Big Data & Branded Buzz

The General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) undertakes some fairly spectacular low-tech organizing efforts: In 2012, Dorje Khatri, a GEFONT member, carried the flags of his union and of the global union federation IndustriALL to the top of Mount Everest.

Tragically, in 2014, Khatri and 11 of his co-workers, sherpas who earned a living guiding climbers up the world's tallest peak, died in a workplace accident. And one year and three days later, when the earthquake struck, dozens of sherpas and their charges died on Everest, along with over 8,500 people throughout Nepal.

As that disaster, as well as a second earthquake in May, unfolded, GEFONT mounted a massive rescue and relief operation. Its volunteers continue to distribute food to people and build temporary shelters. And now GEFONT is using online video as both an internal organizing tool and as a way to spread news of the ongoing relief effort.


I recently signed up for a Change.org campaign (don't ask) and, just after doing so, I was shown a screen not from the campaign organizers but from Change.org (the company) itself, asking me to "donate" more money. In return, Change.org would show the petition to more people.

Are you having nasty, avaricious fantasies of non-profit wealth? When I'm cranky and worried about LabourStart's bottom line this kind of appeal makes me wonder what the response would be if we started charging for our campaigns — perhaps five cents per participant? Joke, joke, joke.

I know how I felt when I recently read the fine print on an online appeal made by a reputable workers' rights NGO. I was being encouraged to donate money in order to support a group of workers in the Global South who were clearly and inarguably in need. The fine print? Any money collected over a set amount would be retained by the NGO and used for its own purposes.


Ah, globalization, ain't it grand? Last year, Facebook used Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program to import 93 software engineers from the Global South. Thanks to the TFW program, Facebook could get the work done more cheaply here, using bonded labour, than it could in the U.S. or Europe.

Plus, the Bad Book's U.S.-based managers could keep a close eye on things. And the engineers could do their work using Vancouver's considerable infrastructure — much of it publicly funded.

The engineers? Likely gone. Or soon to go. Luck to them. Maybe the next country they get parachuted into won't have laws that let their employers all but own them.


BuzzFeed has implemented a new policy regarding "brands." Anything they consider a brand, or anyone using the site in a brand-like manner (what does that mean exactly?), will be denied access to the Community platform. The buzz on Buzzfeed (sorry, couldn't resist) is that it's trying to figure out a way to make a few bucks from the brands that use it by driving them to specific sections of the site.

The problem is how brands are defined: already, individuals with progressive NGOs posting work-related material are reporting problems, since BuzzFeed is not distinguishing between PepsiCo posting material designed to drive up company stock prices and somebody like you posting a story about a strike in Estevan, Saskatchewan.

If you're relying on Buzzfeed to get your word out and your word is a union word, start working on Plan B, while you have a look at the official line on the change-up.


The term "Luddite" rivals "theory" as the Word Most Often Used the Wrong Way. We all know that the real Luddites (and their ideological buds, the agricultural workers who followed Captain Swing) weren't so much opposed to the introduction of improved technology in their workplaces as they were forceful advocates of a living wage and of labour adjustment programs.

They weren't so much fighting to stop the introduction of new ways of weaving cloth or harvesting corn as trying to get ahead of that curve and protect their communities from the effects of the new tech if implemented the way their employers insisted it be.

In short: they had moved beyond reacting to their employers' actions to taking the initiative and trying to define the social relations in which they lived.

Similarly, for progressive tech folk there's always a tension between the larger organization's urge to stop things from happening (what unions do and often do well) and an analysis that says "inherent in this new technology is not only what it is being used for but also what we could use it for. Why work to kill and bury it? Why not make it our own?"

This tension isn't new. Debates, for example, about whether we should fight to stop contracting-out or cut and run to create worker-owned co-ops that act as ethical contractors have been around for a while. Should professionals like university faculty resist what some among them would call proletarianization, or should they swim ahead of the incoming wave and try to shape the future it's bringing?

And then there's Big Data. How can we wrest it from corporations and use it for the social good, for purposes other than profit maximization and obsessive surveillance? Or are we doomed to always be defensive organizations? See Jacobin magazine for some ideas, and then start crunching the data.

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. 


If you like what you're reading and want to subscribe to Our Times, please go here. Thank you!