It’s one thing to have a website that a few hundred or thousand members of your union visit. It’s quite another to have a newswire service of your own, with your content appearing simultaneously on dozens — or hundreds — of other websites.
That’s the idea behind the Labour NewsWire, launched by LabourStart (http://www.labourstart.org).
I should begin by saying that the idea of creating a newswire was by no means original.
Quite some time ago, I briefly used the newswire being offered up by the Excite web portal. A company called 7am.com was also an early promoter of a Java-based scrolling news wire which can still be seen on small websites to this day.
But the breakthrough, at least for me, came when Netscape launched its “channels” for the “My Netscape Netcenter” in March 1999. Netscape used something called Rich Site Summary (RSS) — based on the new extensible markup language (XML) — which allowed individuals to set up their own customized home pages with their own “channels”. If you liked sport, you could have a sports news feed. If you liked politics, you picked a politics news feed. Best of all, if you wanted to create a news feed of your own, Netscape told you how. My world has never been the same since.
What was previously possible only for giant corporations was now available to anyone who could make head or tail of Netscape’s instructions. Unfortunately, not all of us can do things like create a properly formatted RSS file. Fortunately, I know two people who can.
Chris Croome and Bruno Postle are architects who have turned their talent for website design into a business, appropriately enough called “Web Architects”. Based in Sheffield (England), they have been behind some of the more interesting things happening on the fringe of the labour movement’s use of the Internet. Chris and Bruno saw a way to use the new RSS format to create a news feed for LabourStart’s daily online news service for the trade union movement.
But let me step back a moment and explain another change that made this possible.
LabourStart was originally a simple web page, updated every day, with new links to trade union news stories which appeared on other websites. But in April 1999 — coincidentally, a month after Netscape launched the RSS format — we switched over to a dynamic database, using a free software system called dbman, produced by Gossamer Threads in Vancouver, Canada.
The switch over from a hard-coded HTML page to a dynamic, online database was done to make life more convenient — but it also opened up new and unexpected possibilities. One was the creation of a global network of volunteer correspondents who could update the database remotely, logging in with their own user IDs and passwords. The other possibility was to write a script which would read through the database and generate properly formatted RSS code — allowing the Labour NewsWire to be born.
Let me review the three stages of how this works:
1. Volunteer correspondents from around the world log on to LabourStart’s online database and add links to news stories (which appear on other sites) concerning working people and their unions. This occurs in real time.
3. Visitors to the websites which use the service see the latest 5 or 10 headlines from their own country, or globally, in their own language, in nearly real time.
It didn’t always work this smoothly. The first version of the Labour NewsWire required webmasters to install a script, written in Perl, in their cgi-bins. This proved to be an insurmountable challenge for most of them, and use of the first version of the NewsWire was quite limited.
But when Chris and Bruno came up with their one line of code, everything changed. Here is the line of code:
All webmasters need to be able to do is copy and paste that from our website into the source of one of their HTML pages. And that’s it.
As a result of this change, interest in the Labour NewsWire skyrocketed. As I write these words (late May 2001) there are more than 210 trade union websites using the newswire. According to a recent estimate by one academic studying trade union use of the web (Prof. Richard Freeman) there are 2,700 trade union websites around the globe. We are therefore rapidly approaching the point where one in ten use the Labour NewsWire.
We were quickly able to customize the newswire to offer up news from individual countries, regions, languages and sectors of the economy.
National newswires are now available for the following countries: Australia, Belarus, Canada, India, Ireland, Korea, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, the UK and the USA. Regional newswires exist for Africa and the Caribbean.
In January 2001, LabourStart announced plans to expand beyond the English language and aimed to be producing online labour news in a dozen languages by the end of the year. (By way of comparison, the Global Unions website, launched by all the major international institutions of the trade union movement, still appears only in English.)
As new languages were added to LabourStart, new newswires were created in those languages. The Labour NewsWire now works, in addition to its English versions, in Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Norwegian, Swedish and Turkish. The Norwegian version has proven to be the most popular of all, with no fewer than 52 local trade union websites relying on it for a news feed.
At the request of Australian trade unionists, we also created our first newswire based on a particular sector of the economy — the information and communications technology (ICT) sector — in May 2001. We will be able to create future newswires for other sectors and for particular campaigns.
Websites using the newswire range from official, mainstream trade union sites to dissident, marginal, activist sites. National trade union centers using the newswire include the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, and the Dutch national trade union center FNV. Regional organizations of national trade union centers are also key users of the service — such as several regional bodies of the Norwegian LO, or the Northern Regional Council of the Trades Union Congress in Britain. Several national unions have adopted the newswire as well, including the giant MSF union in Britain and NKF in Norway. But the greatest enthusiasm seems to be at grassroots level, with scores of local trade union websites jumping at the opportunity to provide national and even international labour news to their visitors.
For LabourStart, the launch of the Labour NewsWire has been a real boon. We’ve been able to get trade union news out to a much larger audience than ever before by not compelling people to find and visit our website.
This has allowed us to engage in solidarity work of a kind that was previously unthinkable. For example, when striking hotel workers in Jakarta need to get an urgent message out to the trade unions of the world, one of the best ways now is to ensure that their news appears in LabourStart’s Labour NewsWire. That means that for tens of thousands of workers around the world, visiting their own union’s websites, the news goes directly to them.
I think there are lessons to be drawn for the broader labour movement, and I’m actually surprised that the example of our newswire hasn’t been emulated. Surely national trade union centers like the AFL-CIO issue statements, appeals, press releases, and calls to action that could also be posted directly onto local and regional trade union websites throughout the USA.
And international trade union organizations, such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the dozen or so International Trade Secretariats, would benefit greatly from the ability to directly disseminate information to their millions of affiliated trade unionists — and thereby, perhaps, mobilize them.
For LabourStart, the combination of a global network of a volunteer correspondents and a network of websites offering up the Labour NewsWire has completely transformed our project. The impact of our efforts has been multiplied many-fold by these new tools.
We’ve moved beyond the website, and your union can too.
This essay will be appearing with over 40 others in a forthcoming one-of-a-kind volume, The CyberUnion Handbook: Transforming Labor through Computer Technology, edited by Art Shostak (author: CyberUnion: Empowering Labor through Computer Technology) to be published in December, 2001, by M.E.Sharpe.