The blog of Eric Lee - web design and internet consulting for the trade union movement.

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.


As an Advertsing-Copywriter I would say: less is more, reduce to the essential, communicate just one message at a time... things i get from you is mostly an information overkill...
And another thing: people need to be convinced also in an emotional way - not only in an rational way...

Hi Eric:

One of the things that would be helpful for busy union folks is some kind of checklist that will them which campaigns they have responded to. Don't know the technological implications of this suggestion. Great work, great campaigns.


Before you begin to prioritize using these criteria, consider the need of workers facing extremly difficult circumstances to know that there are others out there who care. Campaigns should not be based on the criteria of employer capitulation alone. Also consider the value of activists needing to participate in a cross section of actions so that they can be more effective.



I think the online campaigns work to a certain extent as long as it sticks to the issues at hand. Sacking of an activist and any human rights issues affect all trade unionist. Emails received by corporate moguls from outside the area complaining about how the workers are treated pose a threat to any international business they may have.

I suspect one of the primary benefits of this kind of e-mail campaign is that it broadens the issue. It must come as a shock to local managers to realize that they are now involved in an international concern. It also brings pressure to bear from corporate headquarters, where there is such a thing, because even if business in one narrow locale is not affected by a labor dispute, there could well be repercussions on business in Paris or New York.
The other side of this issue is that the "right wing" usually learns from the left (in reaction, of course) and copies it. So you can expect that these current victories will be followed by a spate of situations where the right will mobilize to flood the offending management with e-mails supporting their anti-labor stance.

Jim T

For me the most important things to say yes to campaign and act by sending a e-mail message are :

1. reasonable and understandable Demands e.g. Asking to re-hire one worker, or to recognize its union
2. Involvment of unions - union has checked the situation and says now is time to act
3. Issues matter like non-recognition of a union or the sacking of a union activist will get my support. A fight for better pay in one company in one country is not for me the reason to support online campaign.

I see by the comments this growing understanding that was not in place a generation back.... Wayne Lessard and backed up by Hugh Macdonald show the realizations are kicking in .....workers joined to form unions to deal with a specific industry and with this globalization each union out there is no more than that single worker of long ago whose voice was bringing each union together to represent a unified workforce globally to deal with not just a specific industry but with industry as a whole on a global level. An eventual action down that road brought about by the growing understanding of that workforce out there.

Thanks Eric, for your work and comments about the value of lobbying via Internet, for labor justice in Cambodia and New Zealand.
In the U.S., some unions are just beginning to see the value of linking up via email with members and supporters. In the absence of local media news, I've found email an easy and effective way to alert party/meeting planners about the unpublicized boycott of a local
200-room hotel that fired three women (Oct 2003) who wanted to vote to organize.

I doubt it is the moral force of email messages that persuades companies to change their position. Rather it would be a calculation that it is in their interest to settle the dispute before it spreads further. If an international campaign can create the impression that the dispute is having an effect on the company's brand/image, or that there is the potential for solidarity actions to spread to the company's operations in other countries, then settling the initial dispute may start to seem like a less costly option. This would suggest that international campaigns work best against international companies, or at least those relying on an international market.

Eric -

Congratulations once more on the success of your internet campaigns. Solidarity amongst unions and unionists is a grat weapon in a world of decreasing human rights (largely engineered by governments who operate under a pretext of protecting the rights they are taking away). The Australian Government's and industrialists attempt to conscript young men as cannon-fodder during the First World War was defeated by cooperation between activists from the community and the International Workers of the World (Wobblies). I think the internet gives us the opportunity to repeat the exercise on a larger scale.

Eric -

Congratulations once more on the success of your internet campaigns. Solidarity amongst unions and unionists is a grat weapon in a world of decreasing human rights (largely engineered by governments who operate under a pretext of protecting the rights they are taking away). The Australian Government's and industrialists attempt to conscript young men as cannon-fodder during the First World War was defeated by cooperation between activists from the community and the International Workers of the World (Wobblies). I think the internet gives us the opportunity to repeat the exercise on a larger scale.

Hi Eric,

The insidious agenda of the New Right has to be recognized for what it is. You may win some battles and lose some. But that should not detract us from fighting good fights at all times. Let's keep these bastards honest.

I've visited workers' museums in UK. The issues played out are quite the same the world over. The end of one era will see the emergence of new feudal lords in another.

Employment law has yet to unshackle itself from the 150 year concept of the master and servant relationship despite the 'brave new world' of computers on the future of work.

The points you made Eric were excellent, good to see the thought and commitment you are giving to online campaigning.

I endorse Christian Luerzer's point about effective communication being clear and concise, and I would like to add that understatement of a case can make it more effective. If there were background information in a link describing the sequence of events impartially, in more detail, and without emotive content, it would add weight to an email which is brief and to the point.

I feel a warm trickle right between the shoulder blades. Do you really think that on-line protest will result in a victory? These people will agree, just like Dubya, and then do as they please. Let's see how much has changed six months from now or even one year from now. I expect you to report. I applaud your efforts, but I think that they are misdirected. P.

Hi Eric, with regard to hotels etc in Asia. Although it may seem highly unlikely that unionists will stay at these places it is actually very likely that Aussie and New Zealand unionists will. A trip to South East Asia (let alone Singapore) is now a very common destination for the more well off members. And--Raffles etc know that we will not stay with them if we think they are scumbag employers. Even further we will not do the traditional English/Aust/NZ thing of going into the long bar for a beer or two. THey do fear a consumer backlash. I guess the only suggestion I make re online campaigns is to say that having won we should then 'reward' the employer who comes into line. For instance lets give them 12 months from the time settlement is made and then IF they are still acting as a reasonable employer we reward them by sending out a positive message and encouraging people to email them saying "well done-we are now prepared to encourage our members to support you" And further to that we then encourage our members to do so and when purchasing or checking out or whatever handing over a card or something similar that said "I stayed/bought here because you have become an employer I can support"
Thanks for your efforts, see you, Lloyd

LabourStart's email campaigns are effective on a number of levels, not the least being the sense of solidarity it gives those sending the emails without a lot of active sacrifice on their part. The cherry is having a visible effect at the other end. I would encourage as many to participate as possible, if only for their own awareness in the great scheme of things.
It's a great service, Eric, and hopefully will lead to bigger and better things.

I think succesful campaigns have three major elements.
1. The basic elements of the dispute are presented in a bullet-like manner.
2. There is the facility for campaigners to personalise their messages.
3. There should be a follow up to those that participated letting them know the outcome.

The idea is great but we should have been doing this for years. Whatever we do we must make sure that all information is current and correct and comrades must be able to either adapt proforma letters or wrte their own. The internet was brilliant during the Liverpool dockers strike provoking support from the US and Japanese dockers. All campaigns must be fully reported on not just the succesful ones we learn a lot from the ones we lose. Pete

First, to Eric and all those who supported workers in Cambodia and Dunedin: you are all superstars! As a union official from Australia, it's nice to open my email and hear about victories half way across the World - it cheers me up.

I'd also like to endorse Lloyd Woods' remarks about the value of publicising the poor industrial practices of high profile, hospitality/entertainment employers in tourist destinations. Lloyd's right to say that there are many progressive people in Australia and NZ who travel in south east asia and elsewhere and will boycott places like Raffles who breach international labour laws.

I think Eric's article is also spot-on in terms of highlightling the factors likely to make an email campaign successful.

Keep up the good work, everyone!

"There should be a follow up to those that participated letting them know the outcome."

R Innes makes an excellent point with the above. Nothing like positive reinforcement (well, commitment is right up there too) to bring people back again for the next campaign.

Keep up the good work. I think the comments are very good. I would like to see Unions using the campaigns as organizing efforts. Those Unions who have a means of reaching their members on line would probably be able to generate even higher participation. Many of their members would be more inclined to join in if their individual Union was on board.

Lets start an on line campaign to have our Unions come together around the world in solidarity, to bring to an end the abusive Workers Compensation Systems.
Lets call for unions to set up WCB Advocacy advisor for future injured brothers and sisters, lets face it we are all one paycheck away from a workplace accident.

The time has come for our Unions to assist the injured member instead of waiting until they are broken and in no financial position to pay their dues and then kick them out of the union, this is wrong, it must stop.
So, please bring an end to these abusive government agencies and call for an end to these abusive WCB laws.

Dear Bro. Eric,

Good have done. Keep solidarity on International Labour Movement in global economic liberalization age.

Once again Eric - thank you for your tremendous work enabling me to participate in the email campaigns. I feel it is exciting and a privilege to do so.

I think you are good at letting us know what has happened in the campaigns.

I really like Lloyd Woods suggestion of following up companies' behaviour 12 months later with a positive message when they have proved themselves still to be respecting workers' rights. It will also show that we are still watching them.....!!

First quick reaction to the article.... Points 3 and 7 are absolutely critical. Essentially no on-line or other kind of international support/action/campaign can substitute for determined and often courageous local union struggle. We can certainly add to its impact (and that increasingly in today's world can make the difference).