This past winter I was asked to speak at the Ontario Public Service Employees Union's human rights conference. With the name "Social Change Through Social Media," its focus was on how to use social media in organizing for equity. The only such conference that I'm aware of, it was a great idea, well-executed. (If there have been others, let me know.)
One old question was given a new spin: Why do some social media campaigns take off and some go stale almost instantly? In my talk, I mentioned a campaign that still plagues us at LabourStart, where I'm the senior Canadian correspondent. On the same day in 2007, LabourStart launched two campaigns. One was on behalf of a teen retail worker in Ireland who had been fired after refusing to remove her delegate (steward) pin the day after she had been elected. Her union's efforts to get her reinstated weren't working, so they approached LabourStart Ireland. The social media campaign took off, becoming quite large by our standards at the time, and generated questions in both the Irish and UK parliaments. The worker was reinstated.
The other, launched on the same day and to the same audience of committed trade unionists, was on behalf of an Iranian teachers' union leader who was facing the death penalty for his union activities. This campaign stalled on takeoff. He was executed.
It's worth looking at examples like these and thinking hard about what the different responses mean, not just for our online campaigning strategies, but for what it says about our members (or, in LabourStart's case, our readers).
That's the question I was asked at the OPSEU conference: Why did readers respond to the Irish worker's campaign for reinstatement and not the Iranian worker's fight for his life? The answer is a painful one. Those two campaign appeals went to the same mailing list. On that list were (back then) about 60,000 trade unionists, all workers active in their unions to some extent, and with an interest in international solidarity and/or online organizing by unions.
In my perfect online-campaigning world, each of the two campaigns would have received the same support. And in fact, on the day the campaigns were launched, I would have guessed that the Iranian campaign would get more support. After all, there you had a trade unionist facing the death penalty for trying to do what everyone on our mailing list does every day. But the reverse happened. Why?
A number of LabourStarters in several countries made an effort to raise the issue. In retrospect, the responses they received made perfect, if unpleasant, sense. It seems that, after decades of all things Iranian being demonized, many LabourStart supporters were unable to distinguish the Iranian regime from those who were struggling to change it, and being killed for their efforts. This would be like blaming all Canadians for the things Harper does. Throw in some Islamophobia; a dash of the Left's traditional, albeit often well-founded, paranoia (I can't tell you how many people told me that they thought supporting the campaign might get them on some CSIS or CIA list); and some "any enemy of imperial America (like Iran) is my friend" lunacy, and – hey! presto! – the Iranian campaign, like the intended beneficiary, dies.
Then I was asked what LabourStart was doing about it. It's not enough to know something is wrong – you have to move to fix it. The answer I could have given is pitiful. At LabourStart, we make a special effort to do things like put photos of workers in crisis on our main page who are not white males. The day of the OPSEU conference, our photo of the week was of a Bahraini teachers' union vice-president, who had been sentenced to months in jail for her union activities.
What we haven't been able to do is use email and our mailing list, the most powerful tools we have, to consciously and deliberately work to educate the folks who read our messages. We should be doing this, and, if the sister who raised the question at the conference is reading this, I want her to know that we're going to try.
The problem is more profound than it might appear. The LabourStart list is a global list of unionists and our campaigns are, in some sense, surveys of the state of the conscious working class around the world. It may be an unscientific survey, perhaps, but it's the best we've got. And the results suggest that we're still way behind capital in our efforts to globalize our solidarity, and our fightback. A little closer to home, it looks like our labour movement's efforts to fight racism and xenophobia in the workplace, to build solidarity amongst our members, could use a little energy and a lot more support.
One way to do this is to make the struggle for equity a part of everything we do online. As we defend our positions in the face of so many right-wing attacks, the labour movement's focus may contract, leaving out the equity agenda. But, if we lose track of equity issues, we make solidarity, local as well as global, impossible. And without local and global solidarity, we're all gonna suffer. We all might even lose.
Speaking of equity, my thought that unions erode solidarity and militancy by not actively pursuing equity is inspired by (plagiarized from?) the work being done by the good sisters behind the "Leadership, Feminism and Equality in Unions in Canada" project. See the article "Making Time for Equality" in Our Times' 2013 IWD issue: the first in a series of three articles based on the findings of this project.
OWN YOUR OWN OR GO HOME
Unions don't know shit. Sometimes you just have to say it. We never learn. Last year Change.org, a petition site many unions have used, announced it was going to start accepting money from corporate sponsors and running pretty much any campaigns that came its way. What this means is that all the effort unions put into campaigns using Change.org served to increase the size of mailing lists that will now be used against us. Own your own or go home. Or at least go to LabourStart or some other solid political friend. Don't use an online tool you can't rely on. It'll just come back to bite you in the arse.
EFFECTIVE ORGANIZING & APP ENVY
Online tools were crucial for organizing the Walmart strike in the U.S. last year. And don't forget, Jason Mann is the man when it comes to trying to get Canadian unions working more effectively online. At the same time, he hasn't lost track of what it's all about. His book about organizing unions out here in meatspace is available online.
Here's how The Guardian, on November 16, described the latest app used by UNISON, the major British public sector union: "[It's a] new Android app that's aiming to help people understand their rights at work, while also providing the latest news on campaigns to support the professions of its members. Oh, and 'information and advice on how to fight Austerity,' if that's your bag." A little app envy on our part might be a good thing. Townhall telephone calls are great, for now. Next week, maybe not. Next year, for sure not. A smartphone app can make continuous democracy (without continuous meetings – ugh!) possible.
ONLINE CORPORATE CENSORSHIP
There's one more hole in the internet utopians' dream that the web would magically set us free from capitalism: the news that iTunes (Apple) and other online giants of media actively censor the books and other materials that users attempt to distribute, using their services.
And I don't mean folks on the fringe. Non-fiction material with the word "vagina" in the title is banned from appearing on iTunes. Naomi Wolf's new book Vagina: A New Biography is an example. On the other hand, soft porn is pretty easy to find. I'll say it again: Have a Plan B if your campaign or strategy relies on using any online service you don't own.