Global campaigning: Beyond protest emails and solidarity messages

The following paper was presented at the “Global Companies – Global Unions – Global Research – Global Campaigns” conference organized by Cornell University in New York City.

Online campaigning is nothing new in the labour movement. In fact, we are today at the beginning of the third decade of online campaigning.
This is not some experimental technology, but a proven and mature one.
The earliest examples of online campaigns by unions were probably some rudimentary efforts made by global union federations (GUFs) – then known as international trade secretariats (ITSs) – back in the 1980s, when they were among the first trade union organizations to experiment with computer communications.
An online campaign back then was not radically different from one today. A union would collect information about an issue or dispute, send that out by email to its affiliates, and this would in turn trigger messages of protest or solidarity to be sent to an employer, or government, or directly to a union on the front line.
The difference between then and now is one of scale. By the early 1990s, there were enough trade unionists online to justify the holding of international conferences (in 1992 and 1993) to discuss the use of computer communications. But there were so few that the creation of a single, comprehensive list of email addresses of all trade unionists online was still being attempted.
There were already some success stories, even in the early days. A famous one involved trade unionists and other activists spreading the word (by email) of the jailing of some Russian comrades, passing on the phone number of the police station at which they were being held. The result of this was a large number of phone calls to bewildered local police, and the release of the prisoners.
By the mid-1990s, a full decade after the technology had become available, online campaigning began to take on its now familiar form. Unions and other campaigning organizations began to embrace web-based campaigning, with software specifically designed to allow the rapid launch of large-scale and often highly-effective online campaigns.
What were the advantages of online campaigning? Why did the new technology take off?
First we have to remember how campaigns were previously done – and particularly, how global campaigns were waged.
In an earlier era (say, 15 years ago), many unions had international secretaries or international departments which were put in charge of global solidarity issues. Those individuals or departments would receive appeals for international solidarity from the international trade secretariats, or the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), or the individual union concerned.
They could decide to ignore such appeals, or they could arrange for the union president or general secretary to send off a message. On rare occasions, they might pass on the information to others in the union, and there were even some cases where actual rank-and-file members of the union, in the workplace, would be asked to be involved. But those examples were extremely rare.
So if a trade unionist were to be jailed somewhere in the world, the best that was likely to happen would be that a few dozen trade union general secretaries in developed countries would, within a few days or weeks, send off fax messages of protest or solidarity, either directly to the offending government, or to the union which had made the appeal. And that was a best-case scenario.
One result of all of this was that international work was given a relatively low profile in nearly all unions and was marginalized. The irony was that a previously vigorous trade union internationalism had been marginalized at precisely the moment in which globalization had taken hold.
Just when unions needed to be thinking globally and acting globally, they had relegated international solidarity work to the back burner.
The first clear advantage of online campaigning was therefore that it could involve, potentially, far more people. Instead of the union president or general secretary being the only one to know about specific cases, or even generally about the broader issues of workers’ rights and solidarity, now that involvement and that consciousness could seep down through all levels of the union.
A successful campaign would no longer involve counting how many unions had sent fax messages, but instead would count how many individual members of those unions, regardless of their title or office held, had sent off email messages. Instead of aiming to get, say, a hundred unions to send one message apiece, the aim would be to get 5,000 members to be involved.
A second clear advantage of online campaigning was its immediacy. The traditional global trade union campaign was paper-based, certainly up until the 1980s. The international trade secretariats based in Geneva, Brussels and London would produce newsletters and bulletins and could send out urgent appeals by air mail. Back in the days before fax machines, it would take days or even weeks following the arrest of a trade union leader before messages of protest would reach a government.
Even the really successful organizations campaigning offline back then, such as Amnesty International, relied upon paper-based campaigns using the global postal network – meaning that there was always a huge gap in time between the cause of a campaign (an arrest, for example) and the beginning of a public outcry.
Fax machines changed that a considerable extent, and should be seen as what we now know them to have been: a transitional technology bridging the gap between paper and postal based campaigns and truly online campaigns.
The involvement of much larger numbers of individuals, and the much greater speed of reaction were huge changes, but a third one should be noted as well. Online campaigns were not only less expensive than their paper predecessors – they were in many cases absolutely free of charge. Once a union had email and later on, a website, the costs of doing an online campaign be it national or global had dropped not by half or a third, but all the way down to zero.
This was particularly important when we are considering global campaigning. Traditionally, international solidarity work was expensive. To send a couple of union representatives to an international meeting could cost thousands of dollars. To bring over a speaker from overseas was a considerable investment. Even making international phone calls, or sending faxes abroad, were not cheap.
What technology did was to suddenly, almost overnight, made international solidarity work accessible to large numbers of rank-and-file union members, at almost no cost, and with an immediacy never previously experienced.
Was there a down-side to online campaigning? Of course.
The Internet is not, and cannot be, a substitute for a face-to-face meeting, to a picket line or a mass demonstration. It had to be understood as a new tool, and no more than that, in labour’s toolbox.
Some over-enthusiastic activists saw this differently, believing that internet-based campaigns could somehow be a substitute for the real work of building strong organizations. Some campaigners counterposed online efforts to the traditional institutions like the international trade secretariats, rather than understanding the role that the ITSs had in both inventing online campaigns and later on running some of the more effective ones.
Loose and informal networks based on groups of net activists never grew into anything much larger than that; the traditional institutions of the labour movement embraced the new technology and used with it with growing effectiveness.
As unions increasingly campaigned online, the question of what is and what is not an online campaign did come up. Some unions – and I’m thinking particularly of some large unions in the United Kingdom – would label as “campaigns” what would have been called in earlier times, “editorials”. If you visited the union’s website and clicked on the link to “Campaigns” you’d be taken to a list of one page editorials on a range of subjects.
These were all important subjects, but there was never an indication of what it was the union actually expected its members to do. I used to show these “campaigns” to classes of new trade union reps (shop stewards) and would ask them to suggest how such an editorial could be made into an online campaign page. They would rattle off long lists of ideas, including form-based sending of protest messages, printer-ready posters and background material, online newsletters to give support to a campaign, and so on.
Let me be absolutely clear about what I mean by a campaign: campaigns are efforts to mobilize people to put pressure on governments or employers. They are not articles or editorials on a website.
I should add that in addition to putting pressure on targets, campaign often have the intended or unintended consequence of raising morale among those workers on the front lines. In many cases, it turns out that the really important thing about a specific campaign is not that it convinced an employer or government to change its practice, but that it raised the spirits of the men and women on the picket line or in jail. If a campaign raises the morale of striking workers enough to encourage them to outlast the employer by just one day, that could make the difference between winning and losing a strike.
Having discussed campaigns up until now in a relatively abstract sense, I want to get very concrete and focus on a number of global online campaigns that I have been involved with for nearly a decade now. These are the campaigns connected to the LabourStart website.
LabourStart began in 1996 as the website to accompany the publication of my book, The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism (Pluto Press, 1996). My idea was that the list of websites of unions published in that book was not complete, and unions would be coming online in ever-increasing numbers, and that the only way to keep the book up-to-date was to have this online presence.
But within a year, that website was doing much more. Very early on, I began selecting one union website every week and awarding it the “labour website of the week”. By the end of 1997, visitors to the site were already voting on a “labour website of the year” — a tradition which continues to this day. Sometime in 1997, the site began to include a regular flow of labour news, as I collected links to news reports on labour news from South Korea. This became a prototype for an expanded version launched in March 1998 and calling itself “LabourStart: Where trade unionists start their day on the net.”
LabourStart was designed to serve as a portal for trade unionists on the net. In its initial design, there were three columns. One listed the latest links to labour news stories. Another listed union websites and directories of these. And a third listed union campaigns online.
Already back then, in March 1998, when LabourStart was a single web page and a one-man show, a very modest effort at best, attention was being paid to the campaigning aspect of the new technology.
Within a year, LabourStart – now based in London and a project of Labour and Society International (LSI) – had moved beyond its first phase. The list of links to labour news stories was no longer being hand-coded in HTML and uploaded once a day to the website. It was now a database, and individuals with user names and passwords could log-on and add links themselves.
Thus was born in the spring of 1999 the network of LabourStart volunteer correspondents. Seven years later, that network has grown to include nearly 400 correspondents based on every continent. These correspondents are adding on average some 250 news stories every day to the LabourStart news links database.
That network of correspondents is one half of an innovative approach. The other is the Labour Newswire Global Network – a list of about 670 trade union websites which use syndicated content from the main LabourStart news links database. That syndication has ensured a very wide readership for the labour news being collected by the correspondents, and as the syndicated news feed is being updated every 15 minutes throughout the day, it means a very rapid dissemination of labour news as it happens.
From early on, LabourStart also pioneered the development of a multilingual website. Recognizing that there are an estimated 6,000 languages currently in use in the world, LabourStart from early on had versions in Dutch and Norwegian. But rather than these being translations, they were autonomous editions, with their own editors and their own news. These became hugely popular in the Netherlands and Norway, with their syndicated content appearing on a very large number of union websites in both countries.
By early 2006, editions of LabourStart also existed in Indonesian, Danish, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Creole, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, Turkish and even one in the international auxiliary language, Esperanto. Editions in Farsi, Chinese, Arabic and Greek are currently under construction.
Back in 1998, even before the move to London, LabourStart had a mailing list which initially pulled together some 500 email addresses of trade union activists who were using the net.
The growth of that mailing list, and its relationship to the online campaigns, is central to this story.
From the very beginning, LabourStart gave publicity on its front page to union campaigns online. But increasingly, unions would ask for help getting a campaign up and running. Most unions did not have – and still do not have, even today – the technical capacity to develop software tools for online campaigning.
In the summer of 2002, LabourStart launched its own system to allow the rapid creation of online campaigns. To test-drive the system, we asked the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions if there was a current campaign they would like our assistance on. We were given the case of some sugar union leaders in Congo who had been arrested.
At the time, the LabourStart mailing list consisted of some 3,000 names and addresses of trade unionists. We were not sure what percentage of them would respond to a campaign, and imagine our surprise when instead of getting 300 responses (which would have been impressive enough), our campaign actually generated over 3,000 messages. It was a response rate in excess of 100%. How was this possible?
It became clear from the very beginning that a mailing sent out to the 3,000 email addresses of union activists on LabourStart’s list would reach a multiple of that number. People were sending on the messages to additional mailing lists – to other activists concerned with human rights, to members of their union local, and so on.
In the spring of 2003, I witnessed this myself. Invited by the Canadian Association of Labour Media (CALM) to do a live demonstration in a Toronto hotel to a group of communications people from a wide range of unions, we launched an online campaign using LabourStart’s system, including a mailing to our list. The following morning, I was shown by a trade union friend the half dozen versions of my email message he had received from the various lists he subscribed to.
In military terms, this is known as a “force multiplier”. Based on the experience of the 2002 Congo campaign, that multiplier may be ten or more. Mailings sent to 3,000 activists might be reaching 30,000 – or even more.
This meant that expanding the size of LabourStart’s mailing list became vital for the success of all future campaigns. The online campaigning system was set up to allow people who were sending off a message to join LabourStart’s mailing list. The default was to check the box subscribing them to the list. One could easily uncheck the box, and of course every message sent to the list gave a link to unsubscribe. But as a campaigning group, we felt it was right to make the process of joining the mailing list as effortless as possible.
As a result, the mailing list grew and grew from year to year. By early 2006, it had grown to more than 33,000 addresses – a ten-fold increase in less than four years. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before the list has 100,000 addresses, and later, a million.
The growth of the mailing list ensured that campaigns would not only attract more and more support, but that the speed at which people signed up to campaigns would increase. This is something I’m calling the “velocity” of a campaign. Back in 2003, when we launched a campaign to put pressure on the right-wing government of the Canadian province of British Columbia, we were able to grow from 0 to 1,000 messages in about 40 hours – a rate of 25 per hour. At the time, we considered this pretty impressive.
But little more than two years later, in the August 2005 campaign launched in support of striking catering workers at London’s Heathrow Airport, we were able to deliver the first 1,000 messages of protest to the employer in four hours. The velocity of the campaign had accelerated ten-fold in two years; we were now delivering 250 messages per hour.
It is not just the numbers that change, but the whole impact of a campaign. With the ability to deliver a thousand messages four hours after a campaign’s launch, we were now beginning to move into the realm of real-time responses to the violations of workers rights. This was international solidarity at the speed of light.
The growing mailing list was by far the most effective means of promoting a campaign – but it was not the only one. Two other methods were pioneered by LabourStart from the beginning.
The first was the use of Google’s keyword-based advertising, which we began using in March 2002 – even before launching our campaigning software. Since then, LabourStart has shown over 26,500,000 advertisements on Google – at a cost of around $11,000. This is a laughably small amount of money to reach tens of millions of people, nearly a quarter of a million of whom have clicked on the links in the ads and visited LabourStart’s site.
Back in 2003, when we launched the British Columbia campaign, we asked the Canadian trade unionists which Google keywords we should target. They came up with “Winter Olympics”, as the province was at that time bidding to host the games. We felt it would be pretty embarrassing to the provincial government if every time someone searched Google for the phrase “Winter Olympics” they would see on top of the page, to the right of the regular search results, a small ad reading “Olympic bidder guilty: British Columbia violates workers’
rights says UN body – find out more”.
The most successful online ad we ever ran was not actually in support of a specific campaign. Back in 2002 when New York City’s transit workers threatened a strike, and again in 2005 when they walked out for 3 days, we ran a Google campaign in which our ad read “NYC transit strike: Which side are you on? We support the TWU and the right to strike”. The ad was shown over 100,000 times, and some 3.5% of those who saw it, clicked through to learn more. The cost was a paltry $159.32.
The second innovative way we spread the news of online campaigns was through syndication. Just as trade union websites could run the last five labour news links from our database, we also created a tool to allow them to run links to our last five online campaigns. A large number of unions adopted this newswire, and as a result, when LabourStart launches a new online campaign, within 15 minutes, a link to it appears on the front page of union websites around the world.
Another way we have drawn attention to LabourStart’s campaigns is by integrating the campaigns and the news – thereby blurring the distinction between reading about a violation of workers’ rights and doing something about it. When we run a news story that is related to an ongoing campaign, there will be a link next to the title of the story which reads “Act NOW”. By clicking on that link, you are drawn to the specific campaign page. The same integration means that on the campaign page, in addition to the static content (the text about the campaign itself) there is also a dynamic display of the latest news relating to the campaign.
For example, today (early January 2006) LabourStart is supporting the workers at the Bauen hotel workers’ cooperative in Buenos Aires with a new campaign. The top news story on our front page reads “Bauen hotel co-op meets Buenos Aires officials”. Next to this there is an “Act NOW” link. Clicking on this takes you to a page which is headlined “Argentina: Solidarity with Bauen hotel workers”. And in the upper right corner of that page, it reads “Latest news about this campaign” and there’s a list of six links. The first one is the news story which initially brought you to the page (“Bauen hotel co-op meets Buenos Aires officials”) but there are five others as well.
All LabourStart campaigns originate with, and are authorized by, trade unions. We are often approached by individuals or groups, but insist on the approval of the union in order to undertake a campaign. It is not only the approval of the union we are seeking, but also its active involvement. Unions use LabourStart’s campaigning system to mobilize their own members – many of whom then wind up on LabourStart’s mailing list, and get involved in other campaigns affecting other unions, in other countries.
A union member might sign up to a particular campaign because it’s their union, or their company or country, but find that they’ve gotten onto a mailing list about other, similar campaigns affecting countries they may know very little about. But they get involved in those campaigns too. As a result, over time an online community is created of trade unionists who sign up for campaign after campaign, giving their support to workers anywhere who ask for it.
There is absolutely no point in doing any of this if these campaigns do not succeed, at least occassionally. From the summer of 2002 through the beginning of 2006, LabourStart has launched some 65 campaigns. Some of them – a significant minority – have been resounding successes.
In November 2003, we were able to report a big victory following the launch of a LabourStart campaign. Our campaign was part of a much broader international effort, spearheaded by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) in support of the demand that British American Tobacco end its involvement with the Burmese dictatorship.
In March 2004, we reported that our campaign in support of six imprisoned construction union leaders in South Korea had contributed to their release from jail. (One of the officials, who had lost both legs and an arm in an industrial accident, was denied bail — ostensibly because of the authorities’ fear that he would “flee prosecution.”)
Two months later, LabourStart campaigned in support of striking oil workers in Colombia who were battling against privatization. Some 1,400 messages were sent, and within five days the strike was over, the union having won.
Later that month, an appeal made by the IUF – and publicized by LabourStart – contributed to another big victory in Colombia, this time for striking banana workers. As we noted at the time, “This is especially important as Colombia is the most dangerous place on earth to be a trade unionist. More trade unionists are killed every year in Colombia than anywhere else.”
In July 2004 LabourStart appealed to its readers to come to the defense of Andrew Bolesworth, a delegate (shop steward) for the Service and
Food Workers Union (SFWU) in New Zealand. Bolesworth had been sacked by his employer – a casino in Dunedin — for his union activity. Some 1,200 messages were sent and in only a few days, Bolesworth had his job back. The union wrote, “Thank you to everyone who sent emails, wrote letters of support, signed the petitions, turned up at the pickets — the members at Dunedin are really energised about unionism after a brief introduction and a big win.”
In September 2004 we announced that following the sending of some 3,000 messages through an online campaign, workers at the Raffles Hotel chain in Cambodia had won a big victory. This campaign – again, spearheaded by the IUF – was further evidence of the particular vulnerability of certain sectors, such as hotels, to online campaigning.
In February 2005, a huge online campaign in support of Telkom workers in South Africa came to an end as the local union announced victory. According to the union, “Our campaign against the planned Telkom retrenchments was one of the largest labour campaigns ever organised in South Africa. The campaign even caused an international stir and more than 3,000 people in 42 countries wrote to Telkom to express their dismay at the planned retrenchments.”
In July 2005, LabourStart reported on a victory by hotel workers in Quetta, Pakistan. According to the IUF, “over 750 people from around the world responded … Coupled with your messages of concern to the management and owners of the Quetta Serena Hotel, the local union was able to campaign effectively and successfully in reinstating their union president, Brother Haji Gul Hassan, and two other union activists. The union asked the IUF to convey their heartfelt thanks to all those who sent messages of support. The union also stated that the email messages made a visible difference to the campaign, with the management and owners clearly affected by the international response.”
In November 2005, a bitter strike at Canada’s largest meat-packing plant (Tysons, in Alberta) ended following a big online campaign launched by the IUF and publicized on LabourStart. After 22 days on the picket line, the company met union demands and the strike ended.
And finally, at the end of 2005, we were able to report victories in three disputes all of which involved online campaigns and LabourStart.
In Haiti, we reported an end to the long-running, bitter dispute in the Codevi Free Trade Zone, which had been the focus of not one, but several online campaigns. The union (Batay Ouvriye) announced that a final agreement was signed between management and the union ending the dispute. The base salary more than doubled, and salaries will rise by an agreed 45% over three years. Union recognition was agreed, work conditions were improved, health and safety, maternity leave and sexual harassment issues resolved.
In the Philippines, the year-old strike at Hacienda Luisita — scene of a massacre of strikers earlier in 2005 and a very big online campaign — ended. According to one of the two unions on strike (ULWU), the dispute was ended based on its seven-point proposal, including the payment of wages and benefits due to all workers, permanent or casual, the rehiring of 52 sacked workers, and retirement packages for 15 terminated permanent workers.
And in Canada, following a 51-day strike (and an online campaign launched by LabourStart) cleaning employees employed at British Columbia hospitals forced their employer, Sodexho, to sign a first contract with their union, the HEU. The deal included a 25% pay hike for the workers.
That’s a dozen victories over a two year period. In many of the cases, the union involved was explicit about the key role played by the global online campaign. That campaign was often initiated by a global union federation, and publicized by it and also by LabourStart. In some cases, it was a LabourStart campaign done at the behest of a union with minimal involvement from a global union federation.
It’s good to read about victories, but we also need to talk about defeats. Sometimes our campaigns are abysmal failures – and sometimes we know they are going to be failures even before we launch them. And then we do them anyway. Why?
Several years ago, LabourStart was asked by the IUF to provide assistance on an international campaign to put pressure on the dicator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who was crushing the last remaining free and independent trade unions in his country.
We had only two weeks in which to conduct the campaign, as Lukashenko was about to wrest control over a major union, replacing its leaders with his own stooges.
The campaign was not a success. Very few people sent off messages (a few hundred) and of course the dictator in Minsk was not moved. The union was crushed.
And this did not come as a big surprise. After all, very few trade unionists knew very much about Belarus, making it hard to mobilize large numbers around this issue.
Nevertheless, the campaign was worth doing for one simple reason: it had enormous educational value. For most of those hearing about it, it was the first time they had come across the existence of Europe’s last dicatorship. Next time, it will be easier to mobilize more people as a result.
I have focussed attention entirely on LabourStart’s experience with global online campaigning because that is what I know best, but it is hardly the only experience worth talking about.
One of the most important and effective online campaigning systems is the one used by a number of American trade unions – Get Active.
This is a system which offers everything LabourStart’s campaigning software does, plus much more. The basic principle is the same: you go to the web page of one of the Get Active campaigns, and by filling in an online form, you send off a message of protest or solidarity.
Some of the additional features found on Get Active campaigns include:
the ability to send messages not just to a single address or set of addresses, but specifically to one’s own Congressman or Senator
in addition to being asked for your name, email address and union name, Get Active also requires your postal address and asks for your phone number.
The Get Active system features a much more powerful back-end, allowing unions to target supporters of particular campaigns, as well as geographic filtering.
Following the split in the AFL-CIO in the summer of 2005, Get Active continued to be used by both unions which remained in the federation and those which went on to form the new Change to Win federation.
The IUF has been using an online campaigning system closely modelled on LabourStart’s, and by the beginning of 2006 had set up over 100 campaigns using this system. One distinguishing feature of the IUF’s campaigns is that they, like the website, are available in a large number of languages.
LabourStart is not the only labour support group which does online campaigns and certainly was not the first. A real pioneer of this activity has been the Washington-based Campaign for Labor Rights (CLR).
CLR’s website doesn’t feature a single campaign system as one would find on LabourStart, the IUF or any union website using GetActive. Its approach seems more improvised, with some campaigns consisting of texts, others being PDF files, and so on.
But one feature the CLR campaigns share with all the others is a reliance on a large email address database to make sure that participation in the campaigns is maximized.
For every example of successful online campaigning systems there are many more of unions which don’t seem to fully understand the meaning of the term “campaign”, especially when applied to the Internet.
One example of this could long be found on the website of the second largest union in Britain, Amicus. The Amicus website, launched when the union was created by the merger of AEEU and MSF, featured links to four “campaigns”. But when you’d visit the individual campaign pages, all you’d find was a short article describing the union’s view on the issue.
Though the site has improved somewhat, even today you can see examples of these editorials posing as campaigns on the Amicus website. For example, the “Stop the pensions panic” online campaign consists entirely of a single web page with links to two articles, one of which is a policy statement by the union’s general secretary.
There is nothing else – not a form to send in email messages of protest or solidarity, nor a forum to discuss the issues raised, nor links to get more information, nor information about events and actions.
Other unions have done equally poor versions on online campaigns even when they have gone somewhat beyond the Amicus model. One example was an American union which was asking visitors to its website to send off messages of protest to the CEO of Heinz – and giving visitors a sample text and the postal address of the company. Presumably, one was expected to copy and paste the text into your word processor, print it off, and send it in an envelope.
I once showed that “campaign” to a classrooom filled with British trade union reps and asked them to take a minute and try to find an email address for the CEO of Heinz. This proved to be remarkably easy (Google was designed for this sort of thing) and made all of us wonder what the US union was thinking and why they weren’t just asking us to send emails.
I’ve given several examples of unions and labour support groups using the net for campaigning, but I would be amiss if I neglected entirely the experience of other NGOs, particularly human rights groups, with online campaigning.
Organizations like Amnesty International practically invented modern campaigning, and it, together with Oxfam, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others have mastered the art of online campaigning.
A year ago, a number of those groups met in Oxford to review their experience with online campaigns. It was a fascinating day as different models and experiences were discussed, and a highlight was a session with a representative “from the other side” — a public relations officer from Nestle, the global food giant which has been the target of several successful campaigns.
Unfortunately, despite having been invited, not a single union participated in the event.
If I’ve painted a picture of online campaigns as being potent tools for unions, and have tried to highlight some success stories, I think it’s important to close on a cautionary note.
This is a great time to be doing online campaigning. But it is not going to last. There is a window of opportunity here, but it is about to be shut.
There are problems at both ends of online campaigns, involving both the participants and the targets.
Let’s start with the participants. There was a time, several years ago, when one would be delighted to receive email. You hardly ever got email messages, and each new one would be a pleasant surprise. That era is long gone; we now all get far too much email than we can handle, and those of us who are online activists are frequently overwhelmed by our messages.
Appeals for help will increasingly fall on deaf ears, precisely among those people who have in the past been the most involved.
And even if one wants to continue to be involved, and to send off ten messages a day to ten different campaigns, increasingly email campaigners are finding it harder to break through anti-spam barriers and filters.
Simply put, spam is killing off the traditional email campaign. If you send a message off to your list with a phrase like “Urgent!” in the subject line, it is likely to be reported as spam and blocked. Some powerful anti-spam filters may even decide that your email server is sending out spam all the time, and will add it to a blacklist so that nothing you send will be received.
If you include unsubscribe information in your email messages (as you should) that may trigger some anti-spam programs to mark your messages as junk mail as well.
Participants in campaigns are showing signs of “campaign fatigue” while at the same time, spam is making it harder and harder for campaigning organizations to reach their audiences by email.
At the other end of the equation, targets of email campaigns are becoming less and less vulnerable.
Back in 2002, LabourStart was asked by an Australian union (the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, LHMU) representing hotel workers in Sydney to send off messages to the general manager of the Sydney Hilton. At the end of the first day of campaigning, with a few hundred messages sent off, that manager contacted the union and offered to open negotiations – if the online campaign would be called off.
All it took was a few hundred messages to bring pressure. Today, with anti-spam filters and email campaigns becoming increasingly common, the ante has been upped. Where once a thousand messages would have sufficed, today it takes ten thousand messages to have the same impact.
I find it helpful to sometimes think of different kinds of campaigns as different currencies – with different rates of exchange.
An email campaign would have the least value per message sent because it is so easy for people to participate (and to participate many times, sometimes with false addresses).
Sending off faxes is more expensive and complicated, so one might calculate that a fax is worth two or five or ten email messages.
Letters sent off by post involve an even greater commitment of time and effort, so these might be worth ten or twenty emails each. And going to a demonstration or picket line would be an even greater commitment – worth, say, a hundred or a thousand email messages.
Obviously, the very best campaigns will involve all these tools together – using email, faxes, phone calls, letters, picket lines, marches, demonstrations, and so on. One is not a substitute for the other.
And if one keeps the “exchange rates” in mind, one can calculate the value of each part of a campaign. For example, a campaign that generated 10,000 emails but only five phone calls, was successful in its online component. But one which generated 10,000 emails and also managed to mobilize 10,000 people to come to a demonstration was clearly ineffective in its online component – there should have been a far greater number of emails than marchers.
Companies are becoming more and more aware of the value of email messages and the ease with which email campaigns are organized. It takes much more effort than before to get a company’s attention, and it will take far more than the traditional email campaigns of today to change the behavior of companies in the future.
If the traditional email campaign is declining in effectiveness – even if there are still many cases of it still being successful – what can replace it?
Here we have to return to some of the early, pre-Internet days of the labour movement to look for inspiration.
After all, unions in the past did not limit themselves to simple corporate campaigns, asking supporters to send off postcards. We had – and have – a vast toolbox of campaigning practices and techniques.
One good example of this is solidarity fundraising. Often the key to winning a dispute is keeping the workers on the picket line, hanging on just one day longer than the boss in order to win.
I saw an example of this in 2002 when I visited striking workers at the Azteca tortilla company in Chicago. These workers had joined up with a union which while well-intentioned was not well-funded, and they did not have a proper strike fund at their disposal. They were facing the hardships of a Chicago winter on the picket line with dwindling resources and declining morale.
At the request of the union, we organized a global online campaign through LabourStart, and while we delivered several thousand messages to the employer, this had no effect. We asked the union how else we could help, and we came up with the idea of raising money online for the strikers using a secure payment system (PayPal).
We didn’t raise as much as we’d hoped, to be honest. But when the union organizer showed up on the picket line one freezing day and began handing out the money, telling the workers that these were donations from workers around the world, workers who may never have heard of Azteca tortillas, this simple gesture of solidarity raised morale. The workers stayed on the picket line for several more months, eventually reaching a compromise with their boss and returning to work.
Three years later, a similar effort mounted by LabourStart in support of striking Gate Gourmet catering workers at London’s Heathrow Airport produced a far larger amount of money which was transferred to the union’s special “hardship fund” set up for the strikers. In this case, the union was well-organized enough to have a fund, but did not yet have the experience of using secure online payment facilities like PayPal. In the end, the website of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) pointed visitors to LabourStart if they wished to make a donation online.
Our experience so far with fundraising online has not been a complete success. A small minority of those who are prepared to send off a solidarity message are also willing to make a donation, even a small one. But this is slowly changing, and the experience of several Democratic party presidential contenders in 2004 – in particular, Howard Dean – reveals how effective online fundraising can be in mobilizing large numbers of people.
Unions will have to build upon the experience of efforts like the ones we made for Azteca Tortilla and Gate Gourmet strikers, aiming to achieve the kind of success that Dean and Kerry had in raising large amounts of money online.
Another possible use of the net for campaigning, taking online campaigning beyond the simple message of protest and solidarity, is to conduct web and email based boycott and buy union campaigns.
For decades unions have used the twin tools of boycotts and buy union campaigns to punish some employers and reward others, and to build the strength of the labour movement. The net allows us to take this much further.
Unions have had lists of products and companies which we should buy or not buy on their websites for some time, though these are often buried deep in the sites. There are some easy ways to raise the prominence of these lists, such as using Google ads. For example, American unions are boycotting Diamond Walnuts – but when you search Google, while you see the company’s website listed first, you don’t see a union ad in the upper right corner or top of the search results – but you could, at minimal cost.
Imagine if every search on Google for every company being boycotted by unions resulted in a small ad being shown with a link to a union web page with more information about the company and why we shouldn’t buy from it.
But we can take this one step further. Imagine if every time you visited the website of a company that unions were boycotting you were greeted by a thin red strip across the top of the page that warned you with a text like:
“Stop! This company is on the AFL-CIO boycott list. For more information, click here.”
Of course there’s no way to convince companies to put such text onto their web pages, but there is now a way to do this through one’s own web browser.
The second most popular web browser in the world is Mozilla Firefox, which has had some 100,000,000 downloads and is believed to have about 10% of the market (the rest is mostly Microsoft’s Internet Explorer).
Firefox has many features which allow it to be “extended” and one of the most popular of these, which can be added on with a single click, is called Greasemonkey. Greasemonkey allows users to install special scripts on their computers which modify the appearance of certain web pages. Unions can use these scripts to place “health warnings” on websites of companies which routinely violate workers rights.
Imagine if every time a company like Wal-Mart were to run a commercial on television, a subtitle would appear telling you the truth about the company. That is what a Firefox/Greasemonkey script could do to these kinds of companies.
And the same strategy could apply to unionized companies as well. If we want trade unionists and others to buy their books online from the unionized rather than, we could use tools like Firefox/Greasemonkey and Google ads to make clear which were the companies we should buy from.
Finally, we could use online campaigning to strengthen the more traditional forms of offline protest which have lost none of their potency, such as picket lines, marches and rallies.
Of course we have been doing this all along, mentioning such events in our emails and websites, but there are more sophisticated tools for doing this as well.
One of the more successful uses of the net by the Dean (and Kerry) campaigns in 2004 was the use of Meetup, an online tool that allowed supporters of these candidates to meet up in the real world.
Meetup has over two million registered users and has allowed many grassroots movements to rapidly get off the ground as people found co-thinkers in their own local communities.
Unions could use existing communities like Meetup or they could create their own. In either event, the purpose would be to get computer users up and out of their chairs, out of their homes, and into the real world where union members and supporters can use more traditional campaigning tactics.
None of this means that the traditional email protest campaign described earlier is ready for the dustbin of history. As my review of the last two years of LabourStart’s campaigns shows – with its twelve major victories for workers – these campaigns are often still quite potent and we have barely tapped their potential.
Nevertheless, as campaign fatigue sets in among participants, and as targets become harder to reach due to spam and anti-spam measures, unions will need to be imaginative in finding new tactics which maximize the new technology.
Their inspiration should come from tried-and-true tactics like solidarity fundraising, boycotts and traditional real-world mobilizations – all amplified through the strategic use of the new communications technologies.
* * *

A guide to websites and tools mentioned in this article

Amnesty International –
Campaign for Labour Rights –
eCampaigning forum –
Firefox –
Get Active –
Google Ads –

Greasemonkey –
LabourStart –
Meetup –
Oxfam –

10 Comments on "Global campaigning: Beyond protest emails and solidarity messages"

  1. Lindsay Amundsen | 16/02/2006 at 20:49 |

    I think this is a great way for people to be aware of labour issues and take action in a quick and convenient way.
    Thank you!

  2. i believe that email is a marvellous tool to use. It galvanises everyone from different unions into action.

  3. Louise Robinson | 16/02/2006 at 22:02 |

    On 14th October, 05 the International Trade Federation supported a motion from a TGWU delegate to launch a fax & email storm on Folkestone Harbour to open toilet facilities for female lorry drivers as part of our ‘Free to Pee’ camapign. Trade Unionists from all over the world participated and on Mon 13th February, 06 those facilities were opened. We now have the official email address of

  4. Trevor Bartlett | 16/02/2006 at 23:43 |

    While we are a trying to organise a global system of protest, my belief is we are still a long way from achieving our goals. The figures quoted where 1400 -1600 or so protests were sent via the Internet and other mass media is to say the least, a poor response. When I see several hundred thousand people protesting and are active, then I say we have actually got a global protest force in use. The only thing that worries me, is that filters nowadays can stop our activities cold. Doesn’t take much to get put on a spam filter site and for those messages to not even be read or reach their intended targets. Then we will be forced to use other means where we will able to get our messages through, eg fax. Emails are too easily defeated.
    I am all for mass protesting in the most efficient manner possible, but we need more active protesters, especally via this medium.
    Trevor Bartlett

  5. Ian Bell | 17/02/2006 at 06:24 |

    We , meaning I , common person has no influence on elected politicians, or the state… We must unite and become an organisation, to have our thoughs heard.
    These email protests enforce our views.I agree strongly with email and on-line protests.

  6. J. Rogiest | 17/02/2006 at 12:31 |

    We need to mobilise ourselves! An this medium seems to be very appropriate. It’s direct and in order to become active it only takes a minute and a couple of clicks. Unfortunatly we are all very busy producing and consuming, giving little time for truly important issues sush as politics, labour and civil rights and so on. Grassroot methods are the way forward until we have changed the existing power structure which are ruled by the private industry and its institutions. At this current moment the industry is not ‘proactively’ making this a reality and therefor the reaction which, when not taken seriously, will turn into a revolution. The flow needs to come from bottom and move upward in every way possible. Its our planet and our future. I don’t want my children to be cornered like a cat and start scratching.

  7. Eric,
    As always, well said and correct. I have stolen your words, with attribution of course, and passed them along to my fellow Green Party activists.
    Like organized (and unorganized) workers, the Greens need to use the tools available to take control of society so that the people who create wealth get to enjoy the benefits of creating it.
    As always, thanks, and keep up the great work.

  8. What a fantastic analysis of electronic campaigning. I couln’t help thinking that it is high time for the borders between unions and other social justice organisations to ‘blur’.
    Your comment on the failure of unions to attend the social justice orgs’ conference indicates the work which will need to be done to achieve change, but imagine the potential!!
    Perhaps software such as meetup could bring organisations together for campaigns of common concern.
    Unions, Social justice and environment Orgs. could co-operate on issues where there is a common enemy.
    Thanks, Eric

  9. I sometimes wonder about the success of email campaigns and then Laborstart will post a success story and I will then be more optimistic about the small contribution I make. In the first instance I believe we need to continue this activity. In the second instance we have to continue to review our effectiveness and lastly if we no longer can make a difference this way we will find another way. We will continue to speak out against injustice and in support of working people acting collectively.

  10. Ronnie | 26/02/2006 at 11:22 |

    Hello Eric , I find the way most of my spam arrives is because my emails details are harvested ! I have yet to find a small easily used program , that would enable me to send mail , without my address showing up in details. As a non computer “expert” , the only programs I seen , depend on a level of expertise , I don;t possess Any suggestions ?Cheer ronnie

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