmart

A couple of IWDs ago I used my Webwork column to look at the distressingly negative experiences many women have online, including being flamed or otherwise harassed. And how those experiences might negatively affect women’s receptiveness to their unions’ online organizing efforts. In other words, I was looking at the gendered division of the internet.
A recent article in The Pacific Standard, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” by Amanda Hess, describes the “noxious online commentary” the journalist gets in response to her columns. That article, along with a bunch more I was able to Google-up (79,400,000, give or take), did have one slightly (but not counter-balancing) positive aspect, though it’s one you have to work hard to find: email is best when it comes to avoiding what you don’t want to see or read. Unlike most social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, email gives the recipient a measure of control over what she is exposed to. You may be forced to read the subject line, but that’s all, giving you a lot more control over what you see in comparison to what you’re forced to witness with Facebook and company. So, yet another argument in support of email as the killer app for online organizing. You can read the story here:
Chances are that anyone who manages online actions for their union already knows that email is the most effective online communications tool available, and they likely use a service like Mail Chimp or other software with similar features.
LabourStart tested one of the newer features of Mail Chimp, called “A/B Testing,” and we’re now using it with almost every mailing. The feature allows you to test different subject lines in your messages and then compare the rates at which recipients open messages. In one example, we did two mailings, each with a different subject-line message, about Firefox OS for Activists, the latest book in LabourStart’s series covering a mix of global solidarity topics and things techish. The subject might have seemed arcane (an open source, free operating system for smartphones) and the book has a somewhat nerdish title. Nonetheless, the email with the subject line saying “Firefox OS for activists – now available in Canada” had an open rate of 6.3 per cent within 60 minutes of the mailing. The email with the heading “Smartphones, tablets and Canadian unions” was opened by only 5.0 per cent of the target group. The difference between them was significant. On a Canadian mailing list of more than 12,000, it meant another 156 people opened the message. On our entire mailing list, it meant almost 2,000 more people opened the message. 
Being a mildly obsessive-compulsive type, not to mention a beery Marxist, I look for qualitative results from quantitative analyses. But, so far, no rules about subject line content are appearing in my tea leaves (okay, beer bubbles). Subject-line-response results are almost never predictable, which is why it’s important to test them. But the difference you’ll see is substantial enough to warrant using this feature, if you have it.
The good folks at Making Change at Walmart, and OUR Walmart, in the U.S., have their work cut out for them in taking on the world’s largest – well, largest everything. Their resources, even with the backing of UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers), will never come close to what Walmart can spend on crushing organizing efforts in its stores and warehouses. Of course, that’s what is making the campaign grow, and what’s having the most impact on the corporation are the strikes – by unorganized workers, no less. (Think about that the next time you’re tempted to crow about our Canadian labour laws.) And organizing those strikes, and other meatspace actions, was made a lot easier for organizers by their judicious use of social media.
They used “Causes” on Facebook and created events there, too. They created websites to describe actions and how to organize for them; how to safely, and legally, conduct the strikes. Tweets were tweeted. Flickr was deployed on the day of a strike, as was Instagram. The result? One thousand five hundred actions (think about that for just a second) at 1,500 (think about it again, a little longer this time) Walmart locations resulted. Simultaneously. On the biggest day of the year for retail in the U.S.

If you’re not at least a bit slack-jawed at this point, turn in your membership card.

It gets better. The strike organizers did what too few unions would, or can, do: they created a mediated, but pretty free-wheeling, online space where the workers themselves could speak about their fears and needs, and why they were or were not participating in the Black Friday actions. Even better, much of the online organizing in preparation for the strikes was done by crowd-sourced online leadership that organically defined the campaign. Typically, a number of workers would find a Making Change website or Facebook page or group. They’d start to talk directly, rather than through Making Change’s facilities. That talking became self-organizing, and the self-organizing took control of the strike in a location. The pattern was repeated, over and over.
I’ll spare you my crowing about how the Walmart campaign was able to take people from cyberspace to meatspace in order to take effective action. But what’s striking is how closely their tactics parallel those of It works.
Take a peek here at a nice summary of what Making Change folks are prepared to make public:
Just a reminder: Facebook ain’t Vegas and what happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook. Not only can it migrate out to meatspace, but it can bite you on the arse when it arrives. A worker in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, took to Facebook after she was almost killed or seriously injured by lax safety precautions at a paper mill, to complain about how slow management was in responding to her complaint. Clearly angered by her manager, she posted a rather heated opinion of him, and a few others. A 13-year employee, she was fired, and her discharge was upheld at arbitration. See the story here:
Download the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) iPhone App and you’ll get breaking news, collective agreements, leadership messages and a whole bunch more. UNA members can search collective agreements for keywords, make notes, and highlight important sections for future reference. Fab! See it here:

Much as I love and respect the work Australian union online guru Alex White, sometimes his boundless online energy just makes me feel like I want to take a nap. Or retire. Alex has an insider’s take on the resources unions can spare for just about any activity or campaign. So, until now, he’s been pushing email, Facebook and Twitter for all our campaigning needs. But, recently, he came to the conclusion that we need to add Google+ to the list.
I’ve had a Google+ account for a few years now, but I only check it maybe once a month, and even then just to connect with a Facebook-phobic friend.  (Is it a phobia when there’s good reason for the fear?) Alex’s take on the change boils down to this: “Google is taking over the digital world and integrating all its platforms such that, if you’re not active on its social media platform, it will wreak revenge when someone looks for you using its search engine.” Sigh. Unfortunately, this, like Alex, makes sense. Read it for yourself, and then have a nice long nap:
There’s a countervailing bit of good news about the Bad Book (Facebook, I mean): its user demographics are changing and there are indications Facebook is headed for a downward slide in popularity, though it might take a while for the beast to die.
A study by a British social scientist suggests that Facebook use is no longer cool, now that people like me are signed up and posting news about our boring middle-aged lives. (See So, the young folks are spreading themselves around a bit. They are staying on Facebook, for sure, in order to keep in touch with older family members. But they are investing more of themselves in platforms that the old folks haven’t yet discovered. Might explain why the grandkids haven’t been in touch with me for the last little while. I’ll have to remember to wig them out by dropping some references to my non-existent Instagram account. . . .