|June 9, 2000
By Eric Lee
Note: This article appeared in Working USA.
There is little debate any more about how much the Internet has changed
world -- it is now widely understood that the emergence of a global
computer communications network is an event comparable to the invention
the printing press. (Though I do think comparing the net to the discovery
of fire are stretching things a bit.)
It has changed much in the world we live in, including how we buy and
things (from books to shares on the stock market), how we learn and
how we are entertained and informed. Everyone who uses the net
this. It is a tranformative experience.
And it is changing trade unions too, even if they don't realize it yet.
It's a little hard, at first, to accept the idea that new communications
technologies change institutions like trade unions. And yet a glance
backward at the 19th century reveals that the telegraph too had a
effect on the world's economy and culture and even -- albeit somewhat
obviously -- on the emergening trade unions.
In Tom Standage's delightful book, The Victorian Internet, a history of
telegraph, he recounts a story of the first trade union meeting conducted
"online" -- hundreds of employees of the American Telegraph Company
the lines between Boston and Maine met for an hour, conducted their
discussions and even passed resolutions, all in Morse code.
Obviously the idea of "online" trade unionism (using Morse code) didn't
catch on in the 19th century. But no less an authority on the early
movement than Karl Marx was convinced of the transformative power of new
communications technologies. In The Communist Manifesto, he wrote that it
was not the occasional victories of workers that was the "real fruit" of
their struggles, but the "ever expanding union" of workers.
"This union," he wrote, "is helped on by the improved means of
communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the
workers of different localities in contact with each other."
New communications technologies create new possibilities for trade
In the nineteenth century, they made unions possible -- or at least
that went beyond a single location. National trade unions, which were
common by the end of that century, would have been unthinkable without
national economies which were in turn dependent upon the telegraph.
The global trade unions emerging today, at the beginning of the
twenty-first century, are being made possible because of the Internet.
But none of this happened overnight. There is a history going back more
than twenty years of trade unions using computer networks. The global
networked trade unions now being born have their roots in the early 1980s.
Back in 1981, personal computers were hobbyists' playthings. They
Some people bought them. Some hobbyists even built modems which allowed
them to exchange files through telephone lines. In the late 1970s,
electronic bulletin boards had been created. But you really had to like
this sort of thing to buy and use a computer at home.
Trade unions, of course, had nothing to do with any of this. They
to work in the old tried-and-tested ways (without using computers) for
years to come, lagging far behind businesses which adopted personal
computers widely in the 1980s and got online by the mid-1990s.
But in 1981, there was a first, tentative step made. Larry Kuehn and
Myers of the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) saw a
demonstration of how a modem worked and were impressed. They introduced
portable computers (not very portable by today's standards) with modems
printers to union leaders and quickly created the first labour network.
Soon the whole Executive of the BCTF was traipsing around the province
sending off messages to each other on the clumsy machines.
There was no rush of imitators even though the project was fairly
successful. (The union survived a brutal assault by the right-wing
provincial government in part because its internal communications allowed
swift and effective responses.)
By mid-decade, a fellow Canadian -- Marc Belanger of the Canadian Union
Public Employees -- managed to put together Canada's first nationwide
packet-switching network. It was not only the first such network created
for a union -- it was the first such network created in Canada, period.
was called Solinet, short for Solidarity Network.
Within a short time, hundreds of CUPE members were using Solinet's unique
conferencing system which was also the first in the world to work in two
languages, English and French.
Meanwhile, the need for cheap communications was driving European-based
International Trade Secretariats to seek out alternatives to phone calls
and even the new fax machines. (International Trade Secretariats are
organizations of trade unions in particular sectors of the economy, such
teachers, metal workers, transport workers and so on.)
Eventually, they came upon a German-based network called Geonet and began
using this to exchange emails and even set up online bulletin boards. The
ITS for the chemical sector -- now known as the ICEM -- and the
International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) were pioneering global
labour computer communications years before most of us were even using
personal computers, let alone the Internet.
A little more than a decade after Kuehn and Myers got hooked on the idea
modems, enough was happening to justify an international conference to
discuss where things were going. This was held in Manchester in 1992,
hosted by one of Britain's largest unions, the GMB.
That Manchester conference and a successor one in 1993 included among the
invitees all those who had been involved -- including Kuehn, Belanger,
the Europeans, such as Jim Catterson of the ICEM and Richard Flint of the
ITF. Poptel, a workers cooperative had been launched in the UK to help
coordinate this work, and a rival grouping in the US -- IGC Labornet --
about to bring American unions online. For several years the two systems
Geonet's and IGC's -- existed side by side, unable to communicate with
another, offering rival conferencing systems for those few trade
who were already online.
I got interested in all this sometime in 1993. The International
of Workers Education Associations (IFWEA), which employed me to produce
new quarterly "Workers Education", took a great interest in these new
developments. It became the first international labour body to have its
website, early in 1995. I began contacting all the early pioneers who had
been making slow progress for more than a decade, learning about this
remarkable hidden history of an emerging labour network, when suddenly
hell broke loose.
Thanks to the creation of the Mosaic browser in 1994, the Internet
overnight, a mass medium. (The Mosaic browser is the forerunner of
In my book, The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New
(Pluto Press, 1996), I pointed out that the most optimistic estimates
showed then about 50 million people online. The day was coming, I wrote,
when there would be double that number. As I write these words, early in
2000, there are over 200 million people online. Many millions of these
trade union members and thousands of unions have established websites and
begun using the Internet as a basic tool of communication.
Coincidentally, many of the countries with the highest rate of Internet
penetration, such as Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, are countries
with the highest rates of trade union organization. Thus the percentage
Internet users who are trade unionists is actually probably quite high,
it is not unreasonable to suggest that there are currently tens of
of trade unionists online.
Now that the net has become a mass medium, it's time to look at how it
changed trade unions.
Some unions will point to such things as cost savings. There's no
that email is cheaper than fax, telephone and old-fashioned postal
mailings. Cost is often cited by trade union officials as a reason to
invest in any new technology, including the net.
But I think this misses the main point, which is the role played by the
Internet in reviving and strengthening the labour movement. There are
major effects which I intend to address in this article:
1. The Internet internationalizes unions and is leading to a rebirth of
classical trade union internationalism.
2. The Internet democratizes unions, decentralizes them, makes them more
transparent and open, weakens entrenched bureaucracies and provides new
tools for rank and file activists.
3. The Internet strengthens unions by helping them organize and reach new
audiences, as well as build public support during times of need, such as
The most important of these, by far, is the first -- the
re-internationalization of the labour movement.
One has to start by remembering how bad things have gotten. A hundred
ago, there existed a kind of labour internationalism that is hard to
imagine today. Working people often dug deep into their pockets to
far away strikes and unions were often built by highly mobile workers who
moved from country to country. The ties between unions in different
countries were much stronger in 1890 than they were in 1990. In 1890,
unions were able to organize centrally co-ordinated world-wide protests
including general strikes in support of a single, global demand -- the
8-hour day. And they were able to co-ordinate their actions so that it
happened on a single day: May 1, 1890. That was the first real May Day.
would have been unthinkable a hundred years later to organize a similar
global campaign, even though communications technologies were much
American unions have been particularly affected by the
de-internationalization of the labour movement and for many years, the
heavy hand of the AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department held back
kind of genuine solidarity campaigning, particularly at rank-and-file
level. And this was not only true of the USA, but of most trade union
movements in most countries. International departments of unions talked
one another; ordinary workers did not.
The Internet has already had a huge impact and one can now say without
of exaggeration that it has contributed to a remarkable
re-internationalization of trade unions which has in turn empowered those
unions, allowing them to survive and grow in the most difficult of times.
A remarkable example took place in early 1998 when tension between
Australian dock workers (known as "wharfies") and their employers, backed
by a viciously anti-union government, peaked -- launching what came to be
known as the "war on the waterfront".
News was breaking every hour as unions, employers and government fought
out in the country's courts -- and in ports around Australia. The
Union of Australia, representing the wharfies and the target of vitriolic
hatred from the right, had just launched its own, slick website. But it
wasn't being updated. Like so many trade union sites, it was just an
A team of web activists from other unions, including the teachers, worked
together with the Australian Council of Trade Unions to get up a
updated site on the net, but even this proved to be a sporadic effort.
most successful attempt to maintain daily coverage on the web was done by
local activist in Melbourne, an anarchist who went by the online name of
Takver. His "Takver's Soapbox" website, together with the Leftlink
list run out of a leftist bookshop, became the best sources of
online information about the dispute -- which increasingly took on an
The International Transport Workers Federation, based in London, was
charged with co-ordinating international support for the wharfies and
mobilized its website toward this end, but it was immediately slapped
a court injunction barring it from interfering. For several days the ITF
was immobilized and it fell to the independent LabourStart website,
recently launched by this writer, then living on a kibbutz in Israel, to
spread the news and build international support for the wharfies.
Within days, the threat of a boycott of Australian shipping emerged with
the longshoremen on the west coast of the US and Canada taking the lead.
News about the dispute had spread rapidly around the globe, largely
to the web and email. Faced with massive public support in Australia for
the wharfies and the danger of a shipping boycott, the government
and the wharfies won.
The victory of the wharfies stands in sharp contrast to the defeat of the
Liverpool dockers a few weeks earlier. The Liverpool dockers struggle was
also widely publicized on the net, thanks particularly to the Labournet
website run by Chris Bailey in the UK, and was widely promoted as the
successful example of the building of online, international trade union
solidarity we had seen so far.
But unlike the Australian wharfies, the Liverpool dockers' struggle was
"unrecognized" and they could not enjoy the full support of their union
(the Transport and General Workers Union) nor that of the ITF. Without
support from their own union, the best website in the world couldn't help.
In another example, in late 1999 broadcasting technicians working for the
American Broadcasting Company walked off their jobs in a one day strike
which prompted the company to lock them out and begin a bitter dispute
which lasted several months.
What would have a been a purely national dispute between a US union
and its employer inevitably took on an international character and within
weeks it became clear that ABC was using its London studios to broadcast
World News Tonight, their flagship program, thus avoiding the picket
in New York.
Thanks to the NABET websites news of the struggle with ABC had already
reached British shores. Eventually a NABET delegation arrived in London
using all the tools of modern communications technology -- websites,
faxes, mobile phones -- within hours they were able to pull together
leaders of some of Britain's largest unions, including the Communication
Workers Union, in a dramatic international picket line at the ABC studio.
Among the participants in that picket was the president of Media and
Entertainment International (MEI), the international trade secretariat
responsible for this sector.
The picket was widely reported in the British media, and digital photos
appeared hours later on the strikers' website in the US. Unions on both
sides of the Atlantic touted the event as heralding a new era of
co-operation and everyone pointed to the key role played by the Internet
Unfortunately, the London picket disappeared as soon as the American
strikers went home, ABC continued to broadcast its nightly news from the
safety of the capital of New Labour's Britain, and the union was
routed, accepting all the company's terms.
It was not enough to have a first-rate website or even to drum up some
international solidarity. When playing hardball with the likes of a
multinational corporation like Disney (which owns ABC), much more is
A final example -- and one with a happier ending -- of how the net is
helping to strengthen trade union internationalism occurred in recent
The militant South Korean trade unions -- long experienced in using the
Internet to build international support for their struggles -- were
in a non-violent sit-in in Seoul. The government sent in riot police who
proceeded not only to arrest 17 of them (including many prominent
heads of national unions) but to brutally beat them as well.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) sent out an urgent appeal
by email to all its contacts in the international labour movement. The
appeal began by publishing the email address of the Korean President, Kim
Dae Jung, suggesting that protest messages be sent directly to him. It
instantly published on the LabourStart website and a special urgent
sent out to the more than 1,400 subscribers to LabourStart's mailing
Within 48 hours -- on December 10th 1999, Human Rights Day -- the KCTU
announced the release of all the jailed trade unionists. In a remarkable
statement, they wrote:
"The news of the raid of the KCTU sit-in site by the riot police aroused
immediate reaction from the trade union movement community of the world,
which helped in bringing about the quick release of the detained
"The news of the riot police raid," the statement continued, "was
as the top news at the most widely accessed labour movement news website,
LabourStart. The LabourStart relayed the news via its listservice to
several thousand trade union movement activists in the world."
As a result, statements of protest poured in -- most of them by email. It
is no coincidence that the very organisations the KCTU thanked in their
message -- the International Metalworkers Federation (another
trade secretariat), the South African Municipal Workers Union, the
Labour Congress -- are among the most "wired" unions on earth.
At the end of their statement the Korean unionists remarked that they
made to realize "once more the power of international solidarity and the
new communication weapon of the labour [movement]", meaning the Internet.
This was not just a thank you note -- it was a wakeup call to unions
everywhere. The Korean trade unionists have long been proponents of
use of the new communications technologies and as early as December 1996
were publishing daily news reports about their general strike on the web.
Three years later, they were able to confirm what many of us have long
suspected: the Internet allows international labour to mobilize with a
speed and effectiveness we have never experienced before. And it can
produce concrete results, like freeing 17 imprisoned trade unionists.