Clicktivism and the Unions

This article appears in Equal Times, the global news, opinion and campaign website about work, politics, the economy, development and the environment. Equal Times is supported by the 175 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).


In the last half-decade a number of new online campaigning platforms have emerged, inspired in large part by MoveOn – the progressive American online campaigning group launched back in the Clinton era.

MoveOn, which now claims seven million supporters, has spun-off a number of similar platforms including Avaaz (a global version of MoveOn), SumOfUs (like Avaaz, but completely focussed on corporate misbehavior), 38 Degrees (a UK version of MoveOn), and GetUp (the Australian version).

In addition, there are commercial organizations like Change.org, which charge fees to campaigners who wish to keep the email addresses of their supporters.

These organizations have become the subject of a vigorous debate in campaigning circles around the notion of “clicktivism”. Some seasoned campaigners have argued that people taking a few seconds to click on a link in an email message hardly constitutes “activism” and is no substitute for more traditional forms of engagement.

Malcolm Gladwell, the acclaimed author of “The Tipping Point” took on the clicktivists in a long article for “The New Yorker” in October 2010.

Online campaigning, he wrote, is “a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

Gladwell’s words – especially regarding “organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity” – should resonate inside trade unions. Unions are in it for the long haul and aspire to big changes – unlike the short-term, superficial approach of some of the clicktivists.

Recently, Change.org has been the subject of some unwelcome publicity as an internal memo from the company was leaked online which seemed to indicate that the group was moving away from its roots in progressive politics. It appeared as if Change.org might well host campaigns, or advertisements, by groups which campaign against abortion rights, for gun ownership and against unions.

As Canadian trade unionist Derek Blackadder wrote, “Unions don’t know shit. Sometimes you just have to say it. We never learn. Last year Change.org, a petition site many unions have used, announced it was going to start accepting money from corporate sponsors and running pretty much any campaigns that came its way. … What this means is that all the effort unions put into campaigns using Change.org served to increase the size of mailing lists that will now be used against us. Own your own or go home. Or at least go to LabourStart or some other solid political friend. Don`t use an online tool you can’t rely on. Like Change.org, it’ll just come back to bite you in the arse.”

Change.org is not the only group whose actions have proven to be controversial.

38 Degrees is a very successful British clone of MoveOn (its name comes from the angle at which an avalanche happens) and it claims over a million members. But it has come under fire for sometimes seeming to claim victories when in fact its online campaign was only a small part of a wider effort.

More troubling, I think, is the notion of “membership” itself. Union members are people who, in most places, pay dues and get to participate in a democratic decision making process. In many cases their identification with their unions in quite strong, and not something “virtual”.

38 Degrees and other campaigning networks sometimes claim to have a democratic decision-making process too, but it doesn’t resemble the kind of democracy we’d expect in a union.

Some time ago 38 Degrees sponsored a campaign to stop a Conservative government’s attack on Britain’s National Health Service [NHS]. When the legislation passed anyway, they sent out a mailing to all supporters asking what to do next. Should we continue fighting to preserve the NHS, they asked, or move on to other things? One cannot imagine a union asking a question like that of its members.

This is the worst kind of short-termism.

One of the newest clicktivist networks which also claims a “membership” of hundreds of thousands is SumOfUs, and unlike Avaaz or 38 Degrees, it limits its campaigns to challenging corporate misbehavior.

This is good, and on many occasions SumOfUs have found common ground with unions.

But not always, and campaigns have been launched, apparently in defense of workers’ rights, without any consultation with the unions involved.

And SumOfUs has also been criticized – by myself among others – for having, like 38 Degrees, claimed credit for victories which did not belong to it.

These various campaigning and protest platforms can be powerful allies for trade unions – but unions should also be wary of becoming over-reliant on them and should, where possible, use their own tools to do the same thing.

I’m not trying to bash these networks and say they are all worthless – the opposite is the case. Online campaigning is an important part of what we do in the trade union movement and we need allies where we can find them.

The Trades Union Congress in Britain has gone out of its way to build bridges with the new campaigners, including hosting large “NetRoots” conferences modelled on those held in the USA.

But I also think Malcolm Gladwell, Derek Blackadder and other critics of the clicktivists have a point, and unions should be cautious before rushing out to embrace this model of campaigning.

Where we can, we should develop our own tools to mobilize our members and supporters. Unions have the ability like anyone else to create an online petition, but we can also shut down a factory or even an entire country if need be, which is why our ideas about membership and activism will be quite different from those of the clicktivists.

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