Beyond borders: Unions and social media

This article appears in the most recent issue of Our Times (Canada).

What has new media ever done for us?

I assume most Our Times readers will be familiar with Monty Python’s comedy film “Life of Brian” and, in particular, the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene. I’m reminded of that scene whenever I’m asked to talk about new media and the labour movement.

In it, actor John Cleese famously asks his fellow Jewish revolutionaries, metaphorically, what the Romans ever did for them. And the answers come rolling in. Aqueducts. Roads. Sewers. It’s a bit like that when asked, metaphorically or not, what the Internet has ever done for the trade union movement. Answers do come to mind fairly quickly. For instance, the Internet’s role as a campaigning tool is now pretty much universally acknowledged. And no one would tell a political party such as the NDP to not “waste money” on new media.

We all now understand how vital the new technology is for our work. Or do we?

First of all, what do we mean by “new media”? If one thinks only of the very latest fads, such as Twitter or BBM (Blackberry Messenger), one misses the point. The most powerful, effective and proven of the new media is email. Good old-fashioned email.

In doing dozens of online campaigns over more than a decade, I’ve learned that nothing comes close to email as a tool for reaching out to people, educating them and mobilizing them. So, our definition of “new media” has to include tools like email, but also the web, social networks like Facebook, and micro-blogging or instant messaging platforms like Twitter and BBM.

Unions have used this technology for three decades now. In fact, it was pioneered in Canada. The first time a union used mobile computing technology in a strike was back in the early 1980s in British Columbia (during a B.C. Teachers’ Federation strike). The first nationwide union computer communications network was the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Solinet (founder, Marc Belanger), set up back in the mid-1980s.

Pioneering use of the new technology was also made more than two decades ago by what are now called “global union federations.” They adopted email in part to reduce their communications costs as international phone calls, certainly back in the 1980s, were prohibitively expensive.

So, after decades of using the technology, which is now a proven and accepted part of our tool-box, the question is: are we using it to its maximum? Do we really understand what it is all about? I don’t think so, and let me explain with a metaphor.

Imagine if someone today in Canada were to invent a rocket that could, at a reasonable price, travel at the speed of light, taking people anywhere in the solar system almost instantly, and even beyond. What would you say if the reaction of the public was, “Cool! Now we can get from Toronto to Ottawa in an eighth of a second.”

One might argue that they were missing the point.

The Internet’s greatest power is the fact that, unlike almost any other communications medium, it ignores national borders. It travels at precisely the speed of light.

If I want to make a telephone call (which was once considered new technology) from, say, London, England to London, Ontario, the telecoms companies charge me for the privilege of crossing international borders. They charge me much more than if I were to make a telephone call within the UK. If I wanted to send a letter, the same would be true: it’s much more expensive to send a letter from country to country rather than within a country. (For those under the age of 50, by “letter” I mean a kind of printout of an email, put into something called an “envelope,” with a stamp on it. A stamp is a – well, forget it.)

Distance used to matter. Borders used to matter. But, if today I send an email, or even make a Skype call, from the UK to Canada, I am charged no more money than if I was sending an email or Skyping locally. In fact, I pay nothing at all, except for the Internet connection.

Distance has evaporated. Borders don’t exist. We can communicate in ways we couldn’t imagine a decade or two ago.

That doesn’t mean we can’t use the new technology within our local communities. Of course we can. I have built many websites for local trade unions in the UK, and they make great use of them. In the recent postal workers’ strike in Canada, which was backed by a huge online campaign on LabourStart, we saw some very effective use of new media.

But this is a rocket that can travel to other galaxies, too.

Let me give an example that’s hot off the press (an expression that will make no sense to the next generation and is barely understood today). In September this year, Indian auto workers employed by the giant Japanese multinational Suzuki went on strike. Suzuki responded brutally and the strike was a very difficult one, but, in the end, the two sides reached an agreement. On the day the workers returned to work Suzuki promptly broke the agreement, the strike resumed, and things got much worse very quickly. Shots were fired at strikers by company goons.

The union in India got in touch with the global union federation representing metal workers (based in Switzerland), who, in turn, contacted the UK-based news and campaigning website LabourStart, which I edit. Within hours, we had launched a global campaign in eight languages (including Japanese).

Seven thousand messages, some 20 per cent of them from Canada, poured into the headquarters of the Suzuki company. In the UK, Unite, a large manufacturing union, wrote to 90,000 of its members by email urging them to support the campaign. Less than 96 hours after the campaign went live, the company capitulated and reached an agreement with the union.

Maximum use was made not only of the web (which hosted the campaign) and email (used to send the messages), but newer social media as well. LabourStart’s own Feedback and Twitter accounts were used to spread the word quickly to thousands of trade unionists. And Suzuki’s corporate pages on Facebook and Twitter were quickly covered with messages condemning the company’s attempts at violent union-busting.

Much of the publicity for the campaign was done on the trade union movement’s own social network, the small but feisty UnionBook.

Obviously, it was not the online campaign that brought Suzuki to the bargaining table. It was the courage and determination of the strikers. But, according to the International Metalworkers Federation, the online campaign that LabourStart orchestrated played a vital role.

The new media are allowing some very old institutions, like the metal worker unions, to come alive in dynamic and exciting campaigns. They are doing this by crossing borders and creating, above all, a new way of thinking, a new consciousness, for the thousands of trade union activists who participate in these online struggles.

The new media are creating the conditions for the birth of something new, but which is also something old. It used to be called “proletarian internationalism.” The next generation will no doubt come up with a better name.