Eric Lee (65) is the man behind Labor Start, a website that creates online campaigns to support workers' struggles all around the world. Lee, an Israeli oleh now living in London, set up the site in the late 1990’s, in an attempt to prove that the Internet can be harnessed for the benefit of the global labor movement. .
In the beginning, he had a budget that was enough only for only a part-time job. Today, Labor Start is run by almost a thousand volunteers who write in 15 languages. The site has run hundreds of campaigns all over the world, and gained worldwide recognition. Not only that – Labor Start’s online campaigns lead to on-the-ground results.
"When we manage to free a union activist from prison in Cambodia and the whole world sees it, it shows tremendous power," Lee told Davar.
Labor in the Internet age
Lee was born in New York to a Jewish family. From a young age, he formed a socialist worldview and was active in left-wing movements. In 1973, he came to visit Israel and fell in love.
"Israel was considered the Sweden of the Middle East. As a socialist, it seemed like a dream to me," he said.
In 1981, he and his first wife moved to Israel and joined Kibbutz Ein Dor. Lee became the kibbutz's computer technician. In the early 1990’s, he was offered a job as a newspaper correspondent for the Histadrut's Adult Education Division, for a quarterly magazine that was published in three languages.
"hey wanted me to write a section that would deal with the Internet and work. The Internet was a new matter then and I didn't understand what could be written about it," he said, laughing. "I wrote one page with a printed list of the websites of all the trade unions in the world."
In 1996, Lee man got a chance to fly to South Korea, to cover a large general strike, in a country that only a few years earlier had become a democracy and experienced rapid economic and technological advances.
"I remember they talked to me there about ICQ (messenger service). They were on the edge of a technological leap,” Lee said. “They were also very advanced in their labor movement. People from all over the world came to see what was going on there."
Visiting South Korea gave Lee an opportunity to look to the future of the world of labor in the Internet age. "That's where the seed of Labor Start began. That's where I started thinking about how we could use the new media for the benefit of the movement. It was an exciting time,” he explained, adding that originally, he had hoped for unions to follow his example and start their own sites.
"I wanted to set up Labor Start as an attempt to prove that it could be possible. I didn't think that after 20 years, this site would continue to exist and fulfill this role,” Lee continued.
From a one-man operation to a thousand volunteers
In 1998, Lee left Israel and moved to London.
"Two unions from England that did not know me decided to pay me a part-time salary to promote Labor Start. These were the media union and the white-collar workers' union,” Lee said. “Their head was a nice guy, a Zionist who was proud that there was no computer on his desk. He had a secretary who would print things out from email. They just didn't understand anything then."
In the beginning, Lee operated the site on his own as a kind of news site for the world of labor. It took him a while to agree to open the site to volunteers, but once he did, they came in droves.
"Today there are about a thousand volunteers, a hundred of whom are active on a daily basis. In addition, there is a group of about ninety translators in 15 languages," he said, adding that Labor Start is mainly funded by donations by international and local organizations and individuals.
The first win against the Hilton
Over time, Labor Start has gone from a labor news site to a center for campaigns to support workers' struggles.
"The method of applying organized pressure to achieve a goal, proved itself," Lee said. "At first the unions did not know how to campaign, so we did it for them. As a programmer, the code I wrote was simple, so we gave it away for free. And it worked."
Lee described Labor Start’s first victory. It was a campaign against the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, Australia, which had closed for a year and a half for renovations. The hotel management refused to honor agreement made with hotel works to re-hire them before the hotel’s re-opening.
"I had a friend who was a union member there. I suggested that he do a campaign on Labor Start and call on people to express their support for the workers by sending an email to the hotel manager,” Lee explained. “The manager’s secretary, who was a union member, reported to us that he got a tremendous amount of emails. They came together with all of his regular emails – back then there was no such thing as spam, so he had to read them."
"The manager approached us through his secretary and asked if it was possible to 'turn off the tap.' We agreed to suspend the campaign, but he did not go to talk to the workers, so we ‘reopened the tap.' It got a lot of media attention," he explained.
According to Lee, international involvement began. Jesse Jackson, a pastor, senior politician in the Democrat party and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s associates in the Civil Rights Movement, said he would come to protests in solidarity. An American rabbi decided to recruit the leaders of congregations of many different faiths to demand results from the global Hilton hotel company.
"That manager in Sydney was under intense pressure. In the end, we won and the management accepted all the union's demands. The employees sent me a thank you letter in the mail and with it, a nice contribution to the site. It was our first victory," Lee said.
Since that first victory, Labor Start has launched hundreds more campaigns. Lee admits that most campaigns, like most workers' struggles, do not end in victory.
"But those that do succeed are especially exciting and should be celebrated," he maintained.
Solidarity as a way to fight anti-Semitism
Although Lee left Israel, the kibbutz and the Histadrut, he still identifies as a Zionist. He recognizes and fights the effects of anti-Semitism among unions..
"I have devoted a large part of the last few years the fight against anti-Semitism in the world of international labor," he said.
"They know me and Labor Start in the world and it is known that I am Israeli. I have written a lot of articles in support of Israel, especially when there were wars. I do not hide it and I am proud that I am a Zionist and still work with unions in Arab countries,” Lee said.“Every once in a while, there are those who call for boycotting Labor Start because they hate Israel."
Four years ago, Labor Start won an award for its achievements in the field of protecting workers' rights. The ceremony took place in Norway and was attended by people who Labor Start supported in their struggles. These included the head of the teachers' union from Bahrain, a Palestinian union leader and a union leader from Libya.
"That event, in front of hundreds of Norwegians, showed an amazing picture of the Middle East. There is an irony in the fact that I am a member of an Israeli kibbutz and three Arabs came to testify for me. I think that justifies the path I chose," Lee said.
Lee tells of a campaign launched two months ago in support of Jordanian teachers, in which ten thousand supporters, some of whom were Israelis, sent emails to the Jordanian government.
"It is very important that Hebrew appears in every campaign. Even in cases where it is an anti-Israeli organization," he explained. "When these organizations receive support from Israelis, I believe it has an impact. They see that Israel is not the devil."
"I work with a union leader from Iraq. I have friends among the Iranian Kurds. Ten years ago, there was a huge strike in Iran that paralyzed the whole city. We campaigned for the release of the union leader there,” Lee explained.”After a while, the same guy met me at an international conference, sat with me, and hugged me. He said thank you. He knew I was Israeli."
"I'm not naive and I know there are a lot of people who hate us, but if you work for the same dream of social justice and solidarity, then there are a lot of people you can work with," he continued, adding that he believes that Israel must be more involved in issues of labor in the international arena.
Labor Start, Corona and Joe Biden
Lee works from his home. Therefore, Labor Start has not been dramatically affected by the pandemic except that the amount of work has increased due to renewed labor struggles brought on by economic crisis.
"Last May Day, we saw how important our platform is. It was crazy. We reached tens of thousands of participants. No other organization has been able to organize such an event."
According to Lee, one can really see how the coronavirus affects people's attitude to organized labor.
"People see the failures of capitalism in dealing with the pandemic. You can see it with Trump in the U.S, with the Conservative Party in England,” he said. “Apparently, the labor movement is strengthening in some places and is regenerating in others."
“Right now, the eyes are on Biden in the U.S. Joe Biden is part of our family of union members,” Lee continued. “We are very excited and hoping for something like the 1930’s when millions of people joined the labor movement.”