How to win an online campaign
A couple of days ago, I got some great news. Raffles Hotel workers in Cambodia who have been involved in a bitter dispute with their employers, had won a huge victory. Their union now recognized, and with the employer committed to an end to illegal union-busting, this was a clear victory.
An online campaign conducted on the websites of LabourStart and International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF), resulted in over 3,000 messages being sent to the employer in support of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers Federation (CTSWF).
"Unions around the world showed their solidarity with the CTSWF by supporting the IUF's international campaign in many ways," wrote the IUF in a statement released in mid-September. "IUF members demonstrated at Raffles properties around the world. Unions and national centers requested their embassies and diplomatic missions in Cambodia to avoid Raffles as a venue for official events. Unions gave financial, moral and political support to the CTSWF. Our sister organization, the International Transport Workers' Federation, informed ITF flight crews of the conflict and communicated their unions' concerns to Raffles headquarters in Singapore. Thousands of IUF members and supporters of labour rights sent protest messages to Raffles."
The online campaign was just one part of a much broader effort, but an important part. Clear evidence of this was the reaction of the Raffles management to the campaign. They begin sending out email messages to some of those who sent off protests to them.
In early May, one employee of Raffles in Cambodia sent off a message to an Australian email protestor saying "It amazes me that a fellow Australian would send out a chain email without even checking the facts . . . The strike was neither peaceful or legal and if u want to check this give me a call. I had to evacuate my wife and 2 yr old from the country as the strikers would not allow the doctor in to see my very sick baby!!!! do u call that peaceful???? You should be ashamed of yourself."
Later messages from the hotel to those who sent off messages were somewhat less personal, were much longer, and had been proof-read. These began "Regrettably, some of the allegations circulated by the International Union Federation [sic] are not accurate, and we would like to provide you with the facts surrounding the current dispute between the unions of Raffles Hotel Le Royal and Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor and our company." This was followed by a half dozen "allegations" and rebuttals by the hotel management.
When managers start sending out long emails to protestors, it also sends out a loud and clear message that our campaigns are having an effect. Our email messages are being received, counted and read.
And this for me raises the whole question of why some email campaigns work so well.
On the face of it, why should a hotel manager in Phnom Penh care about a bunch of emails from trade union members in Australia or the USA? The likelihood of those individuals being customers of that particular hotel is nil. A cynical hotel manager might even believe that those protests are coming from the "usual suspects" -- left-wing activists who will sign any petition put before them.
And yet they react, and respond to emails, and in the end, relent and settle with the union.
The victory at the Raffles hotel chain in Cambodia came only 8 weeks after a similar email campaign run by LabourStart at the request of the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU) in New Zealand secured the re-hiring of a sacked union delegate, Andrew Bolesworth, an employee of the Dunedin casino.
It appears that certain employers are more vulnerable to this kind of pressure than others. And certain types of campaigns work better than others. After several years of experience with online campaigning, here's a tentative list of seven ways unions can win online campaigns.
1. Image matters. Companies with a high public profile -- like hotels, or manufacturers of consumer products -- are particularly sensitive to their image and brand. They do not want to be seen as brutal violaters of human rights. Think Nike, which bends over backwards to at least create the impression that it doing good in the world.
2. Be reasonable. Demands have to be achievable. Asking Dunedin casino to re-hire one worker, or Raffles Hotel to recognize its union, are not unreasonable demands. Companies can easily meet these demands without having to spend millions.
3. Involve unions. The best campaigns are the ones run with the full support both of the local union (such as the SFWU and CTSWF), sister unions in the same sector in different countries, as well as the global union federation -- which in these cases was the IUF and Union Network International (UNI).
4. Issues matter. The subjects raised (non-recognition of a union, the sacking of a union activist) have to be ones which would win broad support among trade union members, if not the general public. Campaigns which focus on things like opposing privatization or pay disputes will not get the same level of support. Workers' rights are human rights, and this will always make a campaign more successful in building wide support.
5. Numbers count. The Raffles campaign ran for more than four months and in terms of the number of email messages sent out was one of the two or three largest online campaigns LabourStart ever waged. Campaigns that we have waged that got half that number of responses did not produce the desired result.
6. Reminders help. The Raffles campaign featured a constant stream of updates on a number of websites, including the regional website of the IUF (Asian Foodworker). A search on LabourStart would reveal dozens of articles about the struggle, with regular updates about court decisions, solidarity actions in other countries, and so on. Campaigns that are launched but feature no updates at all tend to languish and die.
7. Unplug yourself. The most successful online campaigns feature strong offline elements as well, including picket lines and other protests. They are not exclusively online.
There are probably many more lessons to be learned, but these are the ones that leap to mind.
When planning other online campaigns, it's important to look back on the success of the Raffles and Dunedin casino efforts both for inspiration -- and clues on how we can win.