Archive for December, 2012

LabourStart’s first book is published – and what unions can learn from our experience

Monday, December 31st, 2012

bookcoverI’m very pleased to announce today the publication of LabourStart’s first book – Campaigning Online and Winning: How LabourtStart’s ActNOW Campaigns Are Making Unions Stronger.

Many labour and left organizations publish books, but nearly all of them have to put up a lot of money to do so and wind up with cartons of unsold books piling up in their offices.

We’re doing this differently, using print-on-demand technology with no upfront costs for us at all.

This is the lowest-cost, lowest-risk way for small, under-financed organizations to publish books and I wonder why others haven’t done so.

I encourage you to buy a copy to see how this turns  out, to feel that it’s something you can hold in your hand, and looks quite professional, I think.  If you want to know more about how we did this, email me.

Goodbye, Gmail

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Like many of you, I’ve been a loyal user of Gmail for many years now.  When it first came out, Google’s web-based email service left all the others behind.  It was very fast and we loved it.

But I’ve decided to drop Gmail for several reasons and move on, and here are the three that have spurred me to make the decision to end 2012 by abandoning Gmail.

First, I hate the fact that Gmail by default shows us our emails in descending order by date.  If you receive many emails every day, the newest ones are displayed prominently and the oldest ones float down to the bottom of the list.  And you can’t change this, at least not in any way I could find.  Which means that you wind up reading your newest emails and answering them before you get to the bottom of the pile.  This is what we call ‘last in, first out’ and it is very bad practice.  It’s far better to answer your oldest emails first – which you can do in Gmail, but it’s not easy.

Second, I’ve never liked the way Gmail threads discussions, because it sometimes means that I miss messages or don’t answer messages if several people reply to something I wrote and it all has the same subject line.  I prefer the old fashioned way of showing individual emails.

Finally, I’m concerned about Google’s privacy policy.  When you use a free service like Gmail, you are the product – not the client.  The client is the company buying advertising, and to fund Gmail, Google’s computers read your email messages and serve you up advertisements that they calculate will interest you.  Of course there is no one sitting there at Google individually reading through your emails — but that’s not the point.

So I’ve been looking around for an alternative and for a while actually considered using Microsoft’s new Outlook.com, which has replaced Hotmail. It’s good but not good enough, and anyway, who wants to use a Microsoft product again?

So instead I’ve gone back to one of the pioneers of web-based email, Fastmail, which is now owned by Opera.  Several years ago I was a Fastmail customer because it offered exactly that – very fast email.  (It still does, even with its new, more modern interface.)

Today I’ve come back to Fastmail because it allows me to sort messages as I want to  (by date, with the oldest ones on top); it allows me to see my messages as individual ones, not in threads; and as a paying customer (and not a product) I’m not shown invasive advertising that raises concerns about my privacy.

I found the process of importing all my messages from Gmail to be a relatively simple one (though it took several hours, as I had many thousands of messages to import) and when I did turn to Fastmail‘s tech support on two occasions, I got quick and accurate responses from them.

On my Android phone, I had been using the web browser to access my emails, but have just started using K-9 Mail instead and it seems quite good for this purpose.  (K-9 Mail is a free app, available on Google Play.)

So far I’m pleased with Fastmail and encourage others to check it out.

Is this Netanyahu’s final month in office?

Friday, December 21st, 2012

I am usually completely wrong about predicting election results but there are certain trends in polling for the Israeli elections (which happen in another month) which may be of interest.  Taking the long view — comparing polls today to what they were showing a year ago — gives us a indication of trends which may (but also may not) continue in the next month.  Here are some of the more interesting ones:

The right wing alliance headed up by Netanyahu has lost much of its strength.  A year ago, the two parties (Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu) were polling at 45 seats (out of 120 in the Knesset).  This would have represented a gain of 3 seats over the 42 they won (separately) in the last elections.  The latest polls I’ve seen show them at 36 – in other words, a drop of 9 seats, or 20%, in just a year.

Kadima will disappear.  Like so many large centrist parties that have come before it (Dash in 1977 was the first), Kadima was never destined to have a long life as Israeli voters return in large numbers to the traditional parties.  Polls a year ago showed Kadima winning 19 seats.  Today, it’s at 0 (zero).

Kadima’s voters have defected to two new parties – Yesh Atid and Hatnuah.  These two together, in the lastest polls, have 20 seats.  So that’s where the Kadima voters have clearly moved to — instead of to the parties of the left.

The major left wing parties — Labour and Meretz — have stalled.  A year ago, they polled at a combined 22 seats; today they’re at 23.  That’s not much of an improvement, but not bad considering the defection of at least one major figure (Amir Peretz) to a new party (Hatnuah), and the appearance on the political map of several new parties competing for the vote of the pro-peace center.  Holding their own in this environment is not a bad thing.

Polls of Arab and Haredi voters are almost impossible to do accurately — and no one can begin to guess what turnout will be like.  At the moment, polls are showing 10 seats for the 3 “Arab” parties (the largest of which, Hadash, is actually a Jewish-Arab party).  This is pretty much what they got in the last Knesset elections (11), so it looks more like a guestimate than actual scientific polling.  If any of the Arab parties are blocked from running — and both UAL and Balad are under threat — votes could shift toward Hadash.  Were Hadash to reap the benefits and walk away with 10 mandates (unlikely, but possible), it could be third largest faction in the Knesset.

Shas is not necessarily a coalition partner only for the right.  Polls continue to show a strong result for the Sephardic party – 11 seats instead of the 10 they won last time.  Remember that the Rabin government formed in 1992 had Shas (and Meretz) as coalition partners.  That coalition held together for several years, allowing the conclusion of the Oslo process and the first rays of hope for peace in the region.  Shas could be wooed again into a post-election coalition with parties of the center and left.

So, is a government not headed by Netanyahu possible?  Yes, it is.

Here’s one possible scenario — Labour and Meretz form the government with 23 seats, in coalition with the two new centrist parties which get 20 seats.  They are supported by 11 seats in the Arab parties and invite Shas into the government with its 11 seats.  That’s 65 seats — denying a majority to Netanyahu and sending him off to the political wilderness where he belongs.

A slightly more optimistic scenario shows the left, center and Arab parties getting 10% more than polls currently show — so instead of 54 seats, they get 59.  Then they find partners in some small partners – e.g., Am Shalem, now polling at 3 seats, and don’t even need Shas.  That would give them 62 seats, which is a majority, albeit a very small one.

Yes, the most likely scenario is that Netanyahu pulls together a coalition, but it’s not inevitable.

A tip for union web designers

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

This is so geeky, if you’re not caught up with the jargon please don’t read any further.

I’ve been busy creating a database for a new website. The database has a several tables, and in them, a number of fields including things like name, country, union, etc.

No matter what I did, the database was not updating.

Then when I changed the name of the field ‘union’ to ‘tradeunion’ it all worked.

And the reason? The word ‘union’ is a reserved word in My SQL 5.0

I am not making this up. Any web designer building an online database for a union may find themselves stuck, as I was, for days – until realizing this was the case.

Fight in British unions for solidarity, not boycotts

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

This article appears in Solidarity.

In the course of just a few days, three news stories came across my desk that highlighted one of the problems we face in the British trade union movement.

As I write these words, the Israeli nurses’ union is engaged in a major fight with the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu is the health minister (as well as prime minister) and his government stands accused of starving public hospitals, while coming up with millions to construct new illegal settlement housing. The nurses strike deserves the support of unions everywhere, in particular unions which organise nurses.

Israel’s public sector unions solidified a major victory early this month. An agreement that ended February’s general strike has now been translated into results on the ground. The general strike had been fought over the question of precarious employment and the Histadrut won a substantial victory. This week, contract workers in the public sector will get huge wage gains and back pay thanks to the solidarity of unionised workers who shut the country down and compelled the government to make concessions.

Both examples show an independent, and sometimes militant, Israeli trade union movement that deserves the solidarity of trade unionists in Britain. Indeed, the Israel public sector unions may even have a thing or two to teach their British counterparts about how to win on issues like contract labour.

But unfortunately Unison and the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), unions which should, in theory, be promoting solidarity with the Israeli nurses and indeed with all the Israeli public sector unions, have played a rather different role recently.

Unison and PCS were among the leading unions which actively pushed the recent congress of Public Services International (PSI) to adopt a new policy supporting boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) targetting Israel. PSI is also now on record supporting the slander that Israel is an “apartheid state”.

It is unusual for a global union federation like PSI to take such a strong position in opposition to Israel, even if its BDS call was limited to “firms complicit with the occupation”.

The pro-Hamas Palestine Solidarity Campaign hailed the decision as a breakthrough. I want to step back here and try to understand what is going on.

Israel is the only country in the region with a strong, independent trade union movement. It is not a perfect movement and there is much to criticise about it. But when Unison sent a delegation over to meet with Israelis and Palestinians, everyone they spoke to — including the Palestinians — encouraged the British union to keep up its relationship with the Histadrut.

No one, not even the far-left critics of the Histadrut, suggested to Unison that it disengage.

But when the report of the Unison delegation was put to the national executive, it was rejected and Unison carried on with a policy supporting boycotts of the Jewish state and its trade union movement as well.

This makes absolutely no sense.

If you oppose the right-wing, neoliberal policies of the Netanyahu government, shouldn’ t you support the struggle of the Israeli nurses? Shouldn’t you support the Histadrut’s general strike which resulted in such an important victory?

Instead of engaging with the Israeli labour movement, unions like Unison and PCS are moving away from it.

There was a time not long ago when British unions played a more constructive role. They would bring over representatives of the Histadrut and the Palestinian unions to Britain where they could meet British trade unionists — and each other. British unions saw their role as bridge-builders, taking no sides in a tragic conflict between two nations.

One doesn’t want to get all nostalgic about this — instead, I suggest we try to find ways restore some sanity and balance into the British labour movement’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Above all this means educating activists and members, whose only source of information seems to be the pro-Hamas camp, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Unfortunately, there is no effective alternative voice in the British labour movement today.

If members of Unison, PCS and other unions were to be made aware of the reality of the Israeli trade union movement, its struggles and its victories, I think it might be possible to have a more interesting and productive debate.

At the moment, the agenda in those unions is being dictated by supporters of Hamas, and that, comrades, is not a good thing.