Beyond the website: unions need to start thinking about software

In the beginning, trade unions created websites.

At first unions were so proud of their achievement. And back in the mid-1990s, it was often an achievement just to get that first page up on the World Wide Web. It was a source of pride for unions to announce the existence of websites even if those sites never changed and even if practically none of the union’s own members ever visited them.
Meanwhile, day after day, trade union members and other workers, not yet organized into unions, come online by their tens of thousands and then millions. They come online using tools — software — provided for them by giant US-based corporations with little sympathy (to put it mildly) for the goals, ethics and vision of the international labour movement.
When the average trade unionist begins to experience the web, they do so within the confines of a software product — their web browser — which is carefully designed to encourage them to behave as good consumers. Both the products of Microsoft (Internet Explorer) and America Online/Netscape (Navigator) make every effort to steer users toward ‘preferred’, ‘selected’ or ‘partner’ sites, where it is hoped that they will buy something. This process begins with the default home page which the vast majority of users never bother to change — and therefore visit every day.
Trade union members (and potential members) when they are online spend very little of their time on our union websites. Indeed, we’re lucky if they visit our websites at all. But remember that they do spend all of their time online within the framework of their web browsers. Therefore, in my view, it’s time for the labour movement to move into an area it has never touched before: the design of the browser itself.
Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could actually distribute a web browser which was free of charge, worked as well (indeed, better) than the mainstream products, and which instead of steering users toward commercial ‘partners’ with its bookmarks and default home page would instead point working people toward online resources on issues like health and safety, workers rights, globalization? That would be incredible. It would be empowering. It would move labour’s involvement in the new communications technology to a new plane.
And it’s a reality today.
In partnership with Opera Software, creators of the cutting edge Opera 5 web browser, in February 2001 LabourStart announced the first-ever trade union Internet software package, including a web browser, email and instant messaging service (ICQ). The co-branded LabourStart/Opera browser features:
* Dozens of trade union bookmarks – links to sources of information on things that concern trade union members — including a link to the Education International’s website.
* Versions in three languages (for now) — English, Dutch or Norwegian — with dozens of additional bookmarks for local trade union links in each of the languages.
* LabourStart – the online daily global trade union new service – appears as the default home page (in English, Norwegian or Dutch, depending on which software one downloads).
The browser is being distributed by LabourStart but also through the websites of the trade union movements in Norway, the Netherlands, South Africa and other countries.
Full details may be found at
I encourage you all to download the browser, set it up and try it out.
And if you want a special Opera browser designed for your union, with your own bookmarks and your own website as the default home page, let me know.