|The idea that trade unions could use computers as a means of communications
was first suggested by Charles "Chip" Levinson in his 1972 book, International
Trade Unionism. Levinson, who was the head of the chemical workers' international
trade secretariat, wrote about linking up databases of corporate information
in Europe and North America, and relaying the computerized data (using
telex machines) to the various affiliate unions around the world. He also
speculated on possible uses of computer networks for trade union education.
Levinson was way ahead of his time. The Internet was launched experimentally
only in the very late 1960s and its existence was revealed to the world
in 1972 - after Levinson had written his book. For that reason, I have
called Levinson the "Jules Verne of Labour Telematics" in my own book,
The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism (Lee, 1997).
From the early 1980s until today, trade union experimentation with computer
mediated communciations (CMC) has continued - at first slowly, and in recent
years, at light speed. That experimentation has included local electronic
bulletin boards (BBS), regional trade union networks, email-based discussion
groups, global online conferences, and - most recently - extensive labour
use of the World Wide Web (WWW). By the end of 1996, there were several
million trade union members connected to the Internet (most of these in
North America), and several hundred trade union Web sites in existence.
With the exception of a handful of national and international conferences
held to discuss these developments (Manchester, 1992, 1993), and the articles
of Peter Waterman (Waterman, 1984, 1992, 1994, 1995), there has been very
little serious discussion of what is going on here, and where the trade
union movement is headed. In this paper, I would like to address three
1. The obstacles to the creation of a global labournet - and how they
are being overcome.
2. Concrete proposals made by trade unionists today for expanding the
use of computer communications for labour education and for solidarity
3. Going beyond a global labournet - and moving toward the creation
of a new International.
The obstacles to the creation of a global labournet - and how they
are being overcome
Everyone who has written about or spoken about labour use of computer
networks has come up with his or her own list of the obstacles to expanding
and intensifying that use. Those obstacles are very real, and a global
labournet is not yet a reality. But it will become one - because for every
problem we are able to define, a solution is already in sight. Even as
I write these words, some of the "classic" obstacles to an international
online labour network are crumbling.
Reaching critical mass. For the Internet to have any relevance at all
for working people and their institutions, it must reach them by their
thousands in their homes and workplaces. The international trade secretariats,
though pioneers of computer networking in the labour movement, have not
successfully brought all (or even most) of their national union affiliates
on line. We're not talking about the average worker, or unionist, or shop
steward. Even most national trade union organisations are not yet online.
And if the Internet connects fifty million people (and that's the highest
estimate current), that's still less than one percent of the world's population.
One result is that some of the international discussion groups concerning
the labour movement are infinitesimally small. So long as the Internet
is used by only a tiny percentage of trade unionists, we cannot have any
illusions about its impact.
Time will solve most of these problems by itself. The Internet is more-or-less
doubling in size every year. The estimates vary of when one hundred million
people will be online, but almost no one doubts that the number will be
reached. Even the most serious researchers toss around various dates -
including as early as the year 2010 - when one billion people will be online.
So the natural growth of the net will sweep in tens of millions of working
people and trade unionists, at least in the advanced industrial countries.
But the developing countries are another story.
Reaching the South. The precondition for getting online is, of course,
a line. But if you live in a part of the world where there is no telecommunications
infrastructure - and this is the case in many developing countries - cheap
little computers and modems are not going to be very useful to you. Of
course trade unionists in the developing countries need computers, modems,
and training. But without inexpensive telecommunications, all that will
The changes in the global economy, with the shifts of capital away from
the developed countries, are also shifting the centre of gravity of the
labour movement away from Western Europe and North America, and towards
the world's South. If trade unions want to take on some giant transnational,
they are going to have to do this together with workers in the South -
or they will fail. It is not merely a question of solidarity, but of survival.
The free market is obviously not racing into Africa to set up Internet
connections, though some companies like AT&T have kindly offered to
do all kinds of nice things (including a fibre optic undersea cable around
the African coast) if only someone would pay. Some labour movement activists
think that one approach is to lobby and pressure the venerable International
Telecommunications Union (ITU). Maybe.
Another approach would be to lobby and pressure national governments
in the rich countries to include a computer communications infrastructure
(satellite and ground-based fibre optic and microwave communications networks)
as a top priority in aid to developing countries. This must be high on
the list of labour movement priorities, right up there with protection
of trade union rights in those countries. Because if we can get those young
labour movements online, we can protect them better.
Breaking the language barrier. The World Wide Web, even more than the
Internet itself, is English-language dominated. With other Internet tools,
like email, language is increasingly a non-problem. One software company
is offering free "decoders" for dozens of languages for use in Internet
email. Write a letter using that program, make sure your recipient has
a decoder program, and you can correspond in Korean or Urdu, if you want.
An earlier, but still effective solution, is to send text files which are
not written in English as encoded binary files, via email.
The World Wide Web, however, is an entirely different problem. Despite
all the talk about interactivity, the Web is a lot more like printed matter.
A Web page which has been written in English stays in English, and no decent
software currently existing can, with a simple click of the mouse, translate
such a page into Danish, Swahili, or Arabic.
What some sites offer are different versions of the text in two or three
languages. Each additional language means additional translation costs
- and those costs can become substantial. This is not a problem for giant,
US-based transnational corporations. Their sites are maintained in English,
period. But matters are not so simple for the labour movement, which is
supposed to respect cultural differences. Publications of international
trade union organisations usually appear in several languages. (The International
Transport Workers Federation even has a newsletter in eleven languages.)
To produce a printed publication in a second or third language today
requires not only that the material be translated, but also typeset, printed
and mailed. Once publications go online, all those other costs drop to
zero. Money can be diverted to translation costs. An international organisation
that wanted to stop publishing its newsletter on paper and go for an online
edition might find that instead of publishing the information in just one
language, it can now afford to publish it in ten.
Automatic translation software is in its infancy - but it exists. One
can go into a store today and buy a program which will translate text,
for example, from English to Spanish. Professional translators need not
panic; their jobs are in no danger. Such programs provide only a rudimentary
translation. It will be years before really first-rate programs are available.
But there is a huge potential market for such software, particularly as
the global system of production expands. In my opinion, it is only a matter
of time until automatic translation software becomes both effective and
inexpensive. And when this happens, it will represent the solution to the
biggest obstacle to the creation of a true global labournet, which is the
barrier of language.
Combatting corporate dominance of the networks. The World Wide Web may
have started as a project at a physics labouratory, and its pioneering
software may have been written by a student, but behind the image of informality
lies a growing corporate presence. This has ramifications for the labour
One example: it is becoming harder to find one's way around the Web
without help. The "Yahoo" index includes hundreds of thousands of sites.
Digital's "Alta Vista" search program indexes tens of millions of Web pages.
Ordinary people without a lot of time on their hands are looking for ways
to find information on the Web quickly and easily. Corporations - not non-governmental
organisations and certainly not trade unions -- are arriving on the scene
with their ready-made answers. One of these is preparing "hot lists" for
information consumers. For example, the Netscape Corporation, whose home
page is accessed by millions of Web surfers, has generously prepared lists
of "What's New" and "What's Cool" - but none of these are labour sites.
That's why trade unions are increasingly creating their own "hot lists"
and publicizing them on the Web, through their own sites.
Another example: As the number of people accessing the Web grows from
year to year, sites which are based on small budgets and small computers
will increasingly answer incoming calls with busy signals - while giant
corporate sites will always be open for business. The idea that all Web
sites are somehow equal is an illusion, and labour Web sites are going
to have to fight for survival just as the labour press today fights for
survival in a corporate-dominated culture. Nevertheless, the playing field
has been levelled somewhat; it's easier and cheaper to produce a quality
online publication than it is to produce the same publication on paper.
Defeating censorship. A couple of years ago, writers like Howard Rheingold
[Rheingold, 1993] were positively giddy about how the Internet was going
to blow apart the corporate monopoly on information. Everybody could be
her own publisher on the Internet. "You can't control it, it's uncontrollable,"
said MIT's Nicholas Negroponte (Negroponte, 1995).
Well, that was before the US Congress passed the Communications Deceny
Act and CompuServe decided to shut down some two hundred newsgroups because
of the threat of prosecution in Germany. That was before Time magazine
did its panicked cover story on "cyber porn" and before certain authoritarian
governments, including China's, began making menacing noises toward the
free flow of ideas on the net. (New Chinese regulations forbid users "to
produce, retrieve, duplicate or spread information that may hinder public
order." That presumably includes trade union publications.)
It was no accident that the Chinese government (probably the most anti-labour
regime on earth) was the first in the world to hail CompuServe's decision
to ban pornographic newsgroups. They certainly saw the potential in all
The labour movement today is fighting battles all over the world to
protect and expand trade union and human rights. The flow of information
to and from all countries, including many with repressive regimes, must
continue uninterrupted if trade unions will be able to use the net to their
There are organisations which are working day and night for a free and
open Internet. The labour movement should be in the thick of this fight,
building alliances with civil libertarian groups, understanding that no
one has more to lose than working people if the fight is lost. But this
is not the case. Even those trade unionists who use the Internet are barely
heard from on the issue of censorship. Labour Web sites almost never mention
it. Wouldn't it be tragic if the Internet grows to include a billion people,
but its content is completely controlled by governments and corporations?
Other obstacles to labour use of CMC include:
The lack of support and training. Everyone who has taught anyone how
to use email or the Web understands just how big a problem this is. But
two developments are solving the problem for us. One is that software is
getting much easier to use all the time. The other development is the emphasis
placed by trade unions and their allies on training. Perhaps the best example
of a solution in practice is Britain's Labour Telematics Centre.
Another problem often pointed out in the past has been the general resistance
to technological change in the labour movement. This problem too is sorting
itself out as the mass media blitz about the Internet finally seeps down
to the level of the local trade union official. Today, practically everyone
has heard of the net and many want to connect, without necessarily understanding
Some concern was expressed a few years ago about the possible rise of
a new class of trade union techno-experts who would become indispensable
in the information age. I think that this danger has largely disappeared
with the increasing popularity of tools like the World Wide Web.
The rivalry between groups working toward the creation of a global labournet,
while not as vicious and crippling as most in-fighting on the left and
labour movement, has taken its toll. Often the bickering seems petty to
outsiders - and maybe to insiders as well. Though some veterans of the
APC-Poptel wars may understand the point of all this, most trade unionists
don't, and couldn't care less. Fortunately, far away from the battlefields,
labour movement activists in places like South Africa and Canada have steered
clear of the conflict, giving their members access to both networks. And
the rise of the Internet and World Wide Web have largely settled the question
of how to connect to and how to use computer networks.
One by one the obstacles to a global labournet are falling. Let us know
discuss what comes next.
The next steps
Some of the trade unionists involved in networking have on occasion
spelled out their visions of the next steps, pointing to a future in which
working people in different countries can exchange views, share information
and work together in ways which have not been possible before.
Online Company Councils. In 1992, Jim Catterson had just completed a
decade working for the chemical workers' trade secretariat, now known as
the ICEM (International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General
Workers' Unions). He was speaking to the first international conference
on labour telematics, in Manchester. We must remember that Catterson was
coming from Charles "Chip" Levinson's union - the same Levinson who first
raised the possibility, back in 1972, of a global labournet.
Levinson was also a proponent of "company councils." As Catterson summarised
the proposal, workers "must be organised at the same level as the company"
if they are to negotiate successfully on an international level. This demands
"the establishment of some form of world company council bringing together
trade union representatives" (Manchester, 1992).
The idea was first broached in the 1950s, and the ICEF leadership, as
well as other ITSs pushed hard for it in the 1970s. But the attempts failed.
No parallel structure to the transnational corporation was ever successfully
set up by the international labour movement. Why not?
According to Catterson, one problem was "lack of finance." In order
to "realistically carry out a programme of world council meetings able
to meet frequently enough to develop policies rather than simply share
initial information would require resources well in [excess] of those realistically
possible for the ITSs in the foreseeable future." But the Internet could
change all that.
Catterson ended his 1992 presentation by suggesting that as soon as
some kind of critical mass was reached, virtual online company councils
could be created. Email, he said, "makes face-to-face meetings redundant
if their only purpose is to share information." Such meetings - "with their
enormous travel and interpretation costs" - would be held only when necessary
to handle a particularly acute issue, or to develop policy.
At that time, the ICEF was considering setting up company-specific bulletin
boards on the net. These would include brief reviews of company finances,
investment and disinvestment decisions, and would be largely based on commercial
databases already in use by the organisation. Today, the ICEM is using
the World Wide Web for the same purpose.
The result of such activity would be "a fully functioning genuine permanent
world council of trade unions" for each transnational corporation.
An International Labour University. Marc Belanger, founder of Canada's
Solinet (the first national trade union network) put a message out to the
net in mid-1995. It was brief and to the point. "I dream of the day," he
wrote, "when we can run courses from an international labour university."
Such a university would "teach classes either via e-mail or Internet newsgroups"
and would have to "recruit instructors from around the world."
The proposal attracted attention immediately. Not only was it coming
from the originator of the first, and still most important, national labournet,
but Belanger had already organised transnational trade union courses online,
involving Russian, Australian and Canadian unionists. The discussion focused
on six issues: Cooperation with existing organisations; Accreditation;
Curriculum; Language; Delivery Systems; Funding.
All participants in the discussion felt that it was essential to cooperate
with existing trade union institutions, though not to wait for them to
take the initiative. Belanger pushed strongly for the idea of university
accreditation for the courses. A suggestion was even made that the ILU
not teach courses itself, but rather act as an accrediting body for online
trade union courses.
By late 1996, nothing concrete had come of the discussions - but Belanger
took the initiative once again and launched a prototype of the ILU anyway.
He got the new Web conferencing software up and running, and began lining
up lecturers from Canada, the USA, Russia, Israel and elsewhere. Whether
this initiative will lead to the creation of a full blown online labour
university remains to be seen.
From a global labournet to a new International
Virtual company councils and an online international labour university
are good, solid ideas. I have no doubt that they will be realised in the
near future. But I want to conclude with three far-out ideas - ideas which,
if implemented, will go far beyond a global labournet and toward the recreation
of a vigorous and effective workers' International.
1. An Online International Labour Press. In most countries the national
labour press is dead. When I came to live in Israel back in 1981, there
were two national daily newspapers of the labour movement. By 1996, both
newspapers had closed.
The United States has never had a successful national labour daily,
and the mass media's anti-union bias is felt intensely by the trade unions.
Jo-Ann Mort, the Communications Director of the clothing and textile workers
union (UNITE), recently proposed the launching of a national labour daily.
She explained what such a paper could do, and the void it would fill. But
no union or coalition of unions has taken up the idea so far, nor does
it seem likely that any one will.
Even in Scandinavia, where the labour press thrived until recently,
trade union-supported newspapers are in decline. In Denmark, the national
labour daily is now defended by the Social Democrats with the very same
arguments once used by Israeli leftists in defence of the now-defunct labour
dailies. Though the newspaper has a small and declining circulation, they
say, it has influence far beyond its readership.
The international labour press is in equally bad shape. The International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions publishes every month a small newspaper
called Free Labour World. It comes out in a few languages, and is read
by trade union officials in a number of countries. The International Trade
Secretariats publish their newsletters according to their budgets. For
example, the News Bulletin of the food worker's ITS, which is supposed
to come out every month, has been appearing only about four times a year
There is no way that the labour press can compete with the capitalist
mass media under these conditions. But the Internet does offer a way out:
the creation of an online labour news service on the World Wide Web. Articles
published by such a service could easily be lifted for use in local publications
without any need for retyping.
The emphasis must be placed on the importance of multilingualism here.
Such a news service should be available in all the major European languages
as well as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic and others. Because the cost
of such an service is entirely the writing and translating, without paying
for paper, printing, typesetting or mailing, it should not be much more
expensive than what the ICFTU and the ITSs are paying today for their printed
publications. And the potential circulation and impact will be much greater.
Such a service would help create a community of ideas and feelings among
its readers. It would be the best organising tool ever in the hands of
the international trade union movement, and should be launched without
In fact, a text-based service on the Web is only the beginning of what
might be done. The latest technological developments are truly stunning
- "streaming multimedia" on the net. These applications basically turn
the Internet into a full-blown, real-time global radio and television broadcast
medium that also happens to be interactive.
Using a perfectly ordinary home computer, equipped with a not-very-fast
modem, a couple of inexpensive speakers and a sound card, I've been able
to listen in on some local radio broadcasts from around the world. Using
a technology like RealAudio (the client program as well as the encoder
are available free of charge), it would be fairly easy to launch what was
once an impossible dream: a global labour radio network.
The labour movement wouldn't need expensive broadcasting equipment,
nor government permission to "broadcast" using a technology of this kind.
Such broadcasts could be picked up by trade unionists anywhere in the world,
and could be copied and re-broadcast using conventional, local radio stations
or on cassettes. Such broadcasts (actually "narrowcasts" is a better term)
are much harder to censor or jam than ordinary radio.
More advanced Internet technologies available today, such as VDOLive,
offer the promise of live television broadcasts (though these do not work
with slow modems). Inexpensive color digital video cameras (which now cost
about what a 28,800 bps modem costs) mean that online labour television
broadcasts are only a matter of time.
The possibilities for the trade union movement are staggering indeed.
2. An Online Archive, Discussion Group and Journal. Back during the
International's "golden age," before the First World War, the German Social
Democratic Party (SPD) was the flagship of the whole world movement. Debates
which took place in that party -- for example, between Eduard Bernstein
and Rosa Luxemburg on the question of reform or revolution - were echoed
around the world. The theoretical publication of that Party, Die Neue Zeit
(The New Age), was edited by the SPD's chief theoretician himself, Karl
Kautsky. It was read not only in Germany but by social democrats everywhere.
Since that time, there has been no single international publication
which had that kind of impact. But as the labour movement enters the twentieth
first century, the need for a deeper and more serious look at things is
more closely felt than ever before.
The Internet allows the inexpensive publishing not only of new works
which contribute to a democratic socialist view of the world, but also
to the reprinting of texts which would otherwise be lost in the archives.
What the labour movement should be considering, then, is not only an
ongoing journal, which would publish original articles and replies to them
(some of this could be conducted in the form of discussion groups located
within the Web site). It should also began the task of digitising the thousands
of important books, journals and pamphlets published by the labour and
social democratic movements over the last century, and making these texts
available through the Web.
Now what practical use could this possibly have? I'll give an example.
In 1993, we decided at the International Federation of Workers' Education
Associations to devote a whole issue of Workers' Education to the subject
of May Day.
There was a debate about this at the IFWEA's Executive Committee, with
some voices being raised against the whole idea. But the majority felt
that it was important to discuss the meaning of May Day, its origins, how
it is celebrated, and its future.
Using the Internet, we were able to construct a bibliography of books
and pamphlets about the holiday, including some material which is long
out of print. Unfortunately, archival material about May Day was not then
The issue of Workers' Education was published and was used to some practical
effect by trade unionists in a number of countries. In New Zealand, where
the labour movement has been under brutal attack for several years now,
the Council of Trade Unions reprinted portions of Workers' Education for
its own packet of materials on the holiday. In New York City, a left wing
magazine reprinted the editorial. Part of the issue was reprinted in the
Philippines. There was - and is - a hunger for information about labour's
past and its traditions.
What the labour movement needs, therefore, is not only a theoretical
journal like Die Neue Zeit but a combined journal (where original articles
could be published), archive (where older material could be presented in
digital form) and discussion group (where readers could easily make comments
and ask questions). Such a project could be realised using the World Wide
Who should undertake this task? The answer is not so simple. Probably
the library and archive of the Socialist International, the International
Institute for Social History in the Netherlands, should play a key role.
So should the International Federation of Workers' Education Associations.
Institutions like the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Karl Renner Institut,
which already print and reprint much material should be involved. But the
labour movement's archives, libraries and research centres, the labour
museums and academic journals, should all play a role.
A beginning has been made by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Germany.
The online catalog to the FES's phenomenal library is available online.
This the first major social democratic research centre, archive or library
to make such a service available to all, free of charge, through the Internet.
I can imagine a day when the first of May is approaching, and a local
trade union, or branch of a social democratic party, or workers' education
group, is looking for some material about the holiday. They can turn to
such a Web site and find reams of material, including graphics and sound
files, which will enrich their celebration of this key event on labour's
3. An Early Warning Network on Trade Union Rights. Trade union rights
are under attack everywhere in the world. This is true in the remaining
Communist countries (especially China); it is equally true in the traditional
right-wing authoritarian regimes; it is surprisingly true even in some
western democracies, like New Zealand, where several basic trade union
rights are now denied.
Often international labour bodies hear about some violation of rights,
and using faxes and telephone calls get the word out to their affiliates
in different parts of the world. But as groups like Amnesty International
have discovered, a more effective way, supplementing but not replacing
traditional communications technologies, would be the use of computer mediated
To a certain extent, the international labour movement has been doing
this already, albeit not very systematically. In the early years of the
global labournet, the GeoNet bulletin boards and the Association for Progessive
Communications conferences were used to post notices of violations of trade
union rights, calls for solidarity and the like. But it was never clear
that these messages were read by anyone.
Today the international trade union movement is using the networks sporadically
and not systematically. Unlike Amnesty International, which centrally coordinates
its campaigns across countries and sectors, trade unions have tended to
use the Internet in the same limited, sectoral way they have always worked.
The one trade union organisation which spans all countries and sectors,
the ICFTU, has not conducted any solidarity actions through the network.
And because attacks on trade union rights anywhere are the concern of
workers everywhere, information about them should not be confined to a
particular sector or country. It is not enough that a union in developing
country A phones up contacts in country B, whose labour movement then mobilises.
Similarly, it is not enough when one international trade secretariat alone
tries to handle repression of trade unions in "its" sector when this issue
concerns all parts of the labour movement.
The trade unions should begin building a global early warning network,
based on three elements:
Internet-connected computers and responsible individuals in countries
where unions are under threat, whose job it is to notify one central address
of incidents like kidnapping of unionists, attacks on demonstrators, and
arrests and murders of trade union officials.
A central address, meaning a computer and operators whose job it is
to receive the information and process it.
An "urgent action network" (that's what Amnesty International calls
it) which uses the Internet to get the word out to those who can act quickly
The first element requires that the international labour movement supply
the computers and skills to maintain at least one workstation in each country
where trade unions are under attack. It is true that in some countries,
this could be an expensive proposition, requiring the placement of international
phone calls to get Internet access. It is equally important that appropriate
individuals in those countries be trained to receive information, process
it, and send it on to the central address. Possibly the places to start
are ICFTU-affiliated national trade union centres - but local human rights
organisations may serve the role better.
The second element requires a host computer and staff on call 24 hours
a day, seven days a week, perhaps at the ICFTU headquarters, or at one
of the international trade secretariats, or even at Amnesty International's
International Secretariat in London. Within moments of receiving news of
a violation of trade union rights, the information would be processed,
checked, and passed on electronically to the appropriate individuals in
trade unions around the world. In addition, groups allied to the labour
movement, such as human rights organisations and labour parties, would
be informed - also by email.
A global trade union "urgent action network" based on the Amnesty International
model could be developed using a tool as simple as the LISTSERV email-based
mailing list program. Mailing lists could be built up based on countries,
sectors, languages, or other criteria.
Let me give an example of how this would work. A trade union activist
employed by Coca Cola "disappears" one day in Brazil. His or her local
union tells their national office, which in turn tells the national trade
union centre in Rio de Janeiro. A photograph of the missing activist arrives
in the office as well. Using a scanner, a computerised image is prepared.
The person responsible in Rio sends on the information by Internet email;
the photograph is sent as an attachment to the emailed letter.
A minute or two later, the information reaches the central address -
say, the ICFTU headquarters in Brussels. After being read by the operator
on duty there, the already digitised information, including the photo,
is passed on to several mailing lists. One is for Coca Cola employees'
unions around the world; another consists of Portuguese-speaking trade
unionists on three continents; a third is a list of labour newspaper editors;
a fourth is a list of social democratic and labour party members of parliaments.
Only minutes after the information has been sent out of Brazil, it is
in the electronic mailboxes of trade unionists in dozens of countries.
The digitised photograph and articles about the case begin appearing in
trade union newspapers within hours. Telephones begin ringing in politicians'
offices around the world. Email messages fill up Coca-Cola's electronic
mail boxes. A picket line goes up at Coca Cola headquarters in Atlanta
even before the corporate officers know what's happened. Within hours,
someone at Coca Cola places a quiet telephone call to someone in Brazil,
and the missing activist reappears, blindfolded and a bit battered, but
basically safe and sound.
Such an early warning system would, I believe, do much to speed up response
time, prevent duplication of effort, and yet ensure a maximum global trade
union response to rights violations anywhere. This, in turn would make
a major contribution to strengthening trade unions in the South, which
is critical to a rebuilding of the International.
The International Has Been Reborn
From 1864, when Karl Marx founded the International Workingmen's Association,
and until the outbreak of the First World War, the workers' International
existed not only as an organisation, but as an idea, as something in the
consciousness of millions of men and women. Those men and women a hundred
years ago "belonged to the International." Sure, they were members of local
and national trade unions and socialist parties. But they also belonged
to something much larger.
Something of that consciousness has begun to return to our world.
When trade unionists in Ottawa and Moscow are discussing an international
labour university online, where are they? One answer Internet users will
usually give is "cyberspace." That's true, but that's not enough. Because
the discussion took place not so much in cyberspace as in a particular
part of it which I have been calling the emerging global labournet.
As such an online community grows, it will begin to create some of the
institutions I have discussed. Online company councils will appear - there
is no question about that. As for the international labour university,
that too is only a matter of time.
My own proposals for an online global labour press, a combined archive/discussion
group/journal, and an early warning network on trade union rights are,
at worst, premature. Every one of them will be realised, in one form or
another, sooner or later.
Peter Waterman writes of a new "global solidarity culture," which replaces
old notions of internationalism, communications and the labour movement
with new ones attuned to our changing world. He is enthusiastic about alternative
international communications based on the new social movements. When labour's
interests and those of such new social movements overlap, he notes, international
labour computer communications "does seem to take off."
The global labournet is a long-awaited, long-expected development. Chip
Levinson foresaw it in 1972. It is being created out of necessity, by the
changing character of global capitalism, and though it can be slowed down,
nothing can stop it.
It can also be speeded up.
For a decade and a half now, a few dozen men and women from Vancouver,
Manchester, San Francisco, Geneva, Johannesburg, Moscow, Ottawa, Brussels,
Chicago, London, and other places have been creating local trade union
BBSs, regional labour networks, global email networks, and, most recently,
Web sites by the hundreds. When they began in the 1980s, they were met
with hostility or confusion by their brothers and sisters in the labour
Today, we understand that they were, as one transnational corporation
puts it, just slightly ahead of their time. Their time has come now.
The "new world order" is giving birth to a new internationalism. Participants
in the international labour movement have begun to transcend their own
local and national limitations and feel themselves to be part of a global
community based not on language or skin colour, but social class - and
a vision of a new society.
Thanks to the Internet, a century-long decline in internationalism has
already been reversed. For thousands of trade unionists who log on every
day, the International has already been reborn.
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