Class struggle by email

Why are email campaigns over industrial disputes making an impact?

Email campaigning has been one of the surprise success stories of the last few years in labour struggle.

Who could have guessed that quickfire appeals for people to simply sign and send stock emails to company bosses over disputes, as so ably demonstrated by the campaigning website Labourstart, would make such an enduring impact? From the recent maritime dispute in New Zealand, to union organiser Derek Blackadder’s banning from Facebook, campaigns have seen not only workers’ morale boosted from the feeling they’re not alone, but company chiefs sent scurrying back to the negotiating table saying ‘please call off the email campaign’.

But what is it about a few emails which terrifies company bosses so much?

Is it an ever-present fear in their crazed little capitalist minds that all these missives add up to a commie conspiracy and they’ll see a new Red Army marching over the horizon any minute? Is it the shock of being petitioned for the first time (compare company reactions with the UK government, which has set up its own website for them to be comfortably channelled into and blithely repeats ‘we’re listening’ while sailing off into the sunset)? Is it that the mere sight of a full inbox has them crying like newborns?

It’s surely not that they think they’ll lose business from the 2-3 thousand people who generally respond to Labourstart webmaster Eric Lee’s requests every week. Facebook has an audience of tens of millions and has been ignoring the far larger ‘can we have a socialist option’ campaign for years. New Zealand shipping isn’t even interested in the consumer’s viewpoint, it’s interested in the distributors who aren’t part of or affected by these protests. Maybe it’s that they just don’t like being disliked by the wider world, and are worried about their brand’s reputation or the possibility of such campaigns spreading further.

The potential impact of larger email campaigns, particularly when they are against companies who don’t have a direct link to the high street, is minimal in economic terms. The worst that’s likely to happen is a half-arsed boycott, with only the smallest outside chance of something spectacular happening like the Spanish dockers in 2000 who refused to unload scab cargoes from the US and saved their union brothers’ jobs and conditions as a result.

Psychology though may well play an important part. Company bosses today are used to being unaccountable and free of public opprobrium for their actions in a way that governments aren’t. It’s very rare that strikes see widespread public support or from the mass media, and rarer that communities band together to support strikers on the picket, because companies are considered private entities and thus not something the public has any stake or interest in. For many bosses, while they’ll be used to the dislike of their workers, the idea that thousands of people they haven’t directly screwed over also take exception to them must come as something of a shock.

There are echoes in all this of the prison letter-writing campaigns which have been going on since the 19th century or earlier, where anarchist prisoners are saved from victimisation by the sheer fact that governors know their activities are being watched by people on the outside who they can’t threaten or control.

What’s interesting about this newer phenomenon is that apparently, an effective and lightning-fast support of large groups through a simple series of clicks on the computer has become possible – and it’s a tool which has a huge potential for growth.

Posted By

Rob Ray
Jan 29 2008 16:00


Attached files


Jan 29 2008 17:38

are they making an impact? any examples?

Rob Ray
Jan 29 2008 17:45

From the Labourstart mailout, there's usually at least one or two examples like this in most of their mailings:

Workers in Russia and New Zealand thank you

Trevor Hanson, General Secretary of the Maritime Union of New Zealand, thanked us for our recent online campaign. "As you will be aware," he wrote, "the union was successful in preventing the loss of jobs and conditions through a contracting out process to an anti-union employer. Around 100 jobs are secure for now with proper union coverage ... The international response to our battle was the deciding factor, with our international affiliate the ITF providing much assistance. The LabourStart email campaign was an effective part of the dispute for us. It provided a boost for the local workers, publicized our dispute internationally, and caused a reaction from the employers who initially demanded the emails stop, but by the end of the dispute were asking more politely."

Mikhail Chesalin, Chairman of the Dockers' Union of Russia, Kaliningrad Local, wrote: "I want to thank you for your support of our campaign for workers' rights in the port of Kaliningrad, and in protest of the attack on me this past June. Because of the global solidarity and commitment of thousands of trade unionists and activists like yourselves, we were able to mount an unprecedented flow of protest into the Kaliningrad Sea Commercial Port, and the Kaliningrad regional power structure ... We were able to force the authorities to deal with union rights with at least a modicum of care and decency, and given the climate here, that is a significant achievement. We were even able to force the reopening of the investigation into the attack on me, after the authorities cynically tried to close the case."

Jan 29 2008 20:18

two more involving labourstart and others:

As many of you will be aware, jailed Iranian labour activist Mansour
Osanloo faced the loss of vision in one eye while the regime refused him
medical treatment. A massive online campaign involving Amnesty
International, the International Transport Workers Federation, and many
thousands of LabourStart readers has resulted in Osanloo receiving the
medical treatment he needed last weekend. The more than 10,000 messages
you sent to the government in Tehran had a great -- and immediate --
impact. Thank you!
On 18 May we wrote to tell you about Chiquita sacking union members in
Costa Rica who had complained about being sprayed by pesticides while
harvesting bananas. You responded with 3,437 messages to the company.
And as a result, many of you received an email in the last few days from
Chiquita's Senior Vice President, Manuel Rodriguez, replying to the
issues we raised. As Rodriguez pointed out in his email, the company
has been discussing this with the IUF (the global union federation
responsible for agricultural workers) and has agreed to work toward
re-hiring the workers and resolving the issues raised by the union.
Pressure from the IUF, other food workers unions around the world, and
thousands of individuals like you have had an effect, and workers' lives
are being saved as a result.
Jan 29 2008 20:20

the UE also has a list for email petitions.

Jan 30 2008 01:35

From what I've read about the Port of Napier fight, I would say that the thanks for the email support was fairly overstated out of politeness - it didnt have much of a part (if any) to play in the victory. The ITF's role was pretty crucial though.

Feb 2 2008 14:16

Yeah, LS always says it has an impact - it runs the campaigns! - but it's not clear whether that's actually true though. I certainly don't think there's enough evidence to state that they're effective as a fact. I bet you find many times more examples where they have been completely useless, which of course calls into question whether their impact was meaningful elsewhere too.

Rob Ray
Feb 3 2008 09:25

Er not sure about the extrapolation of 'I bet you'd find' to 'calls into question whether their impact was meaningful elsewhere' though - surely you should prove labourstart's lying before calling anything else into question...

Thing is Lee tends to just pass on statistics for ho many were part of the campaign, and the thanks offered by those the campaign helped, he doesn't claim it's the sole factor in winning anything, just that it was a welcome addition to the actions of strikers etc. I think it's potentially a very useful supporting role, as it seems to intimidate employers who aren't used to this sort of thing, at zero cost and minimal time spent for activists. Of course it's not gong to be effective all the time, but then again, neither are strikes.

jef costello
Feb 3 2008 22:19

problem is that it is hard to tell what is effective sometimes.
I doubt labourstart can prove email campaigns to be effective any more than Steven can prove that they're not. If you're bombing a pr/info address then they are unlikely to be effective as these can usually be shut down without causing too much damage. If they're to people's personal addresses then they will be much more disruptive. I suppose it depends on how you expect them to work.

Feb 14 2008 18:07

I'm not saying anyone's lying, but i've seen no evidence they're effective. I won't bother doing or promoting something which I have no evidence it's effective.

Mar 28 2008 14:16

It's fairly simple. If you block someones email box succesful, you can have an impact. Not because of symbolic protest, but because Email is a bottle neck.

I think people over play it's success rate and I think the person above who says its polite to thank the emails is right.

It's actually easy to email bomb someone rather than just rely on individuals to email.