|Another important change the Internet is bringing to unions is that it is
democratizing them. Some of them.
This is a painfully slow process and is nowhere near as advanced as the
re-internationalization of the labour movement. But there is already good
evidence that it is happening.
Already back in the early 1980s, the British Columbia Teachers
then pioneering use of modems, discovered whole strata of the union
hierarchy that proved to be unnecessary once communications were improved
and made more direct.
In the summer of 1999, flight attendants working for NorthWest Airlines
rejected the company's contract offer in a surprise vote. The union
leadership had urged members to vote for the contract. This is not the
first time that the rank and file have rebelled, but what made the
NorthWest case interesting was that the campaign against the new contract
was conducted entirely online.
It was organized initially by a single angry flight attendant based in
Francisco who sent out repeated emailings to fellow union members
explaining what was wrong with the contract. Because of the nature of
profession, always travelling from place to place, unable to attend
conventional union meetings, email turned out to be an especially potent
It even turned out that the NorthWest insurgents were not such pioneers;
they had heard that a similar rebellion at American Airlines, also using
email, had won a better contract some time earlier.
At just about the same time in Britain, the Communication Workers Union,
which represents both postal and telecom workers, had concluded a long
difficult series of negotiations with Royal Mail to produce a joint
long-term vision of employer-employee relations for the years to come.
Historically, postal workers have been a militant lot and the future of
Britain's postal service in the Internet age is uncertain. One can
how much work must have been put into reaching an agreement that
both the union and management.
Rank and file postal workers were not, admittedly, organized by email
an effective opposition to the agreement. They did, however, vote to
the proposal in a democratic ballot, forcing the union to re-think its
strategy regarding Royal Mail. But there was also an Internet angle to
Some months earlier, the union had launched a series of web forums on its
site. Though over a thousand members of the union (out of 250,000) had
password access to the forums, they were largely unused. In one
particularly embarrassing case, a female member of the CWU launched a
on women in the union and began with a message asking if anyone was out
there. She received no response.
As the forums were fairly inactive, and the top union leadership not yet
connected from their desktops to the Internet, no one noticed when
insurgent postal workers began using the tool to exchange views -- and
trash the union leadership for the deal it had made with Royal Mail.
a while, the attacks became bolder and personal, bordering on the
Someone noticed. The reaction of the union was to immediately shut down
the web forums for 48 hours and rethink the situation.
In the end, a set of guidelines for behavior in the forums was proposed
they were reopened, but it came as quite a shock to the CWU leadership to
see the new technology being used for such purposes.
One should not exaggerate the democratizing potential of the Internet for
trade unions. If the net were truly the great leveller, making everything
transparent, giving out all the facts so propaganda and lies would become
ineffective, and so on, then in countries like the US where Internet
penetration is very high, you'd see a rapid decline of old, corrupt
leaderships and their replacement by democratic reformers.
And yet the single biggest change to happen to US union leaderships in
age of mass Internet access was not the triumph of a reforming slate
somewhere, but Jimmy Hoffa's election in the Teamsters.
When I pointed this out at a conference in New York City a year ago, an
angry Teamster, herself a strong Hoffa supporter, pointed out that the
Hoffa campaign had run an excellent website and used email intensively.
Which is, I guess, the whole point.
The new technology by itself can be used by insurgents and by entrenched
bureaucracies -- there is nothing about it that guarantees the success of
democracy. What made the NorthWest and Royal Mail cases different was
the union leaderships were caught off guard. In the future, those
leaderships will be better prepared.
In addition to internationalizing and democratizing unions, the Internet
has the potential to greatly strengthen them -- not only as a recruitment
tool, but as a way of binding members ever-closer to their unions, using
the new technology.
In late 1998, John Dixon was sent on a global fact-finding mission by his
union, the New South Wales Teachers Federation, in Australia. While
visiting the UK, he met with officials of the National Union of Teachers
who told him that the web had proved to be an incredibly effective
organizing tool. Some 5,000 new members had been recruited online, he was
I have my doubts about this story. Because as one looks around at the
hundreds of trade union websites that seem to offer the possibility of
joining up online, in reality what they all seem to really offer is the
chance to fill out an online form and receive a packet of information by
This was confirmed by the fact that headlines were recently made in the
by the second largest union at Boeing (the SPEEA) which allows potential
members to download the union's authorization card in Adobe Portable
Document Format (PDF), meaning that they can print out the cards
themselves, sign them, and hand them in to union representatives. This
seems to be about as far as it has gone. Not even the SPEEA actually
you to join online.
True online organizing means allowing people to join unions in the same
that they bank online, or buy insurance, or shop for books or CDs. You
should be able to fill in a secure online form and sign it using an
encrypted digital signature. There should be no need for paper at all.
Obviously such a technical development would not eliminate the need for
human organizers actually talking to potential recruits. The labour
movement is not going to grow because people read good things about
on websites and promptly fill in the online forms.
But there is no reason why technological barriers should still exist to
actual online recruitment. And I'm convinced that it's only a matter of
time before unions actually do recruit this way. Already in Britain, the
government's proposed ecommerce legislation with its support for digital
signatures has convinced some that true online recruitment is now
Organizing means more than just recruiting members -- it also means
members in unions and bringing them closer to their unions. This is where
the Internet can play a big role in strengthening unions.
Unions which until now were limited by budgets to quarterly magazines
were sent to members can now communicate with their entire memberships on
daily basis, using email and the web. Because of the enormous cost
in old-fashioned print and mail, unions have become increasingly distant
from many of their members. When I asked at Britain's giant MSF union
some 400,000 members) about the possibility of doing a mailing to the
membership, I was told that the union simply didn't have the financial
ability to do such mailings. It relied upon a bimonthly or quarterly
magazine to keep up contact with the rank and file. It had no means to
mobilize its membership in time of need.
Today, MSF's website is updated on a daily basis, allowing the union to
talk to its members in real time -- something it has never been able to
before. The potential for mobilizing is now there. There are other ways
unions can bring members closer to the organization. In the past, unions
used things like t-shirts or pins and badges. Today, email addresses can
play a similar role. MSF negotiated a deal with a provider of web-based
email to provide an MSF email address to every member of the union. This
would be their permanent address, regardless of where they worked or who
their Internet service provider was. The idea was that members would tell
people their email address and that would be a way identifying themselves
as union members.
Other unions have made determined efforts to create portal websites which
would be the home pages of members on the Internet. Such sites would bind
members closer to their unions.
The most ambitious attempts to do so have been those recently launched by
the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the AFL-CIO, both of which are
offering package deals of computers, Internet access, and the portal
website. If hundreds of thousands of union members begin using these
services, as the two national centers hope will happen, they will not
be exposed to union news and views on a daily basis, but will probably
begin to identify themselves more and more as trade union members, even
they have never attended a union meeting in their lives.
The new online tools also allow unions to reach out beyond their own
memberships as never before. This is particularly true during times of
need, such as strikes, when the support of the community is especially
important. In recent years, unions have made extraordinary efforts to use
the web to tell their side of the story. This proved particularly
in the case of the Teamsters, a union which suffers from generally awful
public relations, when it led a strike at UPS which proved to be quite
popular with the American public. As I write these words, the Teamsters
again involved in a long and bitter nationwide strike, this time at
Overnite, and have set up a special website to tell their side of the
In 1999, Quebec's nurses found themselves embroiled in an extremely
difficult strike against a union-hating provincial government. The
website was caught unawares as the strike began -- it was a simple online
brochure with a picture of the union's president and some basic
and everything was in French.
But as the strike intensified, with threats of arrests of union leaders
multi-million dollar fines (nurses' strikes are illegal in Canada), the
union found itself transforming the website, turning it into a tool to
mobilize public support. Daily news was added. An English language page
added. Another page showed a long and growing list of organizations which
expressed solidarity with the nurses, from all over Canada and around the
After only a few days, the Quebec nurses were using the Internet actively
to build support, spread the news, raise morale. With widespread
support and an unwavering rank and file, they eventually won. The net
certainly played a part in their victory.
Unions are often perceived, at least in the advanced industrial
as dinosaurs. It would surprise no one to hear that most top leaders of
most unions are Internet illiterates.
But a campaigning union website sends out the opposite message. It says
that unions are part of the new, networked economy, that they intend to
stay around for a while and are not about to become extinct. Using the
communications technologies itself is a way of sending a strong message
about unions' commitment to the future.
Until now, I've talked about the past and present of unions and the net.
would be appropriate to conclude with a few words about the future.
Naturally, no one knows what will happen. With the incredible pace of
technological change, predicting has become an impossible job.
But we can take a page from Samuel Gompers, who when asked what trade
unions want said, "More!" What will happen to unions and the net in the
years to come? More -- more websites, more online campaigns, more online
recruitment, more online communities (web forums and chat rooms), more
mailing lists, more news, updated more frequently, more interactivity,
online rank and file activism, more international solidarity.
Thanks in part to the Internet, we are moving inevitably toward a
global economy. Just as the emergence of national markets in the 19th
century spawned national trade unions, so the 21st century is giving
to the next stage of the labour movement: networked global unions.
Copyright Eric Lee
About the author: Author of The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New
Internationalism (Pluto Press, 1996), editor of the LabourStart website
(http://www.labourstart.org), and ICT Co-ordinator for Labour and Society
International. Also the author of Saigon to Jerusalem: Conversations with
Israel's Vietnam Veterans (McFarland, 1992) and the unpublished Mole:
Stalin and the Okhrana. Founding editor of The New International Review
(1977-1989) and Workers Education (1993-1997). Member of Kibbutz Ein Dor,
Israel. Editor of the online newsletter BibiWATCH (1996-98). Currently
based in London.