For more than a decade now, trade unions and others have used email as a powerful tool for online campaigning. Despite some notable successes, it is now becoming clearer by the day that this tool is becoming less and less effective.
For that reason it is essential that we begin thinking of what to do when email no longer works — in other words, to come up with our own “plan B”.
But first of all, we must not forget just how successful email has been for us. It works in two ways. Email has allowed us to reach much larger numbers of people much faster and at a much lower cost than any other means of communication, ever. When a trade unionist is killed in Colombia or jailed in China, the news reaches the inboxes of thousands and later tens of thousands, often within hours. But that’s only half of the equation.
Email has also allowed us to deluge corporate headquarters and government offices with thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of messages from around the world.
Thus email has proven to be powerful in two different ways, both in terms of getting the message out (to working people) and getting the message in (to governments and corporations).
But there are threats on both sides of this equation.
The rise of spam (unsolicited commercial email), the threat of computer viruses which are delivered by email, and general information overload are making people ignore their emails, unsubscribe from mailing lists, skim rather than read, and feel increasingly overwhelmed with requests to respond to an ever-growing number of “urgent action appeals”. Studies now show a certain decline in the use of email in the advanced industrial countries and a reluctance on the part of many to sign up to broadband internet, in part because of people’s fears of spam, viruses, and other threats.
Furthermore, corporations and governments which once might have been impressed with receiving a few hundred email messages are now no longer so impressed. They can easily install filters and firewalls to reduce the annoyance factor of a flood of emails. Of course this does not apply in every case, and there are still plenty of companies who would be shocked to get a thousand protest messages, but the trend is clear.
While it lasted, email campaigning was able to produce some real, concrete results. In 2002, the Sydney Hilton hotel in Australia was overwhelmed with some 3,000 email messages from around the globe, which convinced it to reverse its decisions and make certain commitments to its workers, through their union. Jobs were saved, and a union strengthened. Email was certainly effective there. A couple of years ago, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions credited an email campaign with getting several of its leaders released from jail after only 48 hours. And last year email played a key role in victories at Ashland in Norway and Samsonite in Thailand. Workers have gotten their jobs back, their unions recognized, and their leaders released from jail — all thanks to email campaigns.
But as these campaigns grow less effective, we have to try to imagine what might come in their place.
Some activists have focussed on “hacktivism” — using the net to bring down corporate servers, shut down networks, and in general, harass employers and governments who do not recognize workers rights. I think such an approach is a bad one. Of course there might be some progressive hackers out there who would be willing to help bring down the web server or email system of some particularly nasty multinational corporation. But that corporation has the resources to hire an even larger number of hackers who could target our own, undefended, web and email servers. In the end, the trade unions and progressive organizations would suffer far more.
Another possible way we can use the net to support workers rights and workers struggles is to raise money through it. Anti-sweatshop campaigners in the UK have used their website to raise money for independent trade unions in Mexico and Indonesia, including an ambitious effort to match a prize offered by Reebok and spurned by the union.
When the Azteca Tortilla workers were on strike last winter, LabourStart and the union were able to raise some money to help the strikers buy Christmas presents for their kids. Imagine the impact on the strikers’ morale when the union rep came up to the picket line on a freezing cold Chicago morning and gave the workers money which had been donated by fellow workers from around the world. It wasn’t much money, but it came from people who had never been to Chicago, maybe had never heard of Azteca Tortillas, but were doing this out of a sense of solidarity. That’s what being in a trade union means — and I think the impact of such fundraising can be enormous.
But there is one area where we could apply pressure which has been largely untested by the international trade union movement. Before I tell you what it is, let’s think about what kind of pressure employers understand. It would not be an oversimplification to say that all employers care about profits and anything which threatens their profits will get attention. A business like the Sydney Hilton may not have cared whether or not people in Britain or Canada thought they were being fair to their workers — but they did begin to pay attention when people began adding messages to the standard emails saying that they would not be using a Hilton hotel again, or that their union would not be using the Hilton for conferences. That’s something that every company understands.
Consumer boycotts are notoriously difficult to launch and to keep going. So are the opposite tactics — the anemic ‘buy union’ efforts that have done little to sustain industries like the garment businesses which once proudly bore union labels.
When one walks into a store to buy clothing or food, it’s not often easy to tell if one is supporting or hurting the workers who produce the products. But when buying online, we could harness the new technology in creating, envelope-pushing ways to make it easy to support workers who need our support — and to punish companies which deny basic human rights to their workers.
Imagine, for a moment, that when you visited the website of, say, Ryanair, the incredibly popular, cheap airline that also happens to be viciously anti-union. I happen to know this about Ryanair, and have even been told by trade unions in some cases not to fly it if I’d like to be reimbursed for my ticket. But not everyone knows this. Sure, we could have a website telling everyone about how bad Ryanair is. But then, they’d have to find our website. Meanwhile, millions of people have found the Ryanair site and buy tickets there every day.
Now imagine that someone in our movement had written an add-on, a plug-in, an addition to our web browsers (Internet Explorer, Opera or Mozilla) that looked at the domain name of every page we visited and behind the scenes, in a split second, would check this against a database of companies. Imagine that it would discover that “ryanair.com” was listed as a company which we would want to avoid. It could then automatically pop up a new window, or a line of text at the bottom or top of your screen, maybe even with a warning sound, saying something like “Ryanair does not recognize trade unions and violates workers rights — please use a different company. Click here for more information.”
To ensure that such a database was not abused, it could be under the control of an internationally-recognized consortium of trade unions, including the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the various global union federations (GUFs). They would be responsible for maintaining the database of domain names of companies which needed to be pressured. The database should, of course, be open, public and transparent.
Activists would make efforts to ensure that every staffer and every rep and every activist in every union installed this plug-in, this additional
bit of software. (It would be nice if we could get Microsoft to do this for us, but it isn’t likely that they would.)
Even if only a few thousand web browsers were fitted out with such an “early-warning system”, if those were strategically placed (for example, among trade unionists in the UK who frequently flew around Europe), there could be an immediate impact on the sales of companies which do not recognize unions. A decline of sales of one percent would be noted in a fiercely-competitive business like airlines or hotels, particularly where there is a choice for the consumer between companies which treat their workers fairly and those which don’t.
Obviously the software would not prevent a person from buying a Ryanair ticket or ordering their tortillas from Azteca — but it would serve as a kind of health warning, like the labels on cigarette packets.
The creation of such a bit of software, its diffusion to thousands of activists’ computers, the publicity surrounding its launch (including, with any luck, some public corporate fury at being included in any blacklist), would itself be good.
As we look for alternatives to the traditional email campaigns of the last ten years, I think this kind of approach would make a good candidate for Plan B.