from Vol. 34 | Issue 3 | FALL 2015

WEBWORK: Esmail Abdi & The Threshold

By Derek Blackadder

On his way to the Education International World Congress in Ottawa in July, Iranian teachers' union leader Esmail Abdi was arrested by the Iranian police; detained without charge; likely tortured; and almost certainly thinking about the fate of his predecessor, Farzad Kamangar, who was executed after a trial lasting seven minutes.

Education International (EI), the global federation of unions in the education sector, together with the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF), immediately unleashed a campaign to have Abdi freed.

Included was an online action hosted on LabourStart and sponsored by EI. CTF also rolled out a Thunderclap action to further drive large numbers of people to LabourStart.

The sponsor of a Thunderclap gets as many people as possible to sign on to the clap. When signing on, people must give Thunderclap one-time-only access to their accounts. Then, at the sponsor-selected time, the same text (in this case a bilingual appeal to participate in the LabourStart action) booms out from dozens or hundreds or thousands of social media accounts.

The CTF Thunderclap campaign should have built faster than it did. The threshold for the action was pegged at 250 accounts. That's accounts, not people, and I presume at least a few people registered two or more accounts like I did. Even so, we had to extend the deadline to meet our modest mark.

A trade unionist in prison for doing what you and I, and a whole lot of Canadians, do every day; the backing of the CTF, a reputable Canadian union with a ton of members and the sophistication to not only come up with a Thunderclap but also to make it work; and, as a bonus, the backing of a global union federation whose affiliates have tens of millions of members — why didn't the Thunderclap catch fire?

Here's why: Anything to do with Iran, including trade unionists in Iranian jails, makes people nervous. People try to avoid feeling nervous. So they don't join an online action about Iran.

The plot thickens: People on the LabourStart mailing list joined, though, in big numbers. But not people targeted by the CTF's appeal.

LabourStart readers are used to international actions, and they're used to getting something regularly, if not frequently, about Iran. Their sense of the place goes beyond media stories about nuclear programs and negotiations in Vienna.

CTF on the other hand, has an audience that knows it, and trusts it — an audience of no mean size. But not one that gets a lot of CTF appeals on the subject of Iran.

That disconnect is enough, according to the teacher I spoke to. He signed on to the Thunderclap, but he's certain none of his tweeting buds did, despite his (online-only) encouragement. CTF likely also faced the problem of its audience being off work, and therefore a bit disconnected, during the summer.

Which brings me to the second barrier the campaign faced: A lack of trust. Not in the CTF, not at all. But in Thunderclap.

Giving Thunderclap access to our accounts, especially now that we can log in everywhere using our Facebook account information, is a big hurdle to get over. A really big hurdle.

Now, to what really matters — the numbers at the back end. All the effort the CTF folks and their affiliates put into the Thunderclap generated access to Twitter and Facebook accounts connected to an audience numbering almost 345,000 people.

So, how many new solidarity emails did the Thunderclap generate in the end?


That's a response rate of approximately 0.019 per cent. A typical LabourStart mailing sees response rates of eight to 20 per cent.

Here's the dilemma: using Thunderclap can be an incredibly effective way to reach a huge audience. But using Thunderclap can also be a gamble: you trade the trust members already have in their own union for an unknown. You're asking people to trust in something you don't control — in something you yourself may not entirely trust.

Worse perhaps is that the further away from the core group the message traveled, the weaker audience interest became: I want to see Esmail Abdi out of jail. So I sign on to the Thunderclap. But if most of my Facebook friends are members of my model airplane club, my account is effectively useless for a trade union rights campaign.

Conclusion? Email, once again. Specifically this: send an email to people with an interest in the issue, people who want to be on your mailing list, and who trust the organization sending the appeal enough to take a minute and act. Underpin any action with that action.

And if you think that's not worth the effort, well then, you've picked up Our Times when you meant to grab Maclean's. Move fast and you might be able to get your money back.

And now for some comic relief. Thom Feeney was so sick to death of the "dithering of politicians" that he set up a crowdfunding campaign to save the Greek economy. Thom felt that "every time a solution to bail out Greece is delayed, it's a chance for politicians to posture and display their power, but during this time the real effect is on the people of Greece."

So, he took matters directly to the people of Europe. While another brutal EU deal was being "negotiated," his Indiegogo campaign, now closed, saw 108, 654 people contribute a staggering 1,930,577 euros within eight days.

Since I want to be remembered as a prophet, someone possessed of a rare brilliance and ahead of my time, I'll mention again that we need an app that makes organizing easy.

Evidence that we're getting there pops up with increasing frequency. The Century Foundation, a U.S. think tank, has challenged developers to take up the task.

"With an app, workers could get 30 per cent of the cards signed before the employers know what's happening," Mark Zuckerman, president of The Century Foundation, tells BuzzFeed News.

It's hard for an employer to reach into their bag of bullying tactics when they haven't even caught wind of a unionizing drive yet., which has already successfully mobilized workers through their mobile devices, is raising money to build just such an app.

And just in case you think computers and the left collided only with the arrival of the smartphone, let's reach back to the 1970s for the story of Project Cybersyn and the computing power behind Chile's Allende government.

Local union web stewards very often learn on the job. But usually there comes a time in their lives when they have the luxury of thinking through a redesign of the site they manage.

If the webster in your union life has reached that hallowed place in time, I can't recommend any two books more highly than these: Don't Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (3rd Edition) and The Elements of User Experience (2nd Edition).

So, from the concerning to the depressing, through the comic and into the technical, let's end with the scary, just to get our adrenaline flowing. Here's the tale of some Spaniards who seem to have been targeted by law enforcement, and subsequently arrested, simply because they dared use secure email tech.

Run by a Seattle non-profit collective, is an encryption email service used internationally by activists. Read these tea leaves and wince.

Derek Blackadder's WebWork column about online resources for union activists appears in every issue of Our Times. Send your feedback and ideas for future topics.

Blackadder is LabourStart's senior Canadian correspondent and staff director with The Society of Energy Professionals, IFPTE Local 160.

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