Saturday, September 27, 2008

William Gibson Meets Ginger Goodwin

A little dated almost a year after it first appeared in print, but with the Second Life demo for decent work (part of the global campaign for the same) coming up in about a week...

I ran across a story on the other day that made me think some one had taken the brains of two Canadians, one well-known and read and alive, and the other not-so alive, but just as deserving and had thrown them both into a bender.

William Gibson the speculative fiction writer and inventor of cyberspace, and Ginger Goodwin, mine union organizer, shot in the back while viciously attacking the police.


I am getting old. I can tell: mostly because I keep finding more opportunities in life to say ‘I am getting old’. The biggest and best of those was when a granddaughter picked me up at the airport and drove me home.

The latest came when I stumbled across a story about 9000 Italian IBM workers, members of the RSU, taking job action against their employer – virtually.

As in online. Not real. Using little cartoon-like characters to represent real workers. This just a few years after I wrote an article saying such things would never happen, that organizing workers requires face-to-face contact.

Turns out that may be true of me my generation, but what’s coming up behind may have a different take on things. Note I resisted the temptation to make reference to ‘whippersnappers’.

There will be picket lines (though mebbe no oil drum heaters), leaflets for shoppers and other workers - everything you’d expect in a strike. Just no people. But lots and lots of avatars, because this is happening (if it can be said to be happening at all), in Second Life.

Second Life, for those of you who don’t know, is a virtual world in which 9 million users adopt facsimiles of themselves called avatars. Avatars then live out their lives at the direction of the users, interacting in most if not all the same ways their users do (so far as I know actual reproduction isn’t possible). But anonymously.

To the point where you can now buy real estate on Second Life, undertake all kinds of financial transactions find romance and figure out if you really could have made it as a painter.

You can also, now get this, visit a real embassy. Several in fact, with more coming. Get a visa, plan a vacation. Or take a university course.

While technically a computer game, Second Life resembles the Pong of my day the way I resemble whatever it was that first climbed out of the primal ooze.

Except mebbe a bit around the eyes…

Second Life has become so popular that a wide spectrum of corporations have established themselves there, the better to advertise themselves and their cutting-edginess, and to sell stuff to the online-addicted.

IBM is one. A big one. It has reportedly been spending big time on the establishment of a variety of online presences. On Second Life IBM has it’s own virtual island.

Corporations on Second Life actually use the environment for what they consider to be meetings that are more productive than conference calls or video conferencing. They sell stuff. They test stuff (especially graphic-intensive applications). And they advertise stuff. Oh boy, do they advertise stuff.

So what is this? The shape of strikes to come? A publicity stunt? Just a way of avoiding taking real action? Or just one more reminder from the Universe that I am getting old?

It’s perhaps all those things, but mostly it’s a case of whiplash for IBM. If transnational corporations like IBM have invested heavily in a presence on Second Life, then the workers would be stupid to ignore the possibilities for getting their employer’s attention it presents.

IBM can run, but it can’t hide.

Transnational virtual corps spawn transnational virtual unions. IBM doesn’t play nice with its workers; their union organizes something embarrassing on Second Life. And for some corporations it may actually be possible to have an economic impact on their business. If they are well established on Second Life (or any other social networking site), dependent on it for a significant chunk of sales or advertising or meeting time, then a virtual strike like this could have an impact back here in the real world of profits and share prices.

A virtual job action also the potential to make building support for unions, especially unions representing professional workers, workers with a long tradition of workplace conflict.

Better yet, potential for organizing high-tech home workers and telecommuters. These are workers that unions have traditionally had a hard time reaching and organizing. It’s hard to convince workers like these that what they are doing by organizing and mobilizing is real when you have nothing real for them to do. . As unreal as second Life is, the action the RSU members are taking against IBM is very real. Not concrete mebbe, but real.

For workers in a sector not traditionally union, the RSU is organizing a kind of job action that allows workers (if they work at it just a bit) to stay anonymous. They don’t, unless they want to, have to make it easy to identify who is behind their avatar. As a way to build confidence amongst workers who need and want to take that first action against an unfair employer this may have some advantages. Start out slow and work your way to more direct actions.

In and of itself it’s unlikely a virtual job action will bring IBM to its knees. Ten years from now I’ll be even older, both granddaughters will have driver’s licences, and perhaps the odds will have shifted, but not yet.

But the confidence in themselves, their co-workers and their union, that an action like this could create might just make possible and successful more, dare I say it, traditional, forms of job action.

Workers are not stupid. They may be in the position of having to react to their employers’ actions, but when you react you go looking for new weak points. IBM’s Second Life image may be that point. We’ll see. But if it isn’t, who cares? The workers may be, as a result, just a little more ready to move on to actions out here in meatspace.

Look at their press releases and statements: nothing new in their goals, incremental pressure on IBM to meet some well-defined and limited goals. With the exception of the details of the action that’s planned, there’s nothing exceptional in what the workers want (respect), or in how IBM has behaved (badly). Just in how the union is reacting.

Like the Borg, unions are adapting.

Ginger Goodwin might not approve (though William Gibson sure would), if he understood, but if you work for a tech company that does business in non-places like Second Life, you gotta fight them on their ground.

Even if that ground doesn’t really exist.

But the really nice thing about a virtual strike is that even if a car on a picket line hits your avatar, even if the riot squad shows up, you don’t wake up in hospital or spend an evening trying to get the stinging to stop.

Stay tuned. We’re going to see more of this.

For what seems to be the first story on the virtual strike see

For info on Second Life, see The Sniffer Podcast at

The IBM Italia Union:

For more on Second Life:

Ginger Goodwin

William Gibson:

RSU Website:

RSU public statement on the upcoming strike:

Monday, September 22, 2008

The TUC Does It Again

ToUChstoneblog is where all the policy wonks at the Trades Union Congress of the UK are going to post their thoughts, findings, musings and comments on current affairs. One-stop shopping for the best in the UK labour movement's analysis of just about anything.

A free Blogspot account to anyone who starts something similar in Canada. :-) Gets a Makeover

A long-time hotbed of ideas for the online labour movement, Communicate or Die went, like all good sites, through the doldrums. It's now out the other side and cookin'.

Worth following their feed too.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The European Social Forum 2008

A classic done justice.

Photo: M. Urata

Monday, September 15, 2008

Tourism For Peace and Cuban Hurricane Relief has a list of non-profits that can ensure donations for Cuban hurricane recovery reach those most in need and without any admin costs being deducted.

CBC Sees the Light

Thanks to a, you guessed it, online (mostly Facebook, but let's pretend we didn't hear that) campaign, CBC's Search Engine is back. Not, unfortunately, a radio show, but as a straight-to-pod production. Subscribe off iTunes or at:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Appeal for Assistance for Hurricane Gustav Relief for Cuba

From: Cuba Hurricane Fund Committee, Canadian Network on Cuba

As you already know, Cuba has once more suffered the fierce attack of a hurricane. This one, Gustav, is considered to be the most devastating in the last forty years. Having caused severe flooding in its early stages in eastern Cuba, it grew in strength and size in the warm Caribbean waters and, after demolishing the special municipality of the Isle of Youth with its awful force, invaded Pinar del Río, Cuba's most westerly province. By this time it had achieved a diameter of some 450 kilometers with the most destructive winds and rains packed into the eastern side of the monster. Although Pinar del Río bore the brunt of the damage, ravaged by sustained winds of 240 kph, with gusts as high as 350 kph, the area of damage extended to include the provinces of Havana, City of Havana and Matanzas.

The damage touched all sectors of the economic and social life of the region. In large parts of Pinar del Río and Isla de la Juventud, houses, schools, hospitals and other public buildings that weren't demolished, lost their roofs or suffered other kinds of damage. This means that warehouses that stored supplies and commodities such as rice, sugar, flour, tobacco, could not avoid exposing them to the elements. Cultural and recreational facilities were damaged or destroyed. Ferris wheels were turned into mangled metal, as were transmission towers used for electricity or communications. Damaged high-tension power lines, roads and bridges added to the toll. The agricultural sector has suffered severely. Hundreds of hectares of bananas fell early, as did citrus fruit. Sugar cane was massively affected, and sophisticated irrigation equipment was ruined. The part of the fishing industry based in the Isla de la Juventud was gravely hurt.

The good news is that -- thanks to the precautionary measures, in which Cuba leads the world and which involved moving a quarter of a million people to safe shelter -- not a single life was lost. Five lobster fishermen who were missing at sea for a time were found after an intensive air and sea search.

At this time of writing, two days after the disaster, the total cost of the damage has not yet been assessed, but it will surely be billions of dollars.

Even though Cuba has not requested aid from us, the friends of Cuba, led by the constituent members of the Canadian Network on Cuba, will want, as they usually do, to do everything possible to help. In view of the great expense, we should imaginatively seek out new additional sources of funds-from different levels of government, farmer's associations, trade unions, cultural groups-and in general widen the circle of the friends of Cuba.

We should work to include people who are indignant at injustice, those who understand, for example, that one of the main reasons why the Bush administration let some of its citizens die rather than accept Cuban medical help at the time of Katrina was because they wanted no easing of their brutal embargo, even when Cuba was faced with terrible natural disasters.

Let us approach Canadians with some of the information included in this piece and, as José Martí would do, believing in their goodness.

The need for funds to recover from hurricane Gustav is urgent. We aim to forward to Cuba an initial contribution of $100,000 as soon as possible. We hope that in this hour of Cuba's need, you will find it possible to respond in a spirit that reflects the generosity and determination of the Cuban people.

One hundred per cent of your donation will go to Cuba either directly or in shipping requested materials to help in the reconstruction.

There are two ways to send in donations. Either way, you will receive a charitable tax receipt:

1) Send your cheque made payable to the "Mackenzie-Papineau Memorial Fund", clearly stating "For Cuba Hurricane Relief" on the memo line, together with your name, address and telephone number. Envelopes should be addressed to: Mackenzie-Papineau Memorial Fund, Att: S. Skup,Treasurer, 56 Riverwood Terrace, Bolton, Ontario, L7E 1S4

2) Make out your cheque to your local Cuba solidarity committee with
your name, address and phone number, clearly stating "For Cuba Hurricane Relief". The local committee will send one cheque together with a list of the names, addresses, phone numbers and the amount of the donation of the individual donors to the Mackenzie-Papineau Memorial Fund (Registered
charitable organization # 88876 9197). Tax receipts will then be issued to individual donors.

Yours in solidarity,

Keith Ellis, Chair
Cuba Hurricane Fund Committee
Canadian Network on Cuba

Sunday Mornings My Mind Turns to Pods

There are any number of neat 'niche' podcasts out there. Most easily subscribed to off iTunes and free.

The Labour Show from Scott McWhinney (an electrician at the U of Guelph) and The State We're In from Radio Netherlands Worldwide are today's faves.

Scott uses (mostly) interviews to address issues of the day affecting workers, on the surface local, but there's something in each for anyone anywhere in Canada - and probably beyond. My only complaint is that it isn't a daily. But then since this is an indie production with mebbe 3 volunteers at work in a good week, it's not much of a complaint.

The RNW show focuses on human rights issues, broadly put, and usually includes a quirky almost humourous segment, or an odd take on a known issue.

It's nice to see the Corpse leading the podcast pack. It's getting hard to find a CBC Radio 1 show that doesn't appear as a pod for easy consumption at the Y or, if you're like me, on the long drive between repeaters. And the Radio 3 pods mean I can actually have conversations with the grandkids about music.

Filmspotting comes out of a laptop in Chicago, produced by two loonie (in the best sense) film nuts. More than just a pod, it's a cult (I'll drink their kool-aid any day) with it's own website at:

Interactive Leadership Is Rare

Why do so few union leaders blog?

Paul Moist, President of CUPE, is one of the few.

Me on Facebook

I'm not literally, merely analytically:

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Internet Video of Ike Whacking Cuba

Ever notice how commercial media (and the CBC, BBC et al) give considerable coverage to hurricanes and such hitting the coast of Florida even if by the time they get there they have subsided into tropical storms, but little or no attention is paid to Cuba (with its extensive hurricane evacuation system) or Haiti (where the death toll will likely break 1,000 this season)?

Internet video sites and a little creative citizen journalism is making a difference:

Even If Just Propaganda, It Still Makes an Impression

In the aftermath of Katrina Cuba offered the USA tonnes of medical supplies and almost 2,000 doctors and who-knows-how-many other medical pros.

After Ike the US government offers up USD100,000. The Cuban government's repsonse?

Model Use of You Tube?

Accuse me of being inclined to give my own union a bit of extra credit if you must, but this is definitely one of the richer union channels on YT.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Union Propellerhead? LabourStart Could Use a Bit of Help

From Eric Lee at

LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement, is a complex website.

It runs a very large number of scripts written primarily in Perl with newer ones in PHP. It now runs a number of MySQL databases but also several older, flat ASCII databases. It works in dozens of languages and has recently moved over to Unicode.

Nearly all the programming work until now has been done by only one person. This is slowing things down, and making the continued growth of the site impossible.

We’re going to use this blog to tell you about technical problems we’re having, and if you’re familiar with PHP, Perl, JavaScript, MySQL and Unicode, you should be able to help.
LabourStart is a volunteer project and we cannot pay you — but we will give credit here to those who provide us with technical support.

Thanks very much for your help.