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Towards a Global Labournet

Chris Bailey

Written for the LaborMedia '97 Conference Seoul, Korea, 10th-12th November 1997

In this paper, I outline briefly the origins of LabourNet, put forward for discussion some of the theoretical positions that lay behind my decision to launch it in September 1995 and discuss the rich experience arising from the work LabourNet has done with the Liverpool dockers. 

I stress that the positions expressed are my own. LabourNet has a steering committee based on agreement with the document "What is LabourNet?" and this includes a range of opinions on some of the questions I touch on in this paper. 

On some of the positions I put forward I am hoping to develop a debate Eric Lee began by his book "The Labour Movement and the Internet". This concerns such issues as the role of a global labournet and its relation to labour internationalism. I think achieving clarity on such questions is the key to building a global labournet. Unusually for the labour movement, the problems we face are not primarily about obtaining technical resources. I founded LabourNet with just a PC and a modem. That was all that was needed to start an online publication that from the beginning had the physical capability to reach millions of people around the world at minimal cost. I suspect most of the activists involved in labour computer communications have little more than this. 

I hope we can use the Internet to continue an ongoing discussion on some of these questions in parallel with our practical work. 

 

The origins of LabourNet

From 1989 until 1995 Steve Zeltzer of US LaborNet regularly sought to convince me that I should start up a UK LabourNet along similar lines to the US version. Although I began to supply LaborNet with a UK news feed, I remained unconvinced that a new labour movement Internet service provider was a viable proposition in Britain. I still think this. I also had general doubts about the usefulness of computer communications for the labour movement. These were based on some rather unhappy experiences in the mid 1980's when I was working with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa in an international campaign against the British multinational, BTR. 

My attitude towards labour movement use of the Internet was transformed by a conference I attended at the TUC in March 1995. It was on "The Global Economy, the New Technology and Constant Change" and was organised by "Radical Black & Third World Books". At this conference, I was totally convinced by the presentations of Abdul Alkalimat, a Black activist from Chicago, and Milverton Wallace, a journalist and former founding editor of the daily Jamaica Record. They both spoke concerning the "revolution" that the Internet represented as a publishing medium. 

I attended the conference with Marie Dancsok, a friend of Florence Ross, instigator and organiser of a computer communications program in the United Nurses of Alberta. Marie had been President of a UNA Local and was wildly enthusiastic about the democratising effects of Florence's work within the union. 

At this time, I was involved in producing a rank and file UK union journal called Trade Union News. The idea of LabourNet as a kind of international online version of Trade Union News grew out of discussions with Marie about ideas we got from the conference. 

My main motivation in deciding to launch LabourNet did however come from another source. It arose out of political discussion I had been involved in with a small number of others for several years. They, like me, were mostly political refugees from various left sects and, particularly as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, we were attempting a thorough re-examination of our ideas. Of particular note in this respect is the late Ken Tarbuck. I worked closely with him in the period before his death in a joint effort to formulate some new theoretical positions concerning working class internationalism. 

An important influence in our considerations was the document Drawing the Battle Lines Inside the New World Order by Dan Gallin, General Secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel and Restaurant and Catering, Tobacco and Allied Worker's Association (IUF). It interesting to note that Eric Lee in his book, The Labour Movement and the Internet also indicates that he was influenced by this article. 

In the second half of 1995, I began discussions with GreenNet on the possibility of opening up a "computer communications and news" service for the labour movement. GreenNet is an independent computer service provider run by a co-operative. Its main concern is with issues of the environment, the women's movement, peace and human rights. It was however keen to develop a labour movement service and had, in fact, approached me about this earlier. 

We held a LabourNet "launch" meeting in a Kings Cross pub. Addressed by Vassily Balog from the 107 million member General Confederation of Trade Unions, covering the ex-USSR, it produced an audience of six, myself and Marie, two GreenNet people and two "independents"! 

 

The Liverpool docks dispute

Shortly afterwards, however, something was to happen that would totally transform the situation - the Liverpool dock strike. After Greg Coyne and Jagdish Parikh suggested the idea of a web site for the dockers on the union-d mailing list I met with GreenNet. We decided to immediately launch LabourNet on the web with a free service for the dockers. 

From the beginning, the dockers dispute, in which 500 were sacked for standing by the trade union principle of not crossing a picket line, encapsulated certain features that I believe to be central to both the need for, and the possibility of, a global labournet. I regarded the dockers as a test case for those of us involved in computer communications for the labour movement. If our work is unable to fulfil real needs for the working class then we are nothing more than computer enthusiasts playing games. If a necessity does not exist within the international working class for a global labournet then there will not be one despite all our best efforts. I am convinced, however, and was in 1995, that a labour computer network is essential to help answer major problems facing the organised working class all over the world. The predicament of the Liverpool dockers epitomises many of these problems. 

 

Dockers and "the world of computers" 

The latest issue of Trade Union World, the publication of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, referring to LabourNet, writes about "this unlikely meeting of two apparently unrelated worlds - the docks and the world of computers" representing an "unlikely, but successful telescoping". It goes on to say "The Liverpool dockers have thus succeeded, despite the fact that their profession as such is not "on line", in making the headlines on the web." 

I think it is necessary to consider this whole question of the relationship between the Liverpool dockers and "the world of computers" in depth. First of all, it isn't entirely true that "their profession as such is not "on line"" as I discovered in San Francisco when I met "longshoremen" who worked with computers all day. They were hooked into a network that monitored cargo handling all along the US West Coast. Tending to also be computer enthusiasts at home, some of them are avid LabourNet readers and have played an important role in spreading the message of the Liverpool dockers to West Coast longshoremen through postings to union noticeboards in the hiring halls etc. There are undoubtedly other examples I don't know about. 

 

"Globalisation"

However, this is a secondary aspect of a much deeper relationship between computers and dockers. This connection, whilst it has some particular features of its own, also concerns the role of computer technology for the whole working class. This arises from certain developments in international capital that have become known in recent years as "globalisation". 

Following the defeat of fascism in the Second World War the economies of the world moved, at first slowly, but none-the-less surely away from the autarchic states that dominated the 1930s towards "Free Trade" and the growth of an open world market. At the heart of this process was the driving force of the law of value breaking down restrictions standing in the way of its operation and creating the necessary conditions for the free flow of capital. In the early 1980s this process accelerated sharply and found its reflection within the human mind in the form of "neo-liberalism", essentially a political movement whose aim was to deregulate capital flow around the world. 

In returning to the classical liberal economics of the 19th Century this political movement was expressing the fact that capitalism was reverting to tendencies it had first exhibited in this earlier stage of its development. Until the 1870s, the growth of Free Trade and an open world market had appeared to be a central, indeed defining, feature of capitalism. 

It is in this period that the workers' movement first defined itself. There was really only one answer to the free flow of capital around the world. It was expressed in the famous call of Karl Marx, "Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains." The building of an international workers' organisation was central to even the most day to day questions facing the workers movement. The logic of this was expressed clearly in the resolution supporting "the International" passed at the founding conference of the British TUC: 

"That as local organisations of labour have almost disappeared before organisations of a national character, so we believe the extension of the principle of free trade, which induces between nations such a competition that the interest of the workman is liable to be lost sight of and sacrificed in the fierce international race between capitalists, demands that such organisations should be still further extended and made international." 
Protectionism and the growth of the nation-states
However, the development of capitalism proved to be much more complex than either the liberal economists or the main theoreticians of the First International, Marx and Engels, visualised. Capitalism cannot operate without possessing a home base and an associated home market. The initial Free Trade period became more and more clearly revealed as actually representing the domination of one nation-state, Britain, over the rest of the world. 

From the 1870s onwards, a protectionist period dominated by the building of new nation-states prevailed. Some of these states soon became major challenges to the domination of British capitalism. 

This period was to last for more than a hundred years. It totally transformed the workers' movement. Internationalism remained as an idealistic and Utopian appeal within the workers' movement but the material basis for it no longer existed. The labour movement grew in strength, but its gains were consolidated within in the structures of the individual nation-states. 

This was personified by the collapse, during the First World War, of the Second International into a series of national parties that pursued their own interests and only worked very loosely together on an international scale. The attempt of the Third International to circumvent the reality of the situation resulted in an organisation operating under the instructions of a particular nation-state, Russia. It tried to substitute itself for the real movement of the working class. This tragedy was ultimately repeated as complete farce in the so-called Fourth International. 

 

The new Free Trade

The present period of Free Trade negates the protectionism of capitalism's previous phase by carrying forward certain developments from it. It is not just a return to the economics of the 19th Century when Free Trade was dominated by one nation, Britain. Today, capital operating out of a series of different home bases competes. A dialectical relationship continues between the need for the nation-state as a base for national based capital and the drive to deregulate the flow of this capital around the world. 

There is however one particular aspect of the nation-state that is being put under a tremendous and universal strain by this latest phase of Free Trade. The agreements and compromises that were consolidated into nation-states through the fight of the working class in the previous protectionist period are everywhere under attack. Governments, supposedly from a range of differing political positions including, of course, "new" social democracy, are all intent on conveying the same message concerning this "new reality" of globalisation. Under the guise of increasing "labour flexibility" the rights and protection of workers incorporated into the nation-states has to be reduced to a minimum. This once more raises an absolute necessity for workers internationalism. It is natural that the working class will initially try to defend its gains of the previous period by seeking to maintain a protected relationship within its 'own' state. This is, however, now a dead end that ultimately leads to defeat. 

 

The role of technology

Globalisation differs from the 19th Century free flow of capital in another important respect. It has been driven forward by a rapid technological development on a scale never seen before. The flow of capital and its process of expansion are restricted, not only by national boundaries, but also by physical barriers of space and time. The assault on these over the past twenty years has been even more spectacular than the neo-liberal attack on the political restrictions to capital flow. 

Most dramatic of all has been the explosive growth of computer technology combined with advances in telecommunications. Also important, however, have been developments in transportation. In order to be able to reorganise other aspects of the productive processes on a global scale capital firstly has to revolutionise the speed at which both information and goods can flow. A major requirement in the globalisation process has been the shrinking of time and space through computer communications and the re-organisation of transportation. To a very large degree the former has driven the latter. 

It is in this context that a relationship exists between the position of the Liverpool dockers and the "world of computers". The use of computer technology by employers has been central to the international rationalisation of ports and shipping. Without it the new international structures of transport and distribution they are creating would be inconceivable. Neo-liberalism could be fairly accurately described as classic liberalism with computer communications. As in the 19th Century, the only answer for the working class must be international solidarity. But it too must be with computer communication. I started LabourNet from this conception. The logo, a traditional solidarity symbol in a coil of computer communication cable was designed to indicate this. 

 

Thatcherism in Britain

During the 1980s Margaret Thatcher headed a British government determined to carry out the neo-liberal program. The need to inflict a major defeat on the unions was central to her whole position. She succeeded and the shock has been traumatic for the British labour movement. It had seemed impossible. We saw ourselves as having one of the most powerful trade union movements in the world, able to give condescending advice to everyone else. In the previous period the union movement had been able to make or break governments. Now it was itself broken by the Thatcher onslaught. 

The defeat of the British trade union movement, the oldest and one of the strongest in the world, should be seen as a vital lesson for the entire international labour movement. Certainly there were intrinsic weaknesses in our position, which Thatcher was able to exploit, but the labour movement elsewhere would be wrong to see this as the main reason we were beaten. Every labour movement has its strengths and its weaknesses. One of our greatest weaknesses was, in fact, complacency, an error that shouldn't be repeated elsewhere. 

Essentially, what Thatcherism showed was the changed relationship between the workers' movement and the nation-state. In a very short space of time her return to "Victorian values" rolled back gains made by the labour movement over the course of a century. 

 

The National Dock Labour Scheme

One of these gains was the National Dock Labour Scheme. Since the 1880s dockers in Britain had fought against the evils and humiliations of casual dock labour well illustrated in America by the famous film "On the Waterfront". In 1947, this scourge was finally ended in Britain through legislation from the post-war Labour government setting up a state-controlled scheme removing casual labour. 

This compromise with workers rights was typical of the kind of thing the Thatcher government wanted to strip from the state structure. A series of battles with dockworkers took place culminating in their defeat in the national dock strike of 1989. The National Dock Labour Scheme was removed and new schemes of casualisation were developed. 

The Liverpool dockers put up the strongest fight of all. In fact, they stayed on strike when everyone else had returned. This was wholly in keeping with their very strong trade union tradition. They have always been an important component of the British labour movement. This tradition was well illustrated at the recent mass meeting called to reject the £28,000 bribe being offered to betray trade union principles. A docker held up his dead father's union card. He said, "I believe in an afterlife. When I meet my father again, I will be able to say 'Dad, I didn't let you down'". The dockers went on to reject the bribe by a two to one majority in a postal ballot after more than two years of strike hardship. 

 

The present dockers' fight

The legendary determination and devotion to trade union principles of the Liverpool dockers was certainly one of the considerations that convinced me to start LabourNet to help in their present fight. There was another factor, too. It was already clear that they were conducting their fight in a number of new ways. I was in profound agreement with these methods and saw them as very directly related to what I wanted to do with LabourNet. 

The employers, the government and even their own union considered the Liverpool dockers were defeated from the start. They were, after all, the last remaining 500 from a fight that had originally started from tens of thousands of dockers. If it had been possible to break the rest then surely it should be easy to get rid of these last few. 

But it was not so easy as it seemed. The Liverpool dockers had learned some important lessons from the previous defeats. I believe the conclusions they drew are of vital importance for workers all over the world. They had been in the forefront of the battle against the neo-liberal attack on the workers movement in Britain. This attack had defeated both the British labour movement as a whole and the formerly powerful trade union organisations of British dockers. Thatcher was spearheading a movement that is attacking workers rights around the world. The new perspectives that have come from the Liverpool dockers have universal significance. 

 

New perspectives

During the 1980s a section of the Liverpool dockers' leadership in the Merseyside Port Shop Stewards Committee had become increasingly aware that the changes taking place in the Port industry were due to a rationalisation that was taking place on an international scale. They attended conferences in the Philippines and Spain where these questions were discussed. By the time of the 1989 strike they had built up some international contact with dockers elsewhere. This was used in the 1989 strike. Despite its defeat, there was significant solidarity action from dockworkers in other countries and the Port Shop Stewards Committee was well aware of this. 

When they were sacked following a provocation in 1995, the stewards remembered this. Faced with a situation in which they were all that was left of a defeated dockers' movement in Britain, the stewards now turned to dockworkers around the world for help. Sacked dockers were flown to various parts of the world to renew old contacts and make new ones. An international dockworkers conference was organised. 

Amazingly, the dockers' leadership has been criticised from some sections of the British left for this. They have been accused of leading a diversion by turning in an international direction. I believe this is profoundly wrong and simply shows the stupidity of some sections of the left who never learn anything and simply repeat the same old formulae forever. The most important question facing the working class is the realisation that we have re-entered a situation, like that of the 19th Century, where gains can only be made and defended through internationalism. In turning to international work the dockers were recognising the global nature of the transformations in the port industry and were posing the only way to fight back for dockworkers everywhere. 

This turn towards international organisation by the dockers cried out for use of the Internet. As I have said above, computer technology and communications play a central role in the port rationalisation they are confronted with. Surely similar technology is vital to co-ordinating the fight back? 

Another important feature in the way the dockers have conducted their fight concerns democracy. Every week since the strike began they have held at least one mass meeting. Everyone is kept informed of latest developments and decisions are taken by a show of hands. Although some decisions are obviously made by dockers alone, the meetings, except in special circumstances, are open to all supporters. All political tendencies on the left are allowed to participate and put their point of view. 

Finally, the other innovation they have been responsible for concerns their relationship with other social movements. One of the first developments in the strike was, of course, the setting up of Women of the Waterfront, organising wives and partners into the fight. However, this was only one aspect of an ongoing process. The dockers already had a good relationship with environmentalists because of actions they had taken in the past concerning toxic cargoes. They have developed this relationship further and have won wide support amongst other social movements that do not normally identify with a trade union fight. 

 

A New Internationalism

I have spent a considerable time describing the way in which the Liverpool dockers have organised because I believe this is essential for defining the parameters of a global labournet. I think it would be a big mistake if we somehow believed that it is the use of computer communications by a handful of labour movement enthusiasts that will create a "New Internationalism". We are the medium, not the message. 

It is the widespread use of computer communications by the employers, not us, that actually drives the international working class towards a new internationalism. By using this technology to revolutionise production and distribution methods they are rapidly transforming the world. In this new world it is impossible to defend the gains of the labour movement by turning back into the protected relationships we have built with "our own" nation-states. A new internationalism is essential, but it is the working class itself that will define it. 

I believe the dockers have already indicated the essential ingredients of a labour movement fight-back against the globalisation of capital. They are: 

    Internationalism.

    The widest possible democracy. No exclusion of any labour movement tendencies.

    An alliance with other social movements fighting against the dehumanising effects of capitalism.

Our work on the Internet should be aimed towards helping to bring all of these about. Those of us working towards a global labournet have an essential role to play in bringing about a new internationalism. It is impossible without us. The working class can no more fight the computer technology of the employers without using it themselves than they can fight a tank with a bow and arrow. But the power of our work must come from answering, not dictating, the needs of the workers movement. 
At the LaborTECH '97 Conference in San Francisco a Turkish delegate explained the importance of the Internet in his country: "All of the media was telling us that everyone else in the world was accepting deregulation and labour flexibility and we would lose our jobs if we didn't accept it too. But when we read the Internet we found it wasn't true". 

Our ability to bypass the controlled media is a very powerful weapon indeed when it conveys the truth about workers struggles. This work has already produced important results. LabourNet has played a vital role in bringing about the biggest international action of the working class this century around the Days of Action in support of the Liverpool dockers. The work of the Telecommunications Taskgroup for the General Strike took the message of the Korean General Strike around the world and taught many of us for the first time that there was a powerful organised working class in Korea. 

On April 10th this year the work of LabourNet and the TTGS was united when 1,000 dockers, threatened by the Army and Federal Police, marched through the streets of Santos, Brazil, chanting the slogan "Santos, Liverpool, Seoul, Amsterdam, the same world, the same struggle." These workers knew about these struggles because of our joint work. I hope this will be only the beginning of a joint co-operation, together with others, to build a global labournet.

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