Category: Campaigns

Online campaigns: Unions must be open to new ideas and new ways of working

Presentation to ILO event ” Communication Strategies to Strengthen Workers’ Organizations: Advocacy and Campaigns”, Geneva – 7 February 2017

by Eric Lee

First of all, thank you very much to ACTRAV for the opportunity to speak with trade unionists from all over the world. And thank you for letting me hear some of your thoughts in the questionnaires you filled in – which I hope will guide some of this discussion today.

Though I’ve been invited to speak for the session on advocacy and campaigns, I’d like to say a word about an issue a number of you raised in your answers to the questionnaire.

Many of you pointed out the problem of mass media that either ignore trade unions, or are hostile to trade unions. This is a subject that is very important to me and it is the reason why LabourStart was created 19 years ago. We wanted to create a space on the web where trade unionists could learn about each others’ struggles and problems – and victories. And we created a news service that works in dozens of languages. We have a network of over 850 volunteers who regularly add links to news stories to our database. We typically link to 200 or more news stories every day, all over the world. So if you want to know what’s happening in the labour movement anywhere in the world, you should start by visiting And if you don’t see news from your union or your country there, you should volunteer to be a correspondent.

I should also mention that you don’t need to visit LabourStart’s website to see the news we’ve collected. We have had a labour newswire for many years which shares our content on hundreds of trade union websites.

But as the focus of this session is on advocacy and campaigns, I want to introduce you to LabourStart’s online campaigns.

Let me start not with the technology, but with the real world. The only reason I am here today to speak with you is that we have had many success stories where our online campaigns have contributed to workers’ victories. Those online campaigns have helped get jailed worker activists released from prison, end company lockouts, bring employers back to the negotiating table, win union recognition, and much more.

About five years ago, the military dictatorship in Fiji jailed two of the country’s most prominent trade union leaders. Following the launch of an online campaign sponsored by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and run on the LabourStart website, some 4,000 messages of protest were sent in less than 24 hours. The government relented, the union leaders were freed, and the campaign suspended.

A month earlier, Suzuki workers locked out in India waged a successful online campaign through the International Metalworkers Federation – now IndustriALL – and LabourStart. Almost 7,000 messages flooded the company’s inboxes, and after only a few days, a compromise was reached.

We’ve had so many victories like those that a couple of years ago, we produced a short book called Campaigning Online and Winning. We’ve now finished writing a new version of that book – it’s much longer – listing lots of other campaigns we’ve helped to win. That book should be available later this month.

The spectacular success of those campaigns is the culmination of a 20 year long process of building up the campaigning capacity of the international trade union movement – specifically that of the ITUC and the global union federations (including IndustriALL, the IUF, and others), and the role played by LabourStart in that process.

My talk today will focus on the rather narrow topic of global online labour campaigns, to see where we have been, where we are now, and to speculate where we go next.

The global labour movement has been doing online campaigning for more than thirty years. The first international trade secretariats (now called global union federations) went online in the 1980s and have been campaigning ever since. For more than a decade, we have campaigned using a combination of mass emailings and web-based tools mostly modelled on successful campaigning websites such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees (in the UK).

Today the ITUC and the GUFs tend to campaign either using LabourStart, or using a system similar to (and based on) LabourStart’s custom-built software. As a result of this, LabourStart’s mailing lists have grown steadily, from just a couple of thousand at the beginning of this century to more than 135,000 today. Those mailing lists of trade union activists are at the heart of online labour campaigning today. They are what allow us to deliver thousands of protest messages in 24 hours.

But the potential is much greater than this. The ITUC, for example, represents 181 million workers in 163 countries. The 135,000 names of activists on LabourStart’s lists are a tiny fraction of that number – less than one in a thousand. 99.9% of the members of ITUC-affiliated unions are not yet on our mailing list. There is a lot of room for growth.

Other campaigning organizations, which have grown up out of nowhere with no built-in membership base like trade unions, have much larger audiences. For example, Avaaz claims over 44 million supporters world-wide; the UK’s 38 Degrees website claims 3 million supporters. Unions have been slow to pick up on the importance of online campaigning, and as a result lag behind NGOs like these.

And it’s not only NGOs. Political campaigns have also managed to mobilise vast numbers of people. I was very active in the campaign last year to select Senator Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. The size our our campaign, the number of people involved, was far greater than anything I’ve seen done by the trade union movement online.

Why unions lag behind in the adoption of effective online campaigning technology is complicated, and varies from union to union and from country to country. As the widespread use of social networks like Facebook during the Arab Spring showed, there is no simple North/South divide here. Some of the most powerful unions in some of the richest countries use the net poorly. And there have been extremely effective net-based campaigns run by unions in the global South.

The global trade union movement is already experiencing the problems of campaign fatigue and information overload. There is a fear that the campaigning model which has worked well for a decade may be faltering. And there are questions about what comes next.

I want to spend the rest of my talk focussing on that – on the future of online campaigning in the trade union movement.

One noticeable trend is a growth in the number of languages we campaign in. LabourStart has a new campaign demanding that the Norwegian energy company DNO treat its workers in Yemen fairly. That campaign appears, of course, in English, Norwegian and Arabic. But it also appears in 12 other languages too.

This is far cry from the days when unions would publish online in just English, French and Spanish. LabourStart campaigns now appear in Turkish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese – hugely important languages for the international trade union movement, but ones which a decade ago were rarely seen on global labour websites.

We can expect in the next decade to see even more languages used — especially the languages of countries with growing industrial working classes, such as Thai, Tagalog, Korean, Portuguese, Indonesian and Vietnamese. A decade from now, it will not be unusual to see online campaigns running in dozens of languages.

The model for today’s global online labour campaigns remains very PC-centric. We imagine thousands of trade unionists working in offices, sitting at their desks reading an email, clicking on a link, opening a website and filling in a form. But already today, this is not how people actually work.

A significant percentage of those now learning about a global labour campaign via email are reading that email in a smartphone. If they click on a link in the message, the website that displays must render correctly on a small screen, and the entering of data such as one’s name and email address, must be as simple and easy as possible. Few unions have taken this into account, but it will be essential in the years to come. As a result, it is likely that we will see the rise of small-screen-specific campaigning apps for trade unions. These apps will need to be platform-independent, able to work on all kinds of phones and tablets.

And of course the model of email messages pointing to websites is itself fading, as more and more people come to use social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as their models for online communication. Among young people, studies show a declining use of email and an increasing reliance on other tools, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat.

Unions need to take this into account when deciding how to promote their campaigns, and they need to use simultaneously a wide range of media — including social networks and instant messaging — to reach their members and supporters. Email is likely to remain part of that package, but can no longer be the only way to get the word out.

A decade from now we will probably discover other things online protest campaigns can do beyond filling up the inbox of employers and governments with protest messages. It’s likely that we’ll continue to do that, but we also need to find other ways of putting pressure on governments and employers to respect workers’ rights.

One of the traditional trade union tools that has been under-utilised in recent years has been the boycott — and its opposite, the “buy union” campaigns. Both can be done more effectively online and at a fraction of the cost of old-fashioned offline versions. In a hyper-competitive market, if unions can cause a tiny fraction of sales to fall for one company, and to rise for another, this might give us the leverage that we never had in the past.

And beyond using our power as consumers to reward and punish companies, we can be inspired by the example of the Arab Spring, Occupy and other movements and consider the possibility of using online campaigns not only to apply pressure online, but as a tool to bring people into the streets.

In the years to come global unions will still campaign online, but they will do so in ways radically different from how we work today — and the result will be more powerful and effective trade unions. But to achieve that, we must be open to new ideas, and new ways of working.

Brazil: Our first campaign launched as outreach to unions continues

Euan Gibb, LabourStart’s coordinator (pictured on the left) just sent this in:

LabourStart Brasil continues with its slow and steady growth. An important part of the national growth strategy has been presence at events. LabourStart was invited to present on the first day of a three-day national conference for trade union communicators in the city of São Paulo. The event was organized by the national union central CSP-Conlutas. A brief history of some of LabourStart´s successes over the years were presented and an invite to get involved in our campaigns, as correspondents and as translators was extended. Less than one week after participation in this conference, LabourStart Brasil received its first request for a Brazilian campaign!

The president of the country’s largest public university, the University of São Paulo has openly declared that he wants a union-free campus. As part of his project to realize to transform the school into a neoliberal university, the president is currently attempting to evict the union that represents the staff at the university. The administration invited military police armed with automatic rifles onto the campus in order to close the union offices with a large fence. Let’s show the Brazilian trade unionists how much support they have from around the world. Please be sure to sign the campaign yourself, translate this campaign into your local language, and help to share the campaign as widely as possible!

One of our fastest campaign victories

Derek Blackadder writes: “In December of 2016 the government of the Canadian Province of Nova Scotia gave two days’ notice of its intention to bar tens of thousands of students from its schools in an effort to put pressure on the teachers union.  It also gave notice of the introduction of a bill to legislate larger class sizes and longer hours of work on the teachers, drastically affecting the quality of education.  In co-operation with the Nova scotia Teachers Union and the Canadian Teachers Federation a LabourStart campaign was assembled and in less than 2 hours almost 1,000 Canadians sent protest messages to the province’s Premier.  In combination with the NSTU’s meatspace actions the campaign was an important consideration in the government’s decision to open the schools after one day and to re-consider over-riding the teachers’ collective agreement.”

LabourStart in Numbers – June – December 2016

Some highlights:

* Note that this report covers a six month period as we missed our September report.
* Good news on traffic to the website – very big gains in traffic to both the news and campaigns sites. Over 61,000 unique visitors to news site was a gain of nearly 50% compared to the first half of the year.There was an even bigger gain for the campaigns site.
* There’s been a very significant growth in interest in our news site in India.
* While most of the mailing lists either stayed the same size or shrunk, the Portuguese language list stands out for having grown by 36% in the last half year. Also our Brasilian presence on Facebook has shown enormous growth.
* Once again, the Canadian Twitter feeds in English and French have grown dramatically, while the USA Twitter following remains quite small.
* Of the five top campaigns in this half year, two came from the International Federation of Journalists (our first campaigns ever with the IFJ) and three of the five are currently active campaigns.

Mailing lists

English: 86,697 – 88,242
French: 8,929 – 8,791
German: 5,997 – 6,021
Spanish: 5,525 – 5,531
Turkish: 4,314 – 4,268
Korean: 4,170 – 3,965
Italian: 4,021 – 4,044
Norwegian: 2,681 – 2,701
Russian: 2,444 – 2,449
Dutch: 1,720 – 1,774

Swedish: 1,242 – 1,235
Chinese: 1,112 – 1,112
Polish: 798 – 798
Portuguese: 647 – 475
Finnish: 638 – 687
Japanese: 518 – 518
Arabic: 418 – 478
Indonesian: 346 – 346
Hebrew: 284 – 296
Tagalog: 254 – 254
Farsi: 231 – 242


UnionBook was closed in 2016.

Linked In

LabourStart group: 2,044 – 2,012


Union group on Flickr: 821 – 806


Correspondents: 845 – 826 (news)

Unique users – 61,279 – 41,506

Top countries (by sessions):

USA 23% – 23%
Canada 14% – 15%
UK 13% – 12%
India – 6%
Australia 5% – 5%

Most popular pages – page views:

Home page – English 51,618 – 34,337
USA – English 21,045 – 8,294
Canada – English 10,210 – 6,297
India – 11,069 – 1,807
Home page – Norwegian 4,091 – 2,746 (campaigns)

Unique users – 56,270 – 37,851

Top countries (by sessions):

UK 15% – 16%
USA 13% – 14%
Canada 9% – 10%
Germany 5% – 7%
Belgium 5%

Most popular pages – page views:

South Korea: Release jailed trade unionists, respect workers’ rights – 8,969
Iran: Freedom for teacher union leader Esmail Abdi – 8,940
Korea: Don’t let Han’s death be in vain – 8,659
Turkey: Press freedom is essential for democracy, set journalism free! – 8,651
AFP: Demand fair terms for freelance photographers – 8,153


English: 16,922 – 16,188
Canada English: 6,404 – 5,661
Canada French: 1,633 – 1,071
USA: 639 – 608
Italian: 475 – 458
Indonesia: 365 – 368
Swedish: 374 – 356
French: 230 – 225
Portuguese: 191 – 92
German: 92 – 91
Spanish: 71 – 73
Japanese: 21 – 22
Russian: 18 – 18


Like page (English): 11,990 – 10,528
Members of LabourStart group: 8,388 – 8,521
Friends of LabourStart Brasil: 3,232 – 1,681
Like LabourStart page (French): 551 – 535
Like LabourStart page (German): 478 – 472
Like LabourStart page (Turkish): 177 – 175
Like LabourStart page (Hebrew): 155 – 155
Members of LabourStart Vostok (Russian): 89 – 109

Esmail Abdi’s long struggle for justice

esmailEsmail Abdi, a leading Iranian teacher trade unionist, was the subject of two LabourStart campaigns in the last year, the first one after he was blocked from attending a congress of the Education International (EI) in Canada.

This week we’ve launched a third campaign at the request of the EI now that he’s been sentenced to 6 years in prison.

Here are the results of those campaigns:

  • July 2015: 12,698
  • February 2016: 6,307
  • November 2016 (so far): 4,367

Please take a moment to spread news of this campaign in your country and to your unions — especially teachers unions.  Thanks.

Talking with Belgian transport workers – and looking back at an old campaign

ABVV/BTBToday I’m in Mechelen, a town in between Brussels and Antwerp, where I was invited to speak with a group of about 35 members of the Belgian transport workers union BTB/ABVV.

Two years we ran a campaign with them against “social dumping” by IKEA, which was replacing unionised Belgian truck drivers with workers from Eastern Europe at much lower wages and with no social protections.

I get to speak to trade unions quite a bit about online campaigns, but in this case I was able to speak a bit about that campaign which we did, how it turned out, and what we can do together in the future.  I thought this part of my talk may be of interest to you:

The campaign was one of our larger ones, attracting 10,672 supporters.

It ran in 15 languages – translated by volunteers at LabourStart. Of course it ran in all the usual European languages including English, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

But it also ran in Norwegian, Czech, Hungarian, Russian, Slovenian and Ukrainian. And because workers outside Europe should also oppose social dumping, it ran in Indonesian and Hebrew too. It was even translated into Esperanto, the international auxiliary language.

It got support from all over Europe and all over the world – 1,456 people in Britain, where I live, supported it. 1,332 Americans signed up. It got over 1,000 Canadians and over 500 Australians too. The English version of the campaign got the support of 320 people in Belgium and another 309 in the Netherlands.

Nearly 550 people supported the Dutch version of the campaign and well over 1,000 supported the French version.

These are good numbers, but they also show that within the Belgian and Dutch labour movements, awareness of the campaign was quite small. The campaign had more support from Canadian workers than it did from Belgian workers.

And that is what we have to change.

We now have tools to mobilise the tens of millions of people in the international trade union movement, but we must first learn to mobilise our own members.

Next time, we must do better.

What was the result of this campaign?

We have not yet won. There have been ongoing negotiations with IKEA, involving BTB, the FNV and a Swedish trade union working together. A meeting took place in September with IKEA’s world-wide HR person. Unions continue to tell IKEA to either work with us to stop social dumping, or we will bring this to the attention of the media.

The struggle continues. Maybe we will have to do another campaign.

Major new campaign on Korea

hansangyuThis was launched today with the support of the ITUC and most of the GUFs.

It’s not our first campaign about Korea, but it’s an important one and I hope everyone reading this will make a special effort to mobilize support in your union and your country.


From campaign drought to campaign flood

flood-vs-droughtCampaigns seem to be seasonal affairs; there are months when we have almost none, and other times when we need to launch several campaigns at almost the same time (which is a pretty bad idea).

Today we’re in the process of launching two major campaigns — one in support of health care workers in Liberia whose leaders languish in jail; the other in support of the jailed leadership of the South Korean labour movement.  Both campaigns are supported by a wide range of powerful international trade union bodies and, I hope, will gather lots of support.

In addition, we’re expecting a major campaign in support of Turkish journalists — so three new campaigns, probably all being launched this week.

This places an exceptional burden on our volunteer translators and I’m doing what I can to space the campaigns apart, and to encourage our partners to supply us with very short texts — with only limited success.

Meanwhile, our latest campaign (in support of Egyptian shipyard workers) is doing quite well, coming up on 7,500 supporters. I’m hoping that at least one of the three campaigns we’re about to launch can break the 10,000 barrier — but this depends in large part on how much our partner unions help us to promote it.

Why our newest campaign is also our largest current campaign

Some campaigns just take off.  Our campaign in support of the shipyard workers in Alexandria, Egypt is one of these.  After just one week online, it’s already almost (and by the time you read this, it will be) our largest current campaign, rapidly nearing 6,000 supporters.  Why is this the case?

Actually, there’s no mystery here: the main difference between this campaign and the campaigns in support of teachers in Ecuador or photographers at AFP is that this campaign appears in German.  We have a number of languages, German among them, for which we have substantial mailing lists, but where not all our campaigns get translated.  For example, we have 5,700 people on our Korean and Dutch mailing lists — but our campaigns are rarely translated into those languages.

There was a time when the only list that mattered was the English one, but that is no longer the case.  30% of the supporters of the current Egyptian campaign are doing so in languages other than English.  Of the three most recent campaigns, this is the highest percentage of non-English supporters, and it will probably grow when we launch the Spanish version later today.

So it’s becoming increasingly clear that for our campaigns to be much larger, we need to translate them into more and more languages, and in particular German, Korean and Dutch.  And those lists need to continue to grow.  Something to keep in mind.