Hack the Boss and Other Good News

Hey! I got a letter. Barbara Bradby, an Irish trade unionist, wrote in on a theme that appears here occasionally: the trouble, sometimes, with online campaigning sites. She pointed to a campaign that recently appeared on SumofUs, an online organization dedicated to curbing corporate power, demanding that Amazon treat its employees better. Her point? That the campaign, while well-meaning, was not sponsored by or coordinated with a trade union. To her, the campaign demands seemed naïve and ignored the role of unions — unions having a bit more experience with improving Amazon employees’ working conditions than Amazon itself does. Lots more, since Amazon’s very profitable business model depends on sweating its very precarious workforce.

I would add to Barbara’s concern the potential damage these do-it-yourself campaigns can do to a union’s strategy. For example, Amazon workers in Europe are often organized. A union’s bargaining or organizing strategy in Europe could suffer if someone in North America was to fire up a campaign encouraging a boycott.

It goes against my grain to encourage you to not participate in a solidarity campaign. But I will say this much: participating in a union-led or a LabourStart-hosted campaign should be reflexive. On the other hand, the generic sites’ campaigns are worth a minute’s thought. Barbara says, “I continually ask myself the question of why I am spending time every day sending off emails for organizations that are at one remove from those that are actually working to change things on the ground.” My short-version answer? Look for the union label.


I keep running into people who think the shutdown of Thunderclap, the social media amplifier trying to get out from under charges that it facilitated election shenanigans, is a bad thing. I don’t think it is a bad thing. As reported in an earlier WebWork column, empirical evidence suggests that the geeks loved the number of followers and friends Thunderclap could reach when it was used to echo their tweets and posts. But that was about as far as it went. Action did not result. Still, if you have a need, even if just a daydream, for the kind of social-media echo that Thunderclap provided, take a peek at pack.org. Your time is yours to waste.


Electronics Watch is a social-media-based effort to add some worker content to a corporate social-responsibility (CSR) approach to improving working conditions for the folks who make all our devices, gizmos, gadgets and whatsamacallits. I am no CSR fan, but this experiment has some interesting facets. If you are looking to build interest in organizing across an industry or an employer, read Annie Pickering’s openDemocracy article “When workers lead on enforcing labour standards: a case study of Electronics Watch.” Pull out some tips and make up your own mind.


Some good news from New Zealand: soon some workers will be bossless. The wiggy news is that they will be taking direction, instead, from a chunk of software. Not quite what commies and co-op enthusiasts were expecting, but it does present all kinds of interesting options for future workplace resistance. Hack the Boss! Check out the stuff.co.nz article, “What happens when your boss is actually an algorithm.”

Great news: workers in the UK were able to use the new EU directive on data use and privacy to help their legal argument that food-delivery workers were employees and not contractors. Even better news: they are not alone amongst the new precariat in organizing. Cheer yourself up with this short (but link-laden) survey by Nithin Coca about some of those efforts from around the world: “The Gig Economy Workers are Organizing” (The Progessive). In particular, look at how the Italian movement is taking these services on in “Bargaining With the Algorithm” (Jacobin).

Back before everyone and their unions were online, LabourStart would do online-campaigning workshops for unions. Invariably, in the early days of Facebook and later Twitter, we’d be asked what makes some campaigns go viral. My standard answer was and still is: damned if I know. But there are continual efforts, mostly speculative, being made to find an answer.

Personally I have given up trying and think we should be focusing on email, but if you are still looking for your social media unicorn, give these a read: “Why Some Videos Go Viral” (Harvard Business Review), “Secrets of YouTube — what makes a video go viral” (The Guardian) and “New York Times Study: The Psychology of Sharing. Why Do People Share Online” (Text Ex Machina).


During and after the recent Ontario election that saw Doug Ford’s Tory government installed, it wasn’t unusual to see a local union sharing posts from a Tory front organization called Ontario Proud. The good news? When gently called on, the locals all stopped doing this and indicated that, in the future, they would look more closely at tempting posts before sharing them.

Ontario Proud’s posts were really quite interesting. As with some racist accounts that rely on everyone’s respect for veterans to gain likes and shares and new followers around Remembrance Day each year, Ontario Proud clearly spent a lot of effort carefully constructing their posts. I can’t bring myself to provide examples or links but if you really need to you can find them on Facebook.

For less objectionable reads on the subject of content construction and the effects thereof, take a gander at “Aiming high with our Facebook content strategy” (CharityComms) and “See, Think, Do, Care Winning Combo: Content +Marketing +Measurement!” (kaushik.net). Too often we do everything right on the technical side but are left wondering why there’s no take-up in a social media campaign.

The fact that the New Zealand labour movement has pooled its resources to create a single online campaigning service for all affiliates continues to motivate all kinds of daydreaming. But for the foreseeable future, it’s not something we will see here. Still, join me in some digital salivating by looking it over at together.org.nz.

Good news for teachers looking for news of their comrades around the world: check out teachersolidarity.com, a specialist website that comes recommended by Larry Kuehn at the BC Teachers’ Federation.

A bit of bad news for Canadian Union of Public Employees staff retiree Pat Daley: she’s discovered that much of the writing she did for the sadly defunct progressive and very union-friendly news website Straight Goods disappeared when the site came down. Pat called to tell me of her frustration after reading the WebWork column that pointed out the ways in which we lose our history by relying on Facebook to be our unions’ web presence. The good news? That column caused an old . . . err . . . long-time comrade to get in touch and resulted in me being made an honourary member of the Toronto Workers’ History Project. I am more than chuffed to be associated with people doing the great work that the TWHP is engaged in.


Brazilian truckers struck this past summer using WhatsApp to organize around a massive police action that was determined to crush the union. According to the article “The Brazilian Truckers’ Strike: How WhatsApp Is Changing the Rules of the Game” (Truthout), their strategy worked, which is definitely good news. Speaking of apps, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recently released a phone app for a pretty remarkable and depressing purpose: slavery avoidance for migrant workers. Check out “Global ‘TripAdvisor’ for migrant workers takes aim at modern slavery” (Today Online).

Viral altruism is the digital sociological term for what we do, or at least aim to do, as trade unionists online. If you haven’t got the time for a third-year university course, read this piece from Nature: “The nature of viral altruism and how to make it stick.” It isn’t focused on unions, which I thought would add to its appeal. It is a bit of a break from our struggles. Sometimes a bit of distance can give us a slightly different perspective, and make some things obvious that don’t appear so from inside the belly of the beast that ate us.

Derek Blackadder is the co-ordinator for LabourStart in Canada and an honourary member of the Toronto Workers' History Project’s Archive Committee. Feedback and ideas for future WebWork topics welcome. 


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