for the LaborMedia '97 Conference Seoul, Korea, 10th-12th
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.
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.
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.
we can use the Internet to continue an ongoing discussion on some of these
questions in parallel with our practical work.
origins of LabourNet
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"!
Liverpool docks dispute
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.
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.
and "the world of computers"
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."
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.
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".
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.
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.
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:
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."
and the growth of the nation-states
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.
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.
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.
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.
new Free Trade
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
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.
role of technology
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
National Dock Labour Scheme
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.
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.
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.
present dockers' fight
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
the dockers have already indicated the essential ingredients of a labour
movement fight-back against the globalisation of capital. They are:
widest possible democracy. No exclusion of any labour movement tendencies.
alliance with other social movements fighting against the dehumanising
effects of capitalism.
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.
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".
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.
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