UnionDues: A global footprint – How LabourStart works to support unions and their members

With networks in over 20 countries, and working in nearly 30 different languages, LabourStart has been campaigning with unions and their members for over 25 years.

A photo of a trade union protest with the words "The UnionDues Column" overlaid

Simon Sapper is a trade unionist and host of the UnionDues podcast.

In the latest UnionDues podcast episode, we look at the phenomenon that is LabourStart.  With networks in over 20 countries, and working in nearly 30 different languages, LabourStart has been campaigning with unions and their members for over 25 years.  There really is nothing quite like it, so it was a treat to sit down with its founder and guiding light  Eric Lee, to understand where LabourStart has come from, what it does and how it works.

We need to go back to 1996 and Eric’s book exploring the possibilities for using the internet for trade union solidarity activity.  What was imaginative – fanciful even- then is commonplace today.  As Eric says,  a list of union websites in the mid 1990s would fill less than half a page, now it is almost infinite.

LabourStart works thanks to a network of roughly 1000 contributors who channel information up to linked LabourStart sites in each country or in different languages.  But the organisation doesn’t create or propagate policy.  It is a platform for those in dispute or struggle, seeking and needing support.

Eric told me about some of LabourStart’s campaigning work, which ranges from union recognition to saving the lives of imprisoned or otherwise at risk trade unionists in far flung or hostile environments – including rolling back repressive anti-union proposals in Kyrgyzstan (10 points if you can point to it on a globe), and freeing Cihan Erdal from jail in Turkey.

But LabourStart is not without its challenges. Despite making in-roads into parts of the far East, it remains predominantly rooted in the more developed global North and the English speaking nations within that.  There is a sensibly opportunist approach taken to sustaining and expanding LabourStart’s global footprint based on seeking out correspondents and interns with unique linguistic skills – this has led, for example to the first campaigns in Yoruba (with 50 million having this as their mother tongue).

Criticism is also made of a reliance on email lists as the principal campaign tool.  Whilst acknowledging that your medium must match that of the population you’re working in (and I hadn’t realised that, apparently,  FB has supplanted emails in the Philippines, for instance), Eric mounts a passionate defence of the humble email, pointing out that response rates are much better than for social media channels, and that this method of communication has survived and spread, outlasting a host of one-time rivals.

Two challenges above all others are most pressing.  First,  most campaigns don’t succeed.  Victory is a rarity, but the process of publicising, mobilising, dissenting is nevertheless valuable in itself – and a necessary precursor to making more progress.

Second, time is pursuing Eric and those who have travelled with him as LabourStart has developed. A succession plan is both necessary and, thankfully,  coalescing.

A fascinating conversation with someone who can fairly be described as iconic. 

In her “#thought4theweek” Professor Mel Simms from Glasgow University complements the discussion about LabourStart with a focus on the use of social media as an organising tool. She draws out the experience of her own union, the UCU, and sets out three trenchant arguments for being cautious here – data security, ensuring unions are using social media in a way that is accessible, and the risk of abuse.

LFF’s very own Basit Mahmood has low pay in his sights as he previews this week’s #RadicalRoundUp, with miserable wages driving (sorry!) an employment exodus in the bus industry, multiple strikes at Panasonic’s Cardiff plant in a long running row over pay rates, and a clarion call for common sense to prevail on statutory sick pay as the Omicron variant of Covid lands in the UK.

And finally, there are shout-outs to Ian Tasker and Rory O’Neil  who have both been short-listed for the Most Influential Health and Safety Practitioner of the Year (you can vote here until 31 December), Unite for their important legal win in the long-running Kostal case, and to the Labour Radio Podcast Network, the portal through which you can access 150 union-linked shows.

Download/stream this and all episodes here.

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