Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Labour Notes letter - 2012

Labour Notes (you guys really should get around to correcting the typo in your title) is always the place to go for info and encouragement on issues, news and actions that don’t get a lot or much attention elsewhere.  So, thanks.

A good example is Ruth Needleman’s “Making Global Solidarity Real’.  But as much as I appreciated her analysis, there’s one trend in global solidarity actions and organizing that she doesn’t cover: the self-organizing that many workers are engaging in that doesn’t take place through or with their unions’ institutional connections.  Those unions may support these efforts, but they’re not directly responsible for them.

There’s a whole lot going on at the workplace level as workers connect directly to other workers using the internet.  The project I’m involved in, LabourStart, regularly responds to requests by workers in one country wanting a contact amongst their co-workers in another.  GM workers in Canada wanting to connect with GM workers in Korea was the direct inspiration for this letter.  The former had read on LabourStart about the latter heading towards a strike in July.  A quick e-mail and the connection is made.

Similarly, there are other efforts, like RadioLabour (see or subscribe on iTunes) that work to try and raise the profile of struggles around the world an in that way build an understanding of the importance of international work by providing a 5 minute dose of solidarity in the form of an internet radio show.  Monday through Thursday 40,000 listeners get 5 minutes of news about workers and their unions from around the world, with a 10 minute weekly update each Friday.
Less than a month old is Revoluntionizing Retail, a one-stop shopping site for retail workers looking to change their working lives. See  Right now limited to North America, it has the potential to grow into something much bigger.

As these volunteer-based ‘unofficial’ but union-supported efforts are working at the rank-and-file level of the movement, there’s some interesting ‘top-down’ (sometimes that can be a good thing) work being done too.  As Ruth noted in their article, unions as organizations are becoming more and more international in their organizing efforts.  One effort she didn’t mention is Union Solidarity International, a project of Unite (UK).  It combines a real commitment of resources by a union with a long history of international engagement with an understanding that for global solidarity to have a real impact on our work as trade unionists it has to reach deep down into the union and it has to have a direct and discernible impact on the work of local unions.

So USI (see carries print news, produces a weekly podcast and acts as a portal to Unite branches (locals) looking to be twinned with a local union somewhere out there in the world.
All great resources for anyone looking to organize more effectively in their workplace on the need for globalization of our kind, not theirs.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sources for (Mostly) Creative Commons Licenced Photos

Unsplash came recommended to me when I complained about Flickr as a source for Creative Commons-licensed photos that I could use for various publications both on- and offline.  Complained that there were only 800 or so unions and workers contributing photos to my fave unions group there I mean. 
Some nice stuff there on Unsplash.  See for yourself at

Others recommended it and all these and if I was the newsletter editor for my local curling club or school council or a local union websteward in need of some non-work-related photos I’d find most of them quite handy.  But the truth is that not only Flickr just way bigger but it’s THE spot for union photos.  The only down side to it is a regrettable tendency on the part of union photogs to not make full use of Flickr’s simple-to-use features that get their photos out there.  Flickr makes tags easy and if you haven’t added your photo to at least one multi-union group (the Labour and Trade Unions group being my fave) then you’ve made a mistake and quite possibly wasted your image.
Still, if you can't find what you need with a CC license on, here's a list of other sources:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Thumbtack Microphone Price Now Down to $5.50 CAD

I just ordered a backup (I missed posting my regular Friday spot on RadioLabour a week ago because I left my then-only Thumbtack on my desk) and found it on (ugh) Amazon for $5.50 plus a couple of loonies for shipping.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Eric Lee, Gaza, LabourStart, Me and 900 Comrades- A Screed

LabourStart is composed of almost 900 volunteer trade unionists around the world.  85 in Canada alone (where I reside).  We operate largely autonomously from each other.  While Eric is prominent among them/us as webmaster and founder, he does not determine LabourStart editorial policy. 

He can’t because other than ‘collect news from and about unions and workers organizations’ we have none.  Nor do we need one or have any structural mechanisms for determining one.  Or, and perhaps I speak only for myself, any interest in developing one.  Frankly I am not sure I would remain involved if we attempted to develop one.

We are not subject to any organizational discipline beyond the most basic (guided by, I am rather pleased to say, a modified version of the CUPE Equality Statement). We are not a political formation.  Anyone joining our merry band with that expectation quickly moves on.

LS has other volunteers, including myself, who have taken much different positions than Eric on the current events in Palestine and on the BDS movement in their personal capacities and whose unions have taken a wide variety of positions as well.  And many, frankly, who are of no opinion or who have not heard of the boycott call.

In fact LS has taken no position and won't - because it doesn't need to in order to do what it does.  With or without a policy regarding the Gaza invasion or BDS it is our task to cover the trade union news relating to Palestine as we would in any other nation. You may have noted that to date LabourStart has covered both sides in the debate on a boycott of Israel and a wide variety of positions taken by unions around the world regarding the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

In the past we have covered similar controversies from all perspectives.  We will continue to do so.  Taking a position in any such debate would be both structurally difficult if not impossible for LabourStart, but would also (in my opinion) be contrary to our goals.

It would also likely be the end of LabourStart.  Any global coalition like ours which tried to impose discipline on its participants on more than a very few very fundamental issues would be splitting on a regular and frequent basis. 

LabourStart is a coalition of trade unionists who share only our interest in using the internet to better connect and inform trade unionists around the world.  Beyond that we may or may not share analyses of any number of situations but this is irrelevant to what we do at LabourStart.

Another, though not as extreme, example of this is the question of faith-based trade unions.  In my country, Canada, such things are anathema and the one ‘union’ that operates on this basis is shunned by the rest of the labour movement here.  I personally will not post stories from this union to LabourStart and I encourage others to stop when I see such stories on our site.

However in other parts of the world confessional trade unionism is the norm.  Where LabourStart volunteers from those countries have posted stories about the Christian Labour Association of Canada to LabourStart I have asked that they be removed and they have been.  However I am not inclined to attempt to impose a ‘no-confessional-unions’ policy on LabourStart.  Nor is there any mechanism for me to do so.

All that said, as volunteers all of us connected to LabourStart have other lives.  We work, we write, we do our union and political work.  In those capacities we have opinions and we express them.  Eric is perhaps more identified with LabourStart than any of us, but that does not make his opinions LabourStart policy on this issue.

If Eric’s views are somehow to be made synonymous with something perceived to be ‘LabourStart’s policy’ or ‘LabourStart’s position’ on the Israel-Palestine conflict then why not mine?  Or why not those of our Indian or Ukrainian or South African or Dutch volunteers?

We as LabourStart have none now and have no intention of taking a position in future.  What we do plan to do is cover as much of the trade union debate on the subject as we can find.

As individuals we of course do and we will, I would expect, organize and act in support of our personal positions and those of the unions and political formations we are affiliated with.
As LabourStart, other than collecting news, we provide a campaigning service available to the global labour movement – as we are currently doing by running a campaign the ITUC wanted regarding its call for a ceasefire in Gaza.  If the critics of that call and the analysis behind it want to take it on I would suggest they do that through their unions and national central labour bodies.  LabourStart is incapable of and has no desire to develop the capacity to analyze struggles around the world, determine if they are legitimate and build a strategy that does more good than harm.  For that we must rely on the decisions of the institutions of the labour movement – unions, national centres, the GUFs and the ITUC.  Otherwise we risk doing far more harm than good, despite out intentions.

My only (comradely I hope) suggestion for those who regularly try to make hay by attacking LabourStart as a way to get at Eric or as a backhanded way of taking on his analysis is that you take him on directly.  It’s not like he is hard to contact.

I challenge those who attack LabourStart because of Eric’s association with it to present evidence of a bias in the stories we collect.  Further, I’d invite them to apply for a LabourStart account and post the stories they think we’re missing.

And in the meantime, recognize that LabourStart and Eric are two different entities and that attacking LabourStart only serves to undermine not just the most successful effort at global digital solidarity for workers there is, but the ONLY such effort around.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Take Back the 'Net

I often make references here to “digital utopians,” the folks of the ‘90s who kept telling us the internet would set our minds and news media free from the constraints and censorship imposed by corporate ownership. We could all be our own newspaper, TV and radio outlets. Always implicit, and sometimes embarrassingly explicit, in the online utopian screeds of that decade was the hope or assumption that nastiness like racism and sexism were ideological impositions on workers and that, once free of corporate media, we’d be free of that, too. Nice sentiment.

I still hear folks defending this position that racism and sexism will “wither away” once we own our own, online, media: they remind me that corporate control of the media really hasn’t disappeared, it has just evolved so as to acquire a significant hold over digital media, along with broadcast outlets, newspapers and the rest of the traditional media, and that all we have to do is push back online and we can bring about the digital millennium. It turns out they’re wrong. The (not so) new media is as bad a place to be as the old. Perhaps worse, in that the bad things that used to happen slowly, in print and at a distance, can now take place instantly and in our homes, on our phones.

For a few years now I’ve been babbling here about the need for unions to make more and better use of the new media. I’ve often pointed to the labour movement’s internal barriers to that. But, to my shame, I’ve not spent any time at all looking at some of the many ways in which the new media can be used as a platform for targetting groups in a way that old media never could.

I’ll touch on other targeted groups in future columns, but, in a belated salute to International Women’s Day, let’s take a peek at what women face. It ain’t pretty. In fact it’s so ugly I had trouble finding examples fit to print without censoring them to the point of uselessness. To illustrate the problem, check the CBC News post, “Sexist tweets aimed at female politicians captured on blog ( At lot more productive, and less prone to offend to the point where you just want to avert your eyes, are conversations about the problem taking place here and there between women online, a great example being the Facebook group “Feministas of Canada.” Check out, as well, Huffington Post blogger Soraya Chemaly’s recent commentary, “Online Threats Against Women Aren't Trivial and Don’t Happen in a Vacuum.”
“Sexist commentary – the jokes, the asides, the slights, the tweets – is hostile,” she writes, “but it’s just the very surface of what we’re dealing with. This isn’t about being ‘offended,’ it’s about feeling marginalized as a result of hate and disdain.” More than a few explicitly feminist online publications have been tackling the silencing of women. Jezebel’s editor Jessica Coen did in “When There’s So Much Bullshit Online, You Forget How to Feel” (
Amanda Marcote responded in Slate, in “Online Misogyny: Can’t Ignore it, Can’t Not Ignore It” (

And just in case you doubted that online misogyny transcends borders and class, read the piece by Jane Fae in The New Statesmen, called “Misogyny, intimidation, silencing – the realities of online bullying.” It’s about the hostile online reaction women politicians face in the UK when expressing an opinion about pretty much anything, including the weather.

What’s most distressing is the inescapable conclusion a few minutes reading leaves you with: whether it comes in the form of a threat of physical violence (sometimes accompanied by a reference that implies the sender knows where you live or work); or “joke” polls about which celebrities deserve to die; or supposedly moderated groups and discussion forums that ignore complaints about abusive comments, the internet is not a safe or comfortable place for women trying to organize.

And I do mean “organize” in the broadest sense. Want to attract some nasty boys? Watch what happens when a woman trys to use Facebook or Twitter to get women friends together for a pub night or a bus trip. Fake something completely innocuous, with no explicit political content. Just make it clear it’s a women-only event, and watch the abuse fly your way.

I appealed on Facebook for anecdotes about the nasty side of online organizing, and one of the women who responded did exactly that, and the most striking thing about the nasty boy’s reaction was the absolute casualness of it. As astounding as what she described was, it wasn’t directed at me and so I can only imagine what it’s like to be on the receiving end.

Usually I end a rant like this with a prescription for a solution. I don’t know what to say, except: Do in cyberspace what has worked out here in meatspace. Find or build safe spaces and work outwards from there. I’d end by saying how depressed my little investigation made me, but there are a bunch of sisters working through and around this shit, so really it’s more a matter for constructive anger than depression.

Trying to wean your union off Microsoft/Apple corporate software? Here’s a useful checklist on getting there from The New Internationalist, called “10 Steps to Software Freedom” (

If you’re the webhead for your small website-less local union and see the advantages of having a union domain for your activist’s e-mail addresses, go here for some simple instructions for setting it up:

Not yet signed-on to Alex White’s e-mail list? Here’s another reason to do so. See “Five Essential Elements of Startegy for Unions to Win,” at:

When LabourStart’s Twitter feeds first got up and running, we were posting one item per hour 24 hours a day to the global feed, and one per hour, 12 hours a day, to the Canadian English and French feeds. (Note to newbie readers: I’m LabourStart’s senior Canadian correspondent.) A couple of weeks in we surveyed our followers for all those accounts. The results were interesting in that the global feed’s followers were clear: cut it back to eight per day, evenly spaced. The Canadians, however, were equally clear: stay at one per hour.

Surveys like this are worth doing for all your social media accounts. After complaining and seeing no change, I’ve unliked a couple of Canadian union pages on Facebook just because their updates were flooding my newsfeed, making it hard to find anything not from them. Did they really think I wanted something from them every 20 minutes? Worse, most of what they were throwing at me didn’t originate with them but instead was something they were just passing along,  often from a source I had already “liked” or followed.

Speaking of asking people what they want, building global solidarity at the rank-and-file level is why LabourStart tries to organize a conference somewhere in the world each year. To test the waters for another conference in Canada, we ran a short survey to gauge interest. So, it looks like we’ll be in the Vancouver area in 2014. But, most interesting were the responses to a couple of throw-away questions that were added. Almost 80 per cent of respondents either didn’t know if their union was engaged in international work, or knew it wasn’t. And these were Canadian trade unionists with enough of an interest in international solidarity actions to be on our mailing list.  If anyone would know, you’d think they would, but they often didn’t.

When was the last time your union used an online survey, or even a smartphone app, to systematically survey its members about what they think of their union and what it does, and what they know and don’t know about it – and then educate and maybe organize  them in the process?  I suspect not in a long while, if ever. Online, such things can be done a lot more frequently than was possible when we needed to rely on polling firms to do the work.

Union Solidarity International (British union Unite’s international arm) has made available a nice piece of video on the uses to which Brazilian unions are putting social media. See Watch, listen and envy. Then emulate.