Last Saturday the TUC’s conference centre played host to Netroots UK 2012, a gathering of online activists from across the progressive movement. Hundreds of campaigners spent a whole day networking, training and debating strategy – a unique chance for trades unionists, political activists, local anti-cuts campaigns, environmentalists, direct action groups, equality organisations and many more to come together and collaborate.
It was the third British Netroots event (the second at TUC towers) and this time I was glad to see unions seemed to be playing a more central role than they have previously. This latest conference saw a number of union speakers, bringing the labour movement’s experience into sessions on austerity and women’s employment (Diana Holland of Unite), campaigning on the NHS (Sian Rabi-Laleh of UNISON), and defending abortion rights (Scarlet Harris of the TUC).
I was reflecting on this, when I came across a Daily Kos blog post by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, on the changes he’s seen in seven years of Netroots Nation events.
The US grassroots mega-conference from which Netroots UK draws a lot of inspiration and assistance started as a gathering of bloggers, but now encompasses activists from all kinds of US progressive groupings. The biggest change Markos drew from his experience was the increased integration of the US digital grassroots with the US union movement.
“A handful of labor unions sponsored that initial event, and they chaffed at the poor attendance at their panels. Us netrootsy types looked at them and waved them off dismissively—’They’re part of the dinosaur establishment that has led to so many Democratic defeats!’ They looked at us and sneered, ‘What are these dorks with their computers going to do, bonk George Bush over the head with their laptops?’ In other words, neither of us saw the value in what the other brought to the table.”
Seven years on, Markos sees unions making vastly better use of digital technologies for campaigning and organising, and many digital grassroots groups themselves becoming more stable and finding a clearer place for themselves in the progressive movement, where they can better understand how to relate to other groups like unions.
Here’s hoping it doesn’t take us 7 years in the UK. Saturday wasn’t entirely a labour movement love-in (UK Uncut’s Dani Paffard sparked a mini Twitterspat by challenging unions to prove themselves relevant to young non-members like herself) but with many speakers mentioning the central role of the union movement, and more union activists and staffers in attendance, there seems to be a keenness to engage with both new technologies and new types of activism.
The trends are certainly happening here. UK unions are increasingly taking advantage of digital technology to support their campaign work and their organising. They’re also finding out better where the strengths of the union movement in stability, experience and research capability, can fit in with other groups. Union staffers are becoming regular guests on many of our bigger left and centre-left group blogs. Recent years have also seen examples of unions playing a supporting role in the campaign work of more agile new groups like False Economy, 38 Degrees or UK Uncut.
Hopefully Netroots UK has a role to play in continuing these trends – letting us all learn from what each other do well, and setting up contacts that will lead to interesting new partnerships – a rising tide that will help lift the boats of organised labour and NGOs as well as of newer grassroots groups and activists.