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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jul 13, 2010, 4:35 pm

Online Activists Gather From Around Globe to Jumpstart Labor Movement

BY Stuart Elliott

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Benedicto Martinez Orozco marches in support of McMaster University workers during the LabourStart conference, held from July 9 to 11 in Ontario, Canada.   (Photo by Stuart Elliott)

More than 200 people from 28 countries attend LabourStart's first public conference

HAMILTON, ONTARIO—Sometimes it's hard to understand the importance of an event or an organization when you're involved in it. As a volunteer correspondent for LabourStart.org and a participant in its “Act Now”  campaigns, I obviously think LabourStart an important project. But I really didn't really comprehend its potential until I attended the first public LabourStart conference at McMaster University's School of Labour Studies in Hamilton, Ontario.

“As unions confront a 21st century global capitalism, which is imposing a race to the bottom to union-free environments, unions must use new technologies to create a new labor internationalism," said Eric Lee, founding editor of Labour Start. "The mission of LabourStart is to promote those technologies and to practice a consistent internationalism.”  

LabourStart is an international labor news and campaigning site, run on a shoestring and powered by nearly 800 volunteer correspondents. Every day  the site publishes links to labor news in 23 different languages, and its news feeds appear on more than 800 union websites. It conducts e-mail campaigns in eight different languages. 

There was some trepidation among LabourStart leaders about whether an Internet-based, low budget union news and campaigning site could attract an audience of union activists oustide its most committed corespondents. Particularly since, unlike the recently concluded ICTU conference, this was not a delegated meeting.

But the conference was able to attract over 200 participants from more than 28 countries. Attendees ranged from presidents of national unions, to representatives of Global Union Federations, to local union officers, to staffers, to grassroots activists.

Adam Lee of United Steelworkers International thanked LabourStart for its “tremendously effective” campaign on behalf of Vale nickel miners strikers, who settled a year-long strike just days before the conference began. On the first morning of the strike, which began in July 2009, more than 1,000 emails were sent to the Brazil-based multinational company. Two-thirds were from outside Canada, in eight languages from 80 countries, Lee said, It provided a “real boost” to the workers. And Brazilian workers for Vale were able to win a better than expected contract because the company didn't want to take on two international campaigns at the same time.

Robin Alexander, director of international affairs for the United Electrical workers union, said that when she got an appeal from workers at PEMEX, Mexico's state-owned petroleum company, the first place she turned for help was LabourStart.

As Lennon Ying-Dah Wong, a union leader from Taiwan, spoke on a panel about China, I loooked to my left and saw Benedicto Martinez Orozco, co-president of the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo. Michael Eisenscher of US Labor Against the War, Amjad Ali of the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra (Iraq), and Erin Radford of the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center spoke on a panel about unions in Iraq. Other panels were devoted to Mexico, Eastern Europe, and Iran. 

Unfortunately, some people were unable to attend the conference—but the reasons why are enlightening. A leader of Bangladeshi textile workers union canceled his visit because of a monumental campaign in his home country—more than 50,000 workers there are on strike, protesting the lowest wages in the textile industry.

Representatives of independent unions in Egypt and Algeria were, at the last moment, denied visas by Canada. (AFL-CIO Solidarity Center representatives  ably filled in at a workshop on the revival of unions in those countries.) The ham-handness of Canadian authorities may backire. Derek Blackadder, national representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said that there was so much outrage at the exclusion of the Egyptian and Algerian unionists and so much excitement about their pioneering work that Canadian unionists will be exploring ongoing solidarity work on their behalf.

Of course, connecting disparate unionists, spread across different levels of different unions, to unite in international solidarity is no easy task. But LabourStart's global network of 800 correspondents and 70,000 Act Now e-mail activists will continue to be a part of that effort, which must be a central component of the future of the labor movement.

Stuart Elliott, a contributor to Talking Union (a project of the Democratic Socialists of America), is a member of the American Postal Workers Union.

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