Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Internet & The Labour Movement


I spent this weekend with students who are completing the labour and trade union studies MA at Ruskin that I manage.

Sadly, this was their last residential workshop (and they are working hard on their dissertations) but as recognition of their hard work and effort I was able to secure the input of Eric Lee (LabourStart, UnionBook etc) as guest speaker on Friday night.

Eric is pictured here addressing students.

You can see a brief biog of Eric here.

For those unfamilar with the significant academic work of Eric's the most significant starting point is the 1996 publication of his pivotal work The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism.

You can review abstracts and read reviews at this link:

In addition to Eric's coverage there is a significant body of literature on the significance of the Web (in particular in the form of its latest guise as Web 2.0) an example is:

Amongst Eric's comments on the current state of play on the application of web technologies and the labour movement were:

1. Too many unions were wholly replacing web-based activity with 'actual word' mobilisation.

2. Often unions were guilty of Internet colonialism and only offering English as the reading language available, wholly disabiling the potential of member engagement where members do not use English as their first language. In addition, where a first language is used, there is a lack of recognition of member competence of literacy skills.

Eric's session was a fantastic opportunity to gain a global perspective on the applicability (or not) of the web as it relates to trade union activity.

In short Eric's view is, the Internet is a great tool, but only one of many which are based on the continuing physical, real world, manifestation of worker mobilisation and consciousness-raising.

Any comments on what I've said here is very welcome.




Dave Plummer said...

I think we have to decide who we are trying to communicate with: fellow activists or non-active union members and workers.

There is much to be gained by sharing knowledge and experience, promoting and raising awareness of campaigns and issues, networking, showing support and solidarity between activists, be they in our own organisations, industries, nations or internationally but ultimately, healthy though that is, we have to connect with those who aren't already involved.

Unionbook, Labourstart, assorted trade union sites, Facebook groups etc tend to be used by those who are already on board and, while they are a means of spreading information more effectively, are ultimately preaching to the converted. I know, for example, that the majority of hits on our branch's site come from activists or people picking up on specific tags (BNP & EDL always bring up a fair few!) but not branch members.

I know that this is an issue beyond electronic communications and we have always been leading horses to water who have absolutely no interest in drinking but the internet provides huge possibilities for engaging folk and I think we need to work harder to build on that.

We are quite fortunate that the increasing mood of frustration and political disenfranchisement has coincided with the rise of Twitter and its wonderful hashtags. Getting a message out there has never been easier. It's also never been easier to get people to look in the right places. We have to use that to our advantage and bring online activism out of the fringes and in to the mainstream.

Internet communications are no replacement for traditional methods but they do provide a whole new world of possibilities. We need to stop using those possibilities to talk to each other and decide how engage the masses.

(PS - a pox on Blogger and its Google IDs!)

Wilf said...

In many ways I agree with Dave. A frustration of mine is that many in the trade union movement see new electronic media as a substitute for getting out there and talking face to face to members. If as a trade union movement we want to be truely interactive and foster the idea of collectivity we must understand that face to face communication is the ultimate in interactivity. This is not to say that the internet does not have a role but it should not be used as a substitute.

The more interesting possibility is its potential to get views out to those that are not part of the trade union movement. In my experience colleagues spend alot of time bemoaning the attitude of the mainstream press and putting efforts into getting a trade union view reflected in papers like the Guardian. However, the reality is that the press is in general a right wing press designed to sensationalise news and sell papers. Traditionally it has been hostile to Trade Unions and now that the deal that Tony Blair done with Rupert Murdoch has had its day we are back to normal. The need for an alternative was recognised in the 1980's with the luanch of the ill fated News On Sunday. Its seems to me that the internet, blogs and twitter porvides an opportunity for labour movement to succeed where the News On Sunday failed.

Ian Manborde said...

Hi Dave,

Many thanks for your detailed comment on the Eric Lee posting.

Interestingly Eric made much the same arguments you did, and I support the debate to be had is how we both enable and then engage with activists who wouldn't typically use the web as a medium for their activities.

I am always conscious that we may be preaching to the converted and/or an elite few, which is why we need to be careful about the suggestion of a mass democratising effect of web technologies.

An intelligent on-going interpretation of how and where the technologies are being utilised is an aspect of this. In addition however, we need to be much more creative in the ways around how we make a connection between technology and the creativity of activism.

As a labour educator I can say though that the use of technologies to support some aspects of trade union activity is on the increase.

I appreciate, via your pox on Blogger comment, that some means of doing this are deemed to be politically incorrect, but you'll have to excuse some of us within the movement for being outside of your comfortable loop.

Critically important in all of this though Dave, as I say in my blog header, is that we keep talking and that we don't (at least in the first instance) resent the methods by which we chose to do this.

Many thanks again for your contribution - hope to hear from you again.



Ian Manborde said...

Hi Wilf,

Many thanks for your contribution.

I couldn't agree more with your overall sentiment.

For example, this blog is a a 'back-up' to my teaching with trade unionists. If it was the only way I communicated across the movement, I am not sure I would have conceive dof the idea in the first place.

A critically important aspect of Eric Lee's speech last Friday was that web technologies (and the way in which they were used) must be seen as supplementary to the real-world undertaking of trade union and political activity.

Speaking of real-world events, I am just about to send you possible dates for a meet-up in Oxford!



Dave Plummer said...


The journalists I know are as frustrated by the right-wing agenda of the press as the rest of us are. I dread to think how frustrated Jeremy Dear gets!

I do encourage online-active (is there a word for this yet?) trade unionists to get stuck in to newspapers' comment threads and counter myths wherever they can. Several of my email addresses have been blocked from the Daily mail's site. That's a drop in the ocean though.


There is absolutely no substitute for face to face communication but it does have obvious limitations. The internet allows us to move beyond some of those limitations.

Ultimately I think the problem is that most people just aren't that interested in trade unionism. They join the union, pay the subs, might attend a workplace meeting, use the representation when necessary but generally have little interest. When they get home they've no more interest in reading a trade union website or following their union's Twitter account than I have in watching a soap opera.

Better people than I have tried to change that but I do think that electronic communications give us our best opportunity to engage people outside the workplace.

One thing I think we need to look at is the style of trade union communication. Much of it is very dry. Branch sites, written with a bit of personality, have potential. Writing something that people will want to read for its own sake could suck people in and get them involved in the issues without them noticing.

I could be wrong but it's the angle I'm trying for our (award winning!) branch site and the newsletter.

The Blogger comment was more down to having to create a profile to reply to your blog than any anti-Google stance. I'm happy in my Wordpress world but my email accounts are mostly Google.

Ian Manborde said...

Hi Dave,

Many thanks for that additional comment.

I've just taken a quick look at your PCS site - very impressive.

I agree wholeheartedly that TU approaches to communication require radical review and update.

Without mentioning any names I regularly see TU teaching materials around, for example, ICT and branch communication, and find that activists are encouraged to think independently, creatively or, as you can imagine, make alliances with anything other than sanctioned organisations.

The PCS Euston branch approach provides, I think, a very good case study of how a branch should be represented in an online format.

Good luck with the competition!