Back to homepage...

As Free as Dancers, as Aware as Football Players,
as Surprising as Guerrillas

Peter Waterman

LaborMedia `97, Seoul, November, 1997

The 15-year gestation

  It’s been a long time coming. 

  Ideas and experiments in creating a new labour communications internationalism began 15-20 years ago. Some came from the traditional institutionalised international labour movement and were oriented to the needs of those organisations. Some came from international labour support groups on the margins and were oriented to the needs of new labour movements and worker communities. Some came from the West, some from the East (Asian and ex-Communist). These different traditions and cultures exchanged ideas, technologies, products and personnel, but the project did not grasp the movement as a whole - not nationally, not internationally. The notion that a new kind of internationalism was needed, and that communication was the key, did not really leave the launching pad. 

  Then came globalisation, and informatisation. Or, rather, labour movements began understanding the impact of these, to stop mourning the death of national Keynesianism, or moaning about neo-liberalism, and to consider how to ride the waves of globalisation/informatisation, and even to redirect them. 

  Then came a new national trade union movement, the first to born with and within this new world capitalist disorder - the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, firmly established by a historic national general strike in the winter of 1996-7. This strike was communicated to the general public, as spectacle, by CNN and BBC World. It was communicated to international labour and other organisations and groups, by computer, as movement. Without a globalised networked capitalism, this would have been another national event in a far-away country of which little was known. 

  Then came LaborMedia `97, held in Seoul, Korea, November 10-12, 1997. 
 
 

From the margins of the centre to the centre of the periphery

  The conference brought together an unusual combination of people. It was, overwhelmingly, a KCTU event, though independently organised. Amongst the Korean participants there were union officers, technical specialists, academics, student volunteers, and there were links with the human-rights and international alternative video movement. But amongst the dozen or so foreign visitors and invitees there was only one who represented a national trade union, the woman communications officer of a South African union. The others were from the margins: a labour computer specialist and author from Israel, a US couple responsible for a series of labour media conferences internationaly, a US and Canadian producer of labour programmes for community cable TV, a labour computer service provider from the UK, an academic from the Netherlands. Several of us had had our fares paid for by this fledgling organisation, which receives from its members only token fees. 

  But Korea is at the centre of the capitalist periphery, a highly industrialised and urbanised country, the world’s eleventh largest economy, simultaneously producing electronic communications goods and suffering neo-liberalisation. And of which the state has decided to go global, and to brutally restructure the working class to fit this aim. It also has an information-conscious class of professionals and students. And, because of its repressive, increasingly archaic and disfunctional state, a part of this middle class looks towards the rebellious labour movement as the major force for political, social and even, possibly, moral transformation. The information-consciousness implies a dozen or more information, video, computer and allied groups around the movement. And an increasing consciousness amongst union officers of the value of communication for international solidarity. As an isolated but US-dependent cultural community, moreover, Korea has English as first foreign language, something which provides significant numbers of its labour leaders and supporters (many from the radical student movement anyway) with the capacity to communicate with much of the world - North and South, East and West. 
 
 

Papers, projections, performances

  The conference was a combination of the customary paper presentations/discussions, of a video festival, and of demonstrations/exercises with the five or ten computers belonging to the different Korean labour-linked service organisations. But even the conventional part was heavily `mediated’ by the use, within the conference hall, of both video and computer-projection equipment, and by the intensive recording/reporting of the event - by notebook and even palmtop computer, by cameras, video-cameras, tape-recorders and computerised `real-audio’ narrow-casting. Much of the equipment was, predictably, wielded by participants themselves. 

  The papers, all in both English and Korean, amounted to some 250 pages. The main themes of the conference were: globalisation, information and the labour movement; the labour video movement; labour news services; informatisation of the unions; networking and international labour solidarity. Most of the papers were by Koreans, some of them by workers, or activists from industrial unions or even from specific industries or companies. Subjects included - in no particular order: 

  - Usage of video for international labour solidarity (Japan); 

- Globalisation, information and the labour movement (Netherlands); 

- US labour video production on a growth curve (USA) 

- Labour newspaper using facsimile (Korea); 

- The current conditions and possibilities of an email newsletter (Korea); 

- Trade union media in South Africa (South Africa); 

- Labor unions and utilisation of bulletin boards (Korea); 

- Information technology, labour process and labour movement (Korea); 

- Telecommunication taskgroup for the general strike (Korea); 

- Using the Internet to promote international labour solidarity (Israel); 

- Towards a global LabourNet (UK); 

- The situation of the labour video movement in Korea (Korea). 

Many of the papers demonstrated or revealed a level of quality, sophistication or technical expertise not previously reached at such events (such as USA through the 1990s, Manchester 1992, Moscow 1993). It also revealed an openness to academic contributions not previously revealed. 

Few of the papers expressed traditional labour movement ideologies or attitudes, whether those of the old socially-reformist national and international unions, or those of their equally traditional Marxist or Leninist critics. Most of them addressed experiences, or expressed attitudes, coming out of new worker experiences and new left ideas about both globalisation and informatisation. Repeated reference was therefore made to the unique international solidarity campaign with the dockworkers of Liverpool in the UK, and with the Korean General Strike of 1996-7. These two experiences could hardly have been more different. The one is a movement of some 500 dockers and their womenfolk, with some community support, but obstructed by `their’ national and international organisations. The other was organised by a new national union organisation, combined labour and democratic issues, received broad public support, and recognition from both the core and the periphery of the international labour movement. They are, however, similar in facing globalisation, corporate and/or state authoritarianism, and in their energetic cultural and communicational activities. Videos and CMC were deliberately used to both inform and seek support from the labour movement and public internationally, these resources being customarily offered and operated by friendly and well-qualified amateurs/professionals and academics/students. 

A number of the presentations were illustrated with computer projection of World Wide Web sites, or videos. But most videos were shown in a - regretably - parallel Labour Video Festival. Some of these were produced by well-known professionals, such as that of Ken Loach (UK) on the Liverpool dockers, or that of ex-amateur Michael Moore (USA), on the General Motors destruction of his - and its - hometown, by Anand Patwardhan (India) on millworkers. But others - by conference participants, the self-trained ex-worker, Julius Fisher (Canada), and the professionally-trained Kubeshni Govender (South Africa) - suggested a clear movement beyond the `talking-heads/marching-legs’ phase of labour video. A powerful example of the new sophistication was the second of two Korean videos on the 1996-7 General Strike. This revealed imaginative and witty use of montage, freeze-frame, conventional documentary and news styles. It was sent out internationally when completed, shown in Berlin, and is now being subtitled for wider distribution. New genres, at least for (pro-) labour videos, were shown by Michael Moore’s tragi-comedy about GM, `Roger and Me’, made on an amateur basis, but bought for international commercial circulation by a major movie corporation. This, as with Ken Loach’s `Flickering Flame’, made for British TV, represents another breakthrough, showing how `alternative labour’ video - if both popular and professional - can be made or shown inside as well as outside the state or commercial media. 

Presentations of a wide range of computer services were provided in the main hall of the conference venue, mostly by the Koreans. It was also here possible to get fast access to the WWW sites of LabourNet (coordinated by participant Chris Bailey, UK) and LaborNet (of participant Steve Zeltzer, USA), as well as the advanced and attractive Global Labournet one of participant Eric Lee, author of an equally-sophisticated book on The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism

 

High tech and high touch

It is some 15 years since the corporation-friendly John Naisbitt’s book, Megatrends, said that one of the ten trends was both high technology and high intimacy. The Seoul event demonstrated this to be true also for the corporate-unfriendly. Certain participants had been collaborating intensively via the Net for several years but met here for the first time in the flesh. Korea, Koreans, the new labour movement, the overwhelmingly young organisers and volunteer translators/administrators, moved from a virtual to a real presence. The organisation of the event demonstrated efficiency - and the capacity to improvise when arrangements broke down. Foreign participants spent half their nights on the floors of supporters, the others in a university hotel at the conference site. They also witnessed two massive KCTU events, which again demonstrated the cultural awareness and imagination of the movement, as the musical repertoire picked-and- mixed Korean drumming, revolutionary flags/banners/songs, and globalised pop, rock and protest music. 

  Much is to be learned from the relations both in and around the event. This new communications internationalism is being forged through dialogue and dialectic. There is no vanguard party or model country here. The `advanced countries’ no longer provide the `backward’ ones with a future they will follow (pace Marx). The periphery and even the outside of the movement is revealed as just as crucial as its centre (real movements require active bases, peripheries and outsides, where things can be said and done that cannot from the centre and top). 

  This event was certainly a marker on the road to a new communicative internationalism, or the communicating of a new internationalism. It should not, however, be mythologised. There were reminders that even if we were involved in a new kind of international social movement, many of us (particularly from outside Korea) were still the old kind of political people. The moment and event, moreover, will not necessarily be more than such. 

  The militant KCTU looked ready to adopt a social-reformist posture if and when Korean capital and state were ready to adopt liberal-democratic ones. The new KCTU had affiliated to the old International Confederation of Free Trade Unions - which was long identified with the old, corrupt, ineffective, state-supported Korean Federation of Trade Unions. Neither the national movement nor the international conference revealed awareness of the pioneering contributions to a communications internationalism of women and feminism, of the Third World, of Mexico’s Zapatistas, of the internationally media-effective ecological movement. The internationalism of the the KCTU has been, so far, one of seeking support for its national needs, not - as was admitted - of providing this, nor of working with others (also beyond the labour movement) for an alternative global civilisation. 

  Moreover, the International Monetary Fundamenalist shit hit the state-corporatist Korean fan just as the conference was ending. The leader of the KCTU, nominated as a presidential candidate in the December elections, garnered less than two percent of the national poll (whilst the strike he lead one year earlier had had over 50 percent popular support). And the response of the KCTU to the IMF’s vicious neo-liberal impositions was one that could have been produced by the German unions - largely defensive, sensibly reformist, in the national wage-worker interest, but lacking in reference to either globalisation or global solidarity. The saving grace is that these documents were made immediately available, in English, worldwide, on the Internet, thus making them a contribution to international discussion on how to confront neo-liberal globalisation. 

  The conference, however, provides a reminder that workers increasingly live in a world both universal and real, that the experiences of even exotic others are increasingly relevant everywhere. This is different from a 19th century labour internationalism, in which the local had been, and the national became, increasingly real for workers, whilst the universalism was largely that of leaders, ideologists and theorists. Globalisation opens before workers (as for women, indigenous peoples and environmentalists) the possibility of recognising a global community of fate. Informatisation opens the possibility of creating one of mutual learning. It may be in or through cyberspace that inevitably localised workers find a global room of their own. And discover, as did the the German thinker and poet, Hans Magnus Enzensburger, over 20 years ago, that the open secret of the electronic media, the decisive political factor, which has been waiting, suppressed or crippled, for its moment to come, is their mobilising power [...] When I say mobilise I mean mobilise...namely to make men [and women? PW] more mobile than they are. As free as dancers, as aware as football players, as surprising as guerillas. 

 
References and resources 
Much of the source material on which the above is based is accessible on the Internet, particularly on the mentioned WWW sites. For an excellent, detailed account of the event, and a listing of the sites (one of which carries papers submitted to LM97), see the account of Steve Zeltzer, `Historic Seoul Labor Media Conference’, at http://www.igc.org/igc/labornet/hl/97121117162/hl3.html. For other relevant resources, most of which make reference to globalisation, informatisation and international labour solidarity, see the following:  Cook, Ann. 1997. South Korea: The Tiger Strikes. London: Committee for a Workers International. 64pp. David, Natascha. 1997b. "Cyber-pros" and "Cyber-proles", Trade Union World, Vol. 1, No. 2, October, pp. 8-9. 

Enzensburger, Hans Magnus. 1976. `Constituents of a Theory of the Media', in Enzensburger, Hans Magnus, Raids and Reconstructions: Essays in Politics, Crime and Culture. London: Pluto. p.20-53. 

General Workers Union. 1997. `A New Global Agenda: Visions and Strategies for the 21st Century’, SiD’s Global Labour Summit, Copenhagen, 31 May-1 June, 1997. http://summit.sid.dk. 

Hyman, Richard. 1997. `Imagined Solidarities: Can Trade Unions Resist Globalisation?’. Department of Industrial Relations and Management, Warwick University. 34pp. 

LaborMedia. 1997. `Seoul Information [International] Labormedia ‘97’ (Materials of the LaborMedia ‘97 Conference, Seoul, 10-12 November, 1997). Pp. 311. 

Lee, Eric. 1996. Labour and the Internet: The New Internationalism. London: Pluto. 212 pp. 

Moody, Kim. 1997a. `Towards an International Social-Movement Unionism', New Left Review, No. 225, September-October, pp. 52-72. 

Munck, Ronaldo. 1997. `Labour in the Global: Discourses and Practices’. Department of Sociology, Liverpool University. 25pp. 

Munck, Ronaldo and Waterman, Peter (eds). Forthcoming. Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalisation: Alternative Union Models in the New World Order. London: Macmillan. 

Waterman, Peter. 1992. `International Labour Communication by Computer: The Fifth International?', Working Paper Series, No. 129. The Hague: Institute of Social Studies. 80 pp. 

Waterman, Peter. 1997. `Globalisation, Information and the Labour Movement: What is to be Done?’. Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. 15pp. 

Waterman, Peter. Forthcoming. Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms. London : Cassell.

Back to the top