Bruce Robinson reviews Campaigning Online and Winning: How Labour Start’s ActNOW campaigns are making unions stronger by Eric Lee and Edd Mustill.
Working-class solidarity follows capitalist globalisation to respond to attacks on workers’ rights wherever and whenever they occur.
“The international nature of the global economy is often seen as being bad for workers and of course it often is. But it is also potentially a source of great strength for us. When we enter into a struggle we have allies all over the world”, Lee and Mustill comment. As electronic communication has become accessible from the 1990s onwards, trade unionists and their supporters have developed their own tools that make use of the same networks that enable 21st century global capitalism.
LabourStart began as a website providing labour information but has also experimented with the use of more activist technologies. One that has been long lasting and successful — now 15 years old — is ActNOW campaigning, sending email letters in support of trade unionists under attack to pressurise employers and governments. LabourStart has built up a list of over 100,000 people who have taken part and are regularly requested to join new campaigns.
This little book provides examples under six headings — fighting victimisation, from the London Tube to a hotel in Pakistan; fighting to free prisoners such as Kamal Abbas in Egypt and Mansour Osanloo in Iran; supporting strikes of 100,000 public sector workers in Botswana or 60 clothing workers in a small town in Norway; opposing union busting by Fiat, Suzuki and the Canadian government; breaking lockouts in Turkey, New Zealand and the US; and taking on the multinationals such as G4S in Indonesia and BAT in Burma. They range across the world from the UK, US and Europe to Swaziland, El Salvador, Bahrain, Ecuador and the Philippines, with targets ranging from governments and corporations down to a small sub-contractor at the end of a global supply chain.
An influx of emails can serve not only to bring pressure on their targets — particularly those dependent on a good reputation with their customers — but also to bolster workers’ resolve by showing that they are not alone and to make governments and employers realise that their actions are being watched around the world. The campaigns can also lead to street activism such as demonstrations outside the Eritrean and Egyptian embassies in London demanding the release of imprisoned trade unionists.
Not all supporters take part in every campaign. The largest — such as against Fremantle, who tried to get LabourStart closed down, or the Canadian government’s attempt to derecognise the postal workers’ union – have attracted 12,000 and 14,000 names respectively. But massive numbers are not always necessary for success. Only 750 messages had an impact on a victimisation dispute in a hotel in Pakistan.
Obviously not all campaigns are successful and the only real way to assess their contribution to the outcome of a dispute is through the testimony of those involved whether workers or employers.
Their positive impact can be either individual or collective. Said El Hairech, an imprisoned Moroccan seafarers leader wrote after 5,600 supporters emailed successfully demanding his release: “When I was in jail I knew the whole world was behind me.
“I thought, they cannot resist such a campaign”, while a successful action against victimisation in New Zealand gave a general boost to union organisation: “the members... are really energised about unionism after a brief introduction and a big win.”
Lee and Mustill emphasise that online campaigning can only be one tool in a dispute and that “it’s only the partnerships with unions and the work done offline, on the ground that makes victories possible.” They emphasise that participation is not a form of “clicktivism” — self-sufficient online activism: “We do not consider ourselves to be ‘online activists’... We are first and foremost trade unionists... Our campaigns, all of them, are designed... to strengthen that movement” and its ability to win offline.
The ActNOW model is based around a centralised control of the campaigns, which ensures that subscribers receive a limited amount of email about genuine disputes. But it is also problematic in two respects. It does not allow for participants to make direct links with the workers involved in disputes as more interactive forms of online involvement through social media do — though this has proved possible by other means. LabourStart has tried to rectify this through the launch of a “safe” alternative to Facebook, Unionbook, but only a very small proportion of its email subscribers have become involved.
More controversially, it allows LabourStart to filter which campaigns get taken up and to impose a rule that only those with the support of an official union organisation will be accepted. This excludes wildcat or rank and file led disputes as well as those where the workers involved are in conflict with their union officialdom or structures.
The book aims to inspire both through accounts of LabourStart’s campaigns and the struggles they support and to educate about the potential and limitations of online campaigning.
It concludes with seven things readers should do, not the least of which is signing up for all the current campaigns at LabourStart’s website.