Labourstart And Stop
Online Activism and the Need for Interaction
A few years ago I did a short piece for Our Times about the Internet as
an organizing tool. I concluded that, as a tool for helping union
certification drives, the Internet didn't yet have a whole lot to offer.
This is still true, partly because our legal system is running behind
and not all that interested in catching up and partly because the
Internet isn't yet completely imbedded in our culture (especially
amongst the over-40 crowd). But, mostly, it's because organizing is a
scary step for most workers. They want to hear directly from a co-worker
they trust before they'll sign a card or vote yes in a certification
But organizing for certification isn't the only kind of organizing
unions do. With a more confident, comfortable audience, unions can make
use of the Internet in organizing in a much broader sense. Trouble is,
for the most part, we don't.
Our Times readers are mainly committed, connected trade unionists, but
how many of us have ever been contacted by our union via our e-mail
address? How many of us check our union's website daily, even weekly?
And, if we do, has anything changed since the last time we surfed in?
Also, do our unions' websites take advantage of the web's ability to
enhance our communication by making it two-way, interactive and
Chances are pretty good that a large majority of the people reading this
article will answer "no" to all these questions. That's not good. We
should, I think, care a great deal about how well our unions are doing
in establishing themselves on the web and in using the Internet.
I used to work as an organizer for the Canadian Union of Public
Employees. When the Ontario government began forcing the amalgamation of
various public sector institutions and services, I spent much of my time
meeting with CUPE members, telling them why I thought they should not
change unions. The vast majority didn't, but more than once I heard
someone say, "Well, I can change phone service providers three times a
month if I want to, so why not unions?"
How the outside world works very definitely shapes our members' (and
potential members') expectations of their union. If your kid's school,
hockey team and dance teacher all have websites; and when they let you
know what's happening on a regular basis by e-mail and allow you to
comment and even make decisions online, you expect the same of your
Better yet, the Internet presents possibilities for expanding the reach
and perhaps, just perhaps, transforming unions. Just a bit. Why "just a
bit"? Well, I've learned to be a tad pessimistic in these matters. I set
up a few pre-web computer communications systems for non-profits and a
union (not CUPE) back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We thought that
by making communication between (at least) local and national leaders
easier and faster and closer to a "real" conversation, we'd ease some of
the conflicts they were experiencing. Of course, what happened was that
people were able to make those conflicts into full-time jobs and, if
anything, things got worse. Much worse. Still, I learned two lessons.
Lesson One: For the most part, the new technology would make things
easier and faster, but that doesn't mean better. Lesson Two: The first
lesson wouldn't always apply. This became clearest where the need for
quick and easy long-distance communication was most acute: with
international solidarity work between union members.
When Eric Lee, the editor of LabourStart.org, wrote The Labour Movement
and the Internet: The New Internationalism (Pluto Press, 1996), a list
of every union website out there took up less than a page. And those few
trade unionists who had e-mail addresses almost always worked in
Interactive websites were even fewer and further between. Marc Belanger,
who now does online worker education for the ILO (International Labour
Organization), created SOLINET while he was with CUPE and opened it up
to people outside the union. A really weird thing happened: CUPE members
and staff online at SOLINET started interacting online with workers from
the U.S. and Europe (the rest of the world came a little later).
In retrospect, what was happening was something of a revolution. A tech
revolution? No, not really. SOLINET was certainly on the cutting edge,
but there were a few other interactive websites out there, too. The real
revolution was in how union members participated in international
solidarity actions and, perhaps more importantly, interactions.
The new technology allowed for cheap, fast, and accessible
communications across the planet, and made it possible for workers to
interact with other workers directly outside the traditional
structures of their unions. Those structures didn't fade away and they
still serve important purposes. But unions no longer serve as the
pipeline through which all the membership's international interests and
actions get funnelled. A fundamental change has occurred.
The interactive website LabourStart, which I volunteer at, isn't the
only example of this transformation, but it's the biggest and the
longest-lived. And because it doesn't have much structure to it, it has
been one of the most adaptable and flexible; the most experimental,
In its first incarnation in the mid-90s, LabourStart was simply a list
of links to union-related news stories on other websites, and 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. By 1998, the website had evolved and was given the name
"LabourStart: Where trade unionists start their day on the net."
LabourStart was updated every day by Lee, but, increasingly, individuals
would provide links by e-mail to news items or campaigns.
Unlike LabourStart, most union websites have always been managed by lone
individuals. There is often a fear of losing control, of being swamped
by anti-union loons, and many union officials don't understand how the
web works. Online content tends to be the same as a union's print
publication, 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. The web is not being used as
the organizing tool it could be.
The web isn't being used by unions in a way that gives expression to,
and makes good use of, our greatest (maybe our only) asset: the
membership. Which is odd when you think about it, since the democratic
traditions of the movement run pretty deep. Why this hasn't migrated
into the online version of the movement is unclear, but may have a
little something to do with the distrust, and lack of understanding of,
the new medium.
LabourStart is different. It isn't a union, isn't really an organization
at all, and has little or no structure. So, as a model for unions it has
very definite limits. But it also does a great deal that our unions
could learn from and provides a lot of services more unions should be
aware of. And it is certainly interactive.
As Lee became overwhelmed by the number of stories readers were sending
him for inclusion on LabourStart, he opened the site up by giving
posting privileges to readers people 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.
A network of "correspondents" developed (I'm "senior correspondent for
Canada"). Each has apassword and a username. Once we find a story on our
"beat" (the websites we regularly check for union news), we add it to
LabourStart's database. That creates a link, which appears on the
website. Readers interested in the story simply click on that link and
then read the story on the website where it originally appeared.
Of course, LS is taking a risk by giving 400 people the opportunity to
add their own content meaning links to news stories to LabourStart.
It has happened that inappropriate content has found its way onto the
site. Complaints are e-mailed in and, if something nasty has been
posted, it gets removed. Occasionally, but not often, a correspondent
has their posting privileges revoked. But the result, over all, 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 pooled resources with activists in the Netherlands and in
Norway and launched its first editions in languages other than English.
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 20 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 (and soon Spanish) are the exceptions: LabourStart in those
languages covers union news from around the world.
Comparing LabourStart with traditional international solidarity union
structures is like comparing a PC network with a mainframe computer: one
creates a net through which individual points can communicate directly
with other points; the other has a single point through which action
While this analogy works, it can be pushed too far. There are good
reasons why unions have hierarchical structures as they face management,
with the need for members to back up their elected representatives in
solidarity. LabourStart benefits (as an online entity) from not having
to take on employers and governments directly. And, as a voluntary
association of trade unionists with an enthusiasm for the Internet, we
have a common starting point in the same way that a political party with
declared goals does.
Still, much of what LabourStart and grassroots organizations like the
Campaign for Labor Rights (www.clrlabor.org) have done, successfully and
not, isn't being picked up on by the mainstream labour movement.
When LabourStart was first launched in 1998, we would link to online
union campaigns. Calling them "online" is actually more than slightly
inaccurate. Those campaigns meant that a worker who wanted to show their
support would have to copy text off the union's website and e-mail it to
the target. Amazingly, often an e-mail address wasn't supplied and
participants were asked to copy, paste, print, fold, stuff, stamp and
mail a protest letter. More amazing: this kind of campaign is still
By 2002 LabourStart had set up its own ActNOW online campaign system and
was 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 (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 e-mail addresses, and we informed all 3,000 about
the campaign. We had no idea what the reactionwould be. Would we get
five per cent or 10 per cent to respond? Within days over 3,000 people
had sent off protest messages using our system. In other words, instead
of getting a five-per-cent response, we were getting a 105-per-cent
How was this possible? This was one of our first lessons in online
campaigning: people forward messages they receive to their own mailing
lists. So, where we thought we were communicating with our 3,000
subscribers, we may actually have been talking to an audience 10 or 20
times that size.
In the last five years we've waged dozens of these campaigns. In the
largest one so far, we were able to deliver over 8,000 protest e-mails
to Gate Gourmet when that company was in dispute with its catering staff
at London's Heathrow Airport. 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 the 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, the campaigning
system became multilingual: a 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, 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 the time you read this.
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
rank-and-file workers on every continent and 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, which was a further vindication of
the strategy of using online campaigns.
Why should Canadian trade unionists care? Well, there are something like
7,000 Canadians on the LabourStart mailing list 7,000 union members
and staff who think e-solidarity is worth doing. And who aren't, as far
as I can tell, getting much of that through their own unions.
Worthy of a whole book is the question of what political effects
routinizing solidarity actions and other union activities through the
internet can have.
Solidarity actions may seem a little abstract. How about considering
online voting in elections? Or online voting on motions that would
normally come before a local union membership meeting?
Something new is happening here, something that has never happened
before in the trade union movement. And it is happening first of all in
the minds of those tens of thousands of union activists around the world
who now regularly participate in global, online campaigns.
These activists are increasingly beginning to think the way their
opponents in global corporations think globally. Only, from a worker's
point of view. 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 countries 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 on making the
global connection. Some make occasional references to global solidarity,
and others have done good work for years building international
solidarity mostly through their humanity funds and face-to-face worker
to worker campaigns. But most have retained 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 (global union federations, or GUFs) remain small, under- funded
and understaffed. And it means 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 the terms "buy union" and
"buy Canadian" are used synonymously.
To survive, unions will need to adapt and, most of all, adapt their way
of thinking. This means increasingly seeing that they have more in
common with workers in other countries than they do with their employers
A decade ago when Internet use among trade unionists was just beginning,
some of those who were going online 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 20 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 may 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
alone, who in turn forward on the messages to tens of thousands more
every week, online campaigns are getting larger and larger, week after
week. And more and more of them are producing successful results. For
instance, a campaign by a handful of CUPE social service workers in PEI
generated e-mails from Japanese trade unionists pledging not to visit
the Anne of Green Gables historical site (a Canadian heritage site very
popular with Japanese tourists in general). A global campaign requested
by the Public Service Alliance of Canada produced thousands of messages
in support of striking diamond mine workers, helping the workers win
their first contract.
In Indonesia, one of the world's largest private security companies was
compelled by a global online campaign to back down from its refusal to
rehire workers it had illegally sacked. The support campaign featured
cell phone photos e-mailed from inside the company's occupied offices.
In Thailand, a multinational public relations firm withdrew its legal
action against a local activist following a big online campaign.
There are dozens more examples, but what is extraordinary is that there
have been 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.
By now you may have the impression I don't think unions are fully
exploiting the Internet. There are some notable exceptions. A few
national unions are offering locals a ready-made website template with
free or near-free hosting. Just add content and go. An even smaller
number of national unions have experimented with discussion forums or a
public comment feature. Most, however, have abandoned them as too
contentious or time-consuming to manage.
CUPE (and possibly other unions do this, too) offers its members free
webmail accounts and topic-specific listserves. But, generally, even at
the national level, unions remain unable to make effective use of the
Internet. Take the simplest way in which the web can be used: for
The number of union websites with no content more recent than last week
or even last month or worse is astounding. The impression these unions
leave with people surfing in for information is that they are doing
little or nothing worth reporting. Did I say the Internet isn't a great
tool for organizing (for certification)? It isn't, but not keeping it
active, and interactive, can be an effective way of driving potential
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.
And many national and international unions offer their own newswires.
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.
In a couple of earlier pieces here in Our Times I've made the point that
the Internet isn't the be- all and end-all for trade unions. So, while I
firmly believe that a labour movement's health and energy and relevance
can be partly judged by the extent to which it uses the Internet, I
don't think anyone can accuse me of being too over the top.
Few unions and labour councils offer courses on the organizing potential
of the Internet. What is offered is often more technical or mechanical:
there's not a lot there on the political side. University-based labour
studies folks have moved in this direction, but not every trade unionist
feel comfortable in a university environment or has access to one.
Our comrades over on the academic side of things aren't spending a lot
of time looking at the effects of the new technology. Or our use of it.
Harvard and the London School of Economics have collaborated with
LabourStart for a couple of international conferences, but they remain
fairly small and a majority of the participants were academics, not the
"end users." Those studying unions' use of the Internet aren't
interacting with the people who actually use it.
Does your union automatically consider an e-mail campaign in support of
bargaining as a matter of routine? No? Lots needs to be done. Lots. If
only because of all those members who think that if they can change
phone service providers every few months, they should shop for unions
just as often.
Worse still, maybe by now they're thinking they might give that
non-union option a try. After all, there are lots of anti-union
web-based resources out there, and some of them are pretty
impressive-looking on the surface. Even more impressive-looking to those
non-members we're starting to (hoping to?) recruit in large in large
It's even less fashionable to quote Marx and Engels now than the last
time I wrote here about unions' use of the Internet, so perhaps this
time it'll get even more attention. Certainly nobody has really added
anything to what they said in 1848: "This union is helped on by improved
means of communication that are created by Modern Industry, and that
place the workers of different localities in contact with each other"
(The Communist Manifesto). Almost 160 years later, it might be time we
paid some closer attention.
Sidebar UNIONS AND INTERACTIVITY Union efforts to use the interactivity
the web offers are so few and far between that they're worth noting. In
Britain, the Trades Union Congress runs a site called UnionReps.org.uk.
It's nothing more than a giant discussion forum in which shop stewards
from all TUC-affiliated unions get to talk about whatever matters to
them unmediated. It has been a phenomenal success story, studied by
academics and the subject of a lot of attention. Note the key points:
Cross-union. Workplace level. Unmediated.
There's nothing like it in Canada. Not that we should feel too ashamed
about that: there's nothing else like it anywhere. Period.
NewUnionism.net (which I'm a member of) is an ambitious attempt to take
the fundamentals of UnionReps.org and make it international. The jury is
still out on whether this effort will take off, but if this one doesn't,
the one to be launched five years from now almost certainly will. Like
Labourstart, the NewUnionism.net project is not attached to any one
union, but activists from a wide variety of union backgrounds. D. B.
ONLINE LABOUR RESOURCES Help, and examples of what might work and what
might not work, are out there. You can just cruise the web and discover
some wonderful stuff using your favourite search engine.
* LabourStart senior correspondents (you should see me in a trench coat)
are available for consultations on website features and online
campaigning. We've worked with unions in Poland, India, Canada, South
Africa, Australia, the UK, the U.S., Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Bahrain,
Iraq and others, plus several of the global union federations. *
E-unions.org is a pool of union webheads around the world available for
assistance (in many languages) to any trade unionist anywhere with
questions about anything. * Labortech.net (U.S. spelling) runs
comprehensive annual conferences on anything tech-related, including but
not limited to the Internet. I've heard their conferences described as
"Disneyworld for trade unionists." * Communicateordie.com tends a little
towards the webhead end of the spectrum, and the content is largely U.S.
in context, but the discussion groups are a hotbed of new, interesting
and fun ideas, many of them useful. And the ones that aren't are just
plain intriguing. * If you prefer paper, head to your favourite bookshop
and ask for anything by Art Shostek. His book Cyberunions, while a tad
U.S.-centric, is one of the few really thoughtful examinations of the
big-picture reasons why unions need to shape-up web-wise, and fast.
Ditto Eric Lee's seminal book The Labour Movement and the Internet,
though it could use an update. * The Canadian Association of Labour
Media has a broader focus than the Internet, and online campaigning is
outside its mandate, but CALM does sterling work. It has organized
workshops on web-based communications for both activists and union
communications staff. For more information, go to: www.calm.ca. D. B.
ANNUAL LABOUR WEBSITE CONTEST The "Labour Website of the Year" contest,
which LabourStart runs each year, draws everyone's attention to
particularly interesting uses of the web by unions. Global, national and
local unions participate. Even some individual members and caucuses.
The number of votes each site receives determines the winner. This
encourages unions to collect their members' addresses and mobilize them
in support of their website.
I almost hate to admit it, but it's amazing what a little competition
Our hope is that the experience of organizing their members for our
contest will encourage unions to think more about running online
campaigns of their own. And the contest can also draw your attention to
fine examples of union sites imitation being the most productive form
of flattery. To see the latest winners, go to www.labourstart.org and
scroll to "Labour Website of the Year." D. B.