Fast Forward: Unions need to use online video to campaign for workers’ rights

I’ve just had a quick look at some of the best websites that focus on union rights — the Campaign for Labor Rights based in Washington, ICTUR in London, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Brussels. All three sites have a lot in common. They give trade unionists and the general public information about trade union rights and they all inspire us to become more active. They are all incredibly useful websites and they meet the needs of our movement for an online presence — if this were 1995.

Back in 1995, the web consisted of text-based sites, sometimes with photos. The few million people who were then online were happy to spend hours reading texts. Remember that the Internet was designed by and for scientists and engineers, and the World Wide Web was created by a British nuclear physicist. These were the kinds of people who read books on quantum mechanics for pleasure.
I believe that text is still important. But a few things have changed since 1995. Broadband has become hugely popular in the industrialized countries. In places like Korea, the vast majority of people have high-speed connections to the net. This allows people to watch Internet video without any real time lag.
Also, the software one needs to see and hear more than just text has gotten a lot better in the last decade. The current versions of programs like Real Player, QuickTime and Windows Media Player bear little resemblance to what was available in the mid-1990s. All these programs are free of charge.
It used to be that you couldn’t put Internet video up on your website because these files were huge, and web hosting companies were charing by the megabyte. Websites we set up as recently as a couple of years ago would have limits of 10 megabytes – barely enough to put up a 3-minute video in the Real Player format. But web hosting costs have plummeted, and a standard web hosting package in Britain today offers 6,000 megabytes — that’s 600 times what was available before. You can put a lot of Internet video into 6,000 megabtyes.
And finally, hundreds of millions of people have come online who were not online a decade ago,. For many of them, our websites are not appearing in their native languages. It may be far easier for them to understand a video in English or French than to read a text in those languages. And many of them are low-literacy users, people who are not at ease reading long texts in any language.
For all those reasons, the big websites now all offer sound and moving images. They do so because (as we have known for more than a hundred years), sound and moving images are very effective ways to communicate.
We in the labour movement have long known about the power of moving images — maybe going back to the great early years of Soviet cinema (think “Battleship Potemkin“) and right up to the powerful films of Ken Loach today. In the real world, we all watch television, go to the cinema, buy and rent DVDs and videos. But when it comes to our websites, we in the labour movement continue working as if nothing has changed in the last ten years.
I’d like to imagine a different way of doing things. Imagine if every time we wanted to focus attention on a trade union rights issue we could do so using video. For example, LabourStart was recently asked by Russian oil workers to put pressure on a company which was union-busting in Siberia. The company had forced a trade union leader and his family out of their apartment. Wouldn’t video footage, with sound, have been worth a thousand words — or more?
The Campaign for Labor Rights is trying to build support for garment workers in Nicaragua — and shows one digital photo, but no more than that. Their website tells us about a police presence surrounding a factory — but wouldn’t it be better to show this?
I think one of the reasons why unions don’t do this is that making Internet video is seen as being costly and difficult. It is neither.
In Britain, where electronic gear is notoriously expensive, you can now get high-quality digital camcorders for less than �200. These cameras are very user-friendly, and the transfer of video from a digital camcorder to a PC for editing is usually a process of connecting a cable. (Computers these days come with high-speed FireWire ports that allow the connection of digital camcorders.)
The digital video editing software now available — in Britain, for less than �50 — is designed to be used by families making home movies of their kids. In other words, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make a video and to put it online.
Some unions have made use — and sometimes extensive use — of Internet video. The South Korean unions for a long time have documented their often-militant struggles with employers and the police, producing extraordinary footage. (Workers have been specifically trained to use digital video cameras, and they turn out in force at demonstrations.) The Canadian Auto Workers and the Machinists union in the USA both have regular video news shows on their websites. Working TV, based in Vancouver, has a decade of experience creating digital video for the trade union movement.
Until very recently, there was probably no easy to way to know all this. If you were Canadian, you might have known about Working TV, which is shown on some local cable television stations as well as online. Members of the Machinists union may have known that their union had an “IAM News” show on the website. But if you didn’t belong to those particular unions, you might never have known what was possible.
All that changed in November 2005 with the launch of LabourStart TV. LabourStart TV, located at, is basically a video version of the original LabourStart website. It’s not a television channel. It’s a portal site with links to a large number of videos produced by and for unions.
During the week of its launch, over 500,000 Australian workers poured out into the streets in the biggest demonstrations the country has ever seen. But for the first few hours, there was no video coverage on any Australian union site. However, LabourStart TV was able to locate sixteen short videos and put them all up in a single place, allowing Australians — and the world — to see a labour movement getting up on its feet.
Back in 1995, we might have known about that mass protest by reading some text on a website. Maybe there would have been a photo too. But times have changed. Broadband Internet, the availability of cheap digital camcorders and digital video editing software, and low-cost webspace has changed everything.
I’d like the international trade union movement to fast foward a decade, and to use the cheap and user-friendly technology of Internet video — right now.