`97, Seoul, November, 1997
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
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
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.
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.
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);
information and the labour movement (Netherlands);
labour video production on a growth curve (USA)
newspaper using facsimile (Korea);
current conditions and possibilities of an email newsletter (Korea);
union media in South Africa (South Africa);
unions and utilisation of bulletin boards (Korea);
technology, labour process and labour movement (Korea);
taskgroup for the general strike (Korea);
the Internet to promote international labour solidarity (Israel);
a global LabourNet (UK);
situation of the labour video movement in Korea (Korea).
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.
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
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
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.
tech and high touch
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
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
Richard. 1997. `Imagined Solidarities: Can Trade Unions Resist Globalisation?’.
Department of Industrial Relations and Management, Warwick University.
1997. `Seoul Information [International] Labormedia ‘97’ (Materials of
the LaborMedia ‘97 Conference, Seoul, 10-12 November, 1997). Pp. 311.
Eric. 1996. Labour and the Internet: The New Internationalism. London:
Pluto. 212 pp.
Kim. 1997a. `Towards an International Social-Movement Unionism', New
Left Review, No. 225, September-October, pp. 52-72.
Ronaldo. 1997. `Labour in the Global: Discourses and Practices’. Department
of Sociology, Liverpool University. 25pp.
Ronaldo and Waterman, Peter (eds). Forthcoming. Labour Worldwide in
the Era of Globalisation: Alternative Union Models in the New World Order.
Peter. 1992. `International Labour Communication by Computer: The Fifth
International?', Working Paper Series, No. 129. The Hague: Institute
of Social Studies. 80 pp.
Peter. 1997. `Globalisation, Information and the Labour Movement: What
is to be Done?’. Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. 15pp.
Peter. Forthcoming. Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms.
London : Cassell.