Eric Lee, the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement blogs on why unions increasingly rely on online campaigning to support other more traditional ways of bringing pressure to bear on governments and employers. Particularly in cases where workers’ rights are being violated.
I recently had the opportunity to be part of an Ethical Insights breakfast briefing hosted by ETI on the subject of online campaigning. As the editor of LabourStart, I think it’s an important topic.
LabourStart, which was founded in 1998, offers both a platform and network for unions to campaign, as well as a news service in dozens of languages that is updated every day by a network of volunteer correspondents.
In a typical year, we run links to 90,000 news stories about workers and their unions around the world. For that reason, we think that LabourStart has become the best source of labour news online.
Companies and governments react to campaigns in four ways
Having run several hundred online campaigns over the last two decades in support of workers’ rights, it strikes me that the companies and governments we have targeted react in one of four ways:
- Make concessions.
- Ignore a campaign and hope it goes away.
- Send a rebuttal notice to all who have protested.
- Make threats.
Make concessions to get a campaign suspended
Let’s start with what I consider to be the smartest reaction. Unions when they launch campaigns are usually not demanding the moon. Without necessarily caving in to every single union demand, a company or government can get a campaign suspended by making substantial concessions. Sometimes all that's being demanded is that a union activist be re-hired, or that a company return to the bargaining table. These are not impossible requests, and companies should carefully weigh the costs to their reputations by appearing to be stubborn and unreasonable.
Ignore a campaign and hope it goes away
A more typical reaction is to ignore the campaign and hope we go away. In one sense, this is not a bad strategy. Many e-campaigning groups do seem to float from one issue to another, with short attention spans, and if a company can wait it out, this might work.
The problem is that the campaigns which we run on LabourStart on behalf of trade unions are a little different. They are often part of long-term campaigns, and sometimes come after years of struggle. And don't forget – the labour movement has been around for a very long time.
An employer or government who has violated workers' rights and been seen to do so, which is then targeted by trade unions for a global online campaign may find that sticking one's head in the sand is not the smartest approach.
Use the opportunity to rebut messages sent by campaigners
Some targets of our campaigns take advantage of the fact that a mass email campaign delivers into their hands thousands of email addresses of people who are expressing their concerns. This is a golden opportunity for rebuttal. If the company or government feels that the union has misrepresented it, why not send an email back to everyone who has protested?
The downside of this is that people who support the campaigns are sometimes quite encouraged by the fact that companies and governments take notice. I remember many years ago, in an early campaign targeting a sportswear manufacturer, their decision to send their message to everyone gave our campaign a big boost.
Unions need to be aware that companies might do this sort of thing, and should prepare a counter-narrative to what might be sent out. I think in many cases the union and the target company or government will be familiar with each other's arguments, and both sides should be ready to share their views with the thousands of people who've sent in protest messages.
Threaten a campaigning group with legal action
Another kind of company reaction, and one which is quite rare, is to threaten the campaigning group and the union.
An early example of this occurred a decade or so ago when we were asked to target a charity in London which was resisting attempts to unionise its workers. The charity identified the German-based company which then hosted our website and demanded that they take the website down. Within 24 hours, we moved the campaign to a web host in Australia with the domain name “wewillnotbesilenced.org” – and the campaign grew exponentially.
Sometimes threats do work, and we've had two recent examples of large companies sending threatening letters to unions whose campaigns we were hosting. The unions didn't stop the campaigns – they just stopped one particular online version of them.
What’s best for both companies and trade unionists?
Looking at the various ways companies and governments react to our campaigns, I’d have to say that when they’re prepared to compromise, and to make concessions, it’s better for everyone. Because, speaking as a trade unionist, we’re not going away and you will have to deal with us eventually.
Attend our next Ethical Insights briefing on 27 April 2016 from 08:30-10:00: Why are migrant workers so vulnerable to exploitation?