Online campaigns – poll shows the promise and the challenge

In May 2006 LabourStart asked its readers to participate in what was probably the first-ever global survey of trade unionists on the subject of online campaigning.
The survey was not in any sense of the word scientific. It was conducted only in English. To know about it, you had to be on LabourStart’s mailing list. You would almost certainly have been someone who participated in online campaigns. It was hardly a representative group of trade unionists.
Nevertheless, there were some interesting — and mostly encouraging — results.

Campaign fatigue
First of all, we were concerned about “campaign fatigue”. With a dozen active campaigns running simultaneously, and barely a week going by without a global online campaign being launched, we were sure that people would tell us to be more selective. But fewer than 20% of the 1,441 participants in the survey said that such campaigns were taking place “too frequently”. The vast majority were happy with the number of campaigns being waged. And even one in six said we weren’t running enough campaigns!
Within days of our announcing this, LabourStart launched several campaigns on the same day (at the request of a global union federation) and despite the survey results, there were some signs of “campaign fatigue” with fewer responses than expected. The nature of the campaigns themselves may have explained this — these were not necessarily the most exciting campaigns we’d ever launched. But the evidence is that while activists like to say they’re ready to do more, people do reach a natural limit, do grow tired, and we need to take this into account when planning a campaigning strategy.
We asked people if they’d be more likely to respond to a campaign if it focuses on workers in their own country. To my surprise, more than 80% said no — in other words, they demonstrated a profoundly internationalist spirit. It seems like many people in our movement are now ready to embrace the old idea that “workers have no country” — or perhaps the new idea that in an increasingly globalized world, borders are becoming irrelevant.
I’m convinced that those surveyed are telling the truth, but they are probably the hard-core of people that respond almost always to our appeals to participate in online campaigns. I’m also convinced that they are unrepresentative of the trade union movement as a whole, which remains trapped in 20th century thinking about nation-states and national borders.
Our experience with online campaigning shows that two kinds of campaigns do really well: campaigns which are highly dramatic, with a real sense of urgency (such as union leaders being jailed or killed), or campaigns that take place in English-speaking countries. In other words, while there is core group of genuinely internationalist participants in campaigns, they are a minority. Most people continue to react more strongly to campaigns that are closer to home.
One of the things that we always thought worked well needed confirmation and got it when we asked about reporting on victories. Over 91% of those responding indicated that they felt encouraged to take part in more campaigns when we reported on successes. This seems obvious to experienced campaigners, and yet it is not always the case. Many campaigning organizations, and not only unions, seem to constantly harp on the themes of suffering, defeat and weakness, and ignore the victories, even the small ones, which mean so much.
It goes without saying that the victories we report on must be real ones. We should be able to point to real-world changes that have improved the lives of working people and in doing so, encourage more and more people to participate in our campaigns. This week, for example, we were able to announce that a giant transnational corporation had dropped its lawsuit against union activists in Thailand following a brief global online campaign. You read a story like that and it’s got to whet your appetite to do more.
Union campaigns
While the survey results seem to show a fairly large group of activists ready to do more, inspired by stories of victories, we also learned something extraordinary about the trade union movement. We asked people if their own unions campaigned online. Remember that this is a group of people who are union members, computer-literate, connected to the net, participants themselves in LabourStart’s online campaigns.
And to our amazement, no fewer than 27% replied that they did not know if their unions campaigned online. We can only interpret that to mean that they think it’s possible that their own union does campaign online, but they wouldn’t necessarily know about it. To me, this is a huge vote of no-confidence in the way at least some unions campaign and use the net.
If a union is doing its job, its members — and especially those like the ones filling in LabourStart’s online survey — will certainly know if it campaigns online.
A glance at the websites of many unions will show the reason for the problem: to many of them, campaigns consist of little more than the publication online of documents. In some cases, unions do campaign using their website — but only using their website. And so few union members visit the website, and rarely return for a second visit, that one wouldn’t know if a new campaign were launched. Most unions do not collect and use email addresses to effectively and regularly reach all their members — and we have learned that this is the only way to properly campaign online.
Most of the participants in the survey — 761 of them, in fact — made suggestions about how LabourStart could improve its own campaigning capacity. We’re still reading through these, but one message came through loud and clear: campaigns are more effective if they are done in more than one language. Within days of getting that message, we launched LabourStart’s first campaign (in support of Indonesian security guards who were occupying corporate headquarters) simultaneously in six languages — English, French, Spanish, Norwegian, German and Indonesian. Other improvements will follow.
I think every union and campaigning organization can learn something from this. And because we want everyone in our movement to know the results of the survey, we’ve made it available online, here.