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Global campaigning: beyond protest emails and solidarity messages

Online campaigning is nothing new in the labour movement. In fact, we are today at the beginning of the third decade of online campaigning.

What technology did was to suddenly, almost overnight, made international solidarity work accessible to large numbers of rank-and-file union members, at almost no cost, and with an immediacy never previously experienced.

The Internet is not, and cannot be, a substitute for a face-to-face meeting, a picket line or a mass demonstration. It had to be understood as a new tool, and no more than that, in labour’s toolbox.

But campaigns often have the intended or unintended consequence of raising morale among those workers on the front lines. In many cases, it turns out that the really important thing about a specific campaign is not that it convinced an employer or government to change its practice, but that it raised the spirits of the men and women on the picket line or in jail. If a campaign raises the morale of striking workers enough to encourage them to outlast the employer by just one day, that could make the difference between winning and losing a strike.

LabourStart was designed to serve as a portal for trade unionists on the net. Within a year, it was a database, and individuals with user names and passwords could log-on and add links themselves.

Thus was born in the spring of 1999 the network of LabourStart volunteer correspondents. Seven years later, that network has grown to include nearly 400 correspondents based on every continent. These correspondents are adding on average some 250 news stories every day to the LabourStart news links database.

From the very beginning, LabourStart gave publicity on its front page to union campaigns online. But increasingly, unions would ask for help getting a campaign up and running. Most unions did not have– and still do not have, even today– the technical capacity to develop software tools for online campaigning.

In the summer of 2002, LabourStart launched its own system to allow the rapid creation of online campaigns. To test-drive the system, we asked the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions if there was a current campaign they would like our assistance on. We were given the case of some sugar union leaders in Congo who had been arrested.

At the time, the LabourStart mailing list consisted of some 3,000 names and addresses of trade unionists. We were not sure what percentage of them would respond to a campaign, and imagine our surprise when instead of getting 300 responses (which would have been impressive enough), our campaign actually generated over 3,000 messages. It was a response rate in excess of 100%. How was this possible?

It became clear from the very beginning that a mailing sent out to the 3,000 email addresses of union activists on LabourStart’s list would reach a multiple of that number. People were sending on the messages to additional mailing lists– to other activists concerned with human rights, to members of their union local, and so on.

In the spring of 2003, I witnessed this myself. Invited by the Canadian Association of Labour Media to do a live demonstration in a Toronto hotel to a group of communications people from a wide range of unions, we launched an online campaign using LabourStart’s system, including a mailing to our list. The following morning, I was shown by a trade union friend the half dozen versions of my email message he had received from the various lists he subscribed to.

Two other methods were pioneered by LabourStart from the beginning.

The first was the use of Google’s keyword-based advertising, which we began using in March 2002– even before launching our campaigning software. Since then, LabourStart has shown over 26,500,000 advertisements on Google– at a cost of around $11,000. This is a laughably small amount of money to reach tens of millions of people, nearly a quarter of a million of whom have clicked on the links in the ads and visited LabourStart’s site.

Back in 2003, when we launched the British Columbia campaign, we asked the Canadian trade unionists which Google keywords we should target. They came up with “Winter Olympics”, as the province was at that time bidding to host the games. We felt it would be pretty embarrassing to the provincial government if every time someone searched Google for the phrase “Winter Olympics” they would see on top of the page, to the right of the regular search results, a small ad reading “Olympic bidder guilty: British Columbia violates workers’ rights says UN body – find out more”.

The most successful online ad we ever ran was not actually in support of a specific campaign. Back in 2002 when New York City’s transit workers threatened a strike, and again in 2005 when they walked out for 3 days, we ran a Google campaign in which our ad read “NYC transit strike: Which side are you on? We support the TWU and the right to strike”. The ad was shown over 100,000 times, and some 3.5% of those who saw it, clicked through to learn more. The cost was a paltry $159.32.

The second innovative way we spread the news of online campaigns was through syndication. Just as trade union websites could run the last five labour news links from our database, we also created a tool to allow them to run links to our last five online campaigns. A large number of unions adopted this newswire, and as a result, when LabourStart launches a new online campaign, within 15 minutes, a link to it appears on the front page of union websites around the world.

Another way we have drawn attention to LabourStart’s campaigns is by integrating the campaigns and the news– thereby blurring the distinction between reading about a violation of workers’ rights and doing something about it. When we run a news story that is related to an ongoing campaign, there will be a link next to the title of the story which reads “Act NOW”. By clicking on that link, you are drawn to the specific campaign page. The same integration means that on the campaign page, in addition to the static content (the text about the campaign itself) there is also a dynamic display of the latest news relating to the campaign.

There is absolutely no point in doing any of this if these campaigns do not succeed, at least occassionally. From the summer of 2002 through the beginning of 2006, LabourStart has launched some 65 campaigns. Some of them– a significant minority– have been resounding successes.

Sometimes our campaigns are abysmal failures– and sometimes we know they are going to be failures even before we launch them. And then we do them anyway. Why?
Several years ago, LabourStart was asked by the IUF to provide assistance on an international campaign to put pressure on the dicator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who was crushing the last remaining free and independent trade unions in his country.
We had only two weeks in which to conduct the campaign, as Lukashenko was about to wrest control over a major union, replacing its leaders with his own stooges.

The campaign was not a success. Very few people sent off messages (a few hundred) and of course the dictator in Minsk was not moved. The union was crushed.

And this did not come as a big surprise. After all, very few trade unionists knew very much about Belarus, making it hard to mobilize large numbers around this issue.

Nevertheless, the campaign was worth doing for one simple reason: it had enormous educational value. For most of those hearing about it, it was the first time they had come across the existence of Europe’s last dicatorship. Next time, it will be easier to mobilize more people as a result.

Eric Lee is the founder of LabourStart. This is an excerpt of a paper presented in early 2006 at the “Global Companies – Global Unions – Global Research – Global Campaigns” organized by Cornell University in New York City.

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