The global labour movement has been doing online campaigning for a quarter of a century now. The first international trade secretariats (now called global union federations – GUFs) went online in the 1980s and have been campaigning ever since. For about a decade now, we have campaigned using a combination of mass emailing and web-based tools mostly modelled on successful campaigning websites such as Avaaz, MoveOn (USA) and 38 Degrees (UK).
Today the ITUC and GUFs tend to campaign either using LabourStart, or using a system similar to (and based on) LabourStart’s custom-built software and model. As a result of this, LabourStart’s mailing lists have grown steadily, from just a couple of thousands a decade ago to more than 80,000 today. Those mailing lists of trade union activists are at the heart of online labour campaigning today. They are what allow us to deliver 4,000 protest messages in 24 hours, as was done with Fiji.
But the potential is much greater than this. The ITUC, for example, claims to represent 175 million workers in more than 150 countries. The 80,000 names of activists on LabourStart’s lists are a tiny fraction of that number — not even half of one per cent. 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 10,300,000 supporters world-wide; the UK’s 38 Degrees website claims 800,000 supporters. Unions have been slow to pick up on the importance of online campaigning, and as a result lag behind NGOSs like these.
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 places like Brazil and South Korea. 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.