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What do want? A new chant! When do want it? Now!

Michael Dwyer talked with Eric Lee , internet activist and
author of The Labour Movement and the Internet: the New Internationalism

 
Michael Dwyer talked with Eric Lee , internet activist and author of The Labour Movement and the Internet: the New Internationalism

Creativity doesn't seem to be the strongest suit of the Left, at least not with those members of the Left charged with organising rallies. I enjoy a good rally - I'm out in the sunshine, marching down the street, screaming slogans and meeting like-minded people. But it would be nice to have a change now and then. 

It's not just an issue of whether or not I'm bored, although I imagine a lot of other people are bored too, and bored activists are not much of a force. And while big rallies still seem to be effective, the run of the mill Tuesday luch time rally of 35 people doesn't cut much mustard. 

According to Eric Lee, the internet is one means of revitalising social action. From grassroots organisation to global protests he argues that the internet is a powerful but underutilised tool. 

Eric Lee was in Australia in September 1999 as part of Adult Learners Week. 

Eric Lee

I work as the Information and Communications Technology Co-ordinator for Labour in Society National in London. It's a mouthful. And I'm the author of 'The Labour Movement and the Internet, the New Internationalism' published by Pluto Press. I'm here in Australia as the guest of Adult Learners' Week, and I'm touring the country, conducting workshops and giving lectures and meeting trade unionists and educators. 

Michael Dwyer

Tell me about your political past. 

Sounds like the McCarthy era. Well, I supported the party, but wasn't actually a member! 

My political past goes back about 30 years, actually further: the first demonstration that I attended was a rally in support of President Kennedy around 1960, I was four-and-a-half-years old. You probably don't want to go back that far. Look, I come out of the labour movement and the democratic left, and originated in the United States where I was born and raised, and from the age of 25 I've lived in Israel, where I was active in the peace movement, active in the democratic left there in one of the parties which is now part of the government. And I've always been part of the labour movement and now I'm working full time for the trade unions. 

So you've been on many rallies in your lifetime? 

Yes, rallies, picket-lines, sit-ins, that kind of stuff, many years of that. 

What would you say is the most interesting time you've had on a picket line? 

Well that's hard to say. 

What's your best rally? 

Best rally: I'll tell you what it was. April 24th, 1971, was what was probably the largest rally against the Vietnam War ever held in Washington. And I was given explicit orders by my mother that I had no right to go, I was not to go, and if I went there I'd be disowned, and of course I went with all my friends down to Washington, which was a wild experience. And when we arrived, we arrived at the back of the Capitol Building and didn't see the rally. And we thought, maybe there were very few people, or it was the wrong day, we had no idea, and then we rounded the building and saw a sea of people. There was 500,000 people, stretching as far as the eye could see, against the Vietnam War. That was an incredible sight that you don't forget. 

Is there a place for rallies like that in the late 1990s? 

Yes, but not necessarily in the same countries we had them in the 1970s. These kinds of street rallies have been very, very effective in places like Indonesia, or Poland, wherever dictatorial regimes insist the people not go out in the streets, that's where it's really appropriate to hold these kinds of rallies, and where they work. 

But in countries like Australia? 

I don't know. Look, Australians came out in the streets in large numbers in support of the wharfies last year, and that was apparently quite effective. I'm not so crazy about going to rallies any more, but that comes with age. But if I were in a situation where it was needed, I would do it. 

Because you've heard one too many chants? 

Yes, and also the feet get tired with all that walking in the sun. 

So where does the Internet come into your ideas about what is effective social action? 

The Internet is one of the tools we can use, and only one of the tools that we can use to promote our interests, our cause. And it's no different from any other tools, no different from using a telephone, or a pen, or a typewriter, or walking in picket lines, it's just one more tool. It's an extraordinary tool. 

When was the first time that computer networks were effectively used by trade unionists? 

1981. 

What happened then? 

This was long before most people were aware these networks even existed. What happened was in British Columbia, (I tell the story in some detail in my book) but in British Columbia the Teachers' Federation had a couple of visionary guys who heard about something called modems, and bulletin boards which were then becoming popular in the United States, and went to a demonstration of them, and decided to use them for the Teachers' Federation, and bought these what they call portable computers, which were what we would call today a desktop computer, but they had handles on them. They bought about 80 of these for members of their Executive Committee, and they all travelled around the province and communicated, using modems and little printers; there were no screens. And actually ran a strike this way. And they would send messages to the picket lines in different parts of British Columbia. 

So this is the earliest use I know of, and it's amazing because how far in the distant past it was. But the first kind of mainstream use of it was about the mid-1980s. By the mid-1980s the International trade union institutions like the International Chemical Workers' Federation, or the International Transport Workers' Federation, found it was much cheaper and faster, better, to use email than to use telephones. And so they adopted it quite quickly, by the mid-'80s. 

We hear a lot these days about the global nature of capital and corporations which span nations, which span the globe. Has the labour movement been as effective at spanning the globe in these kinds of ways, using these kinds of technologies? 

Absolutely not. The labour movement has been completely impotent in the face of globalisation. It has no answers at all to globalisation, it's made no effort to meet the challenge of globalisation. 

Why is that? 

Why is that? The labour movement is one of the most conservative institutions in society. Something that Marx probably never understood about the labour movement. It moves at a geological pace. So trade unionists form habits that last a lifetime, and pass these on. And unionists today use the technologies and style that they've always used. 

Are unions realising that these old tools are becoming less effective, that they're reasonably anachronistic as far as organisations go? 

To a very limited degree they have. The ACTU here just issued a report last week on the future of trade unionism in Australia, and in a section on information technology was the interesting one for me. So I read it quite in detail and paid a lot of attention to it, and they write all the good things that we have to use the Internet, we have to use this efficient technology, this is the future. When you get to the actual concrete recommendations, how they plan to change the nature of the trade unions, what it comes down to is 'We'd like all the activists and delegates to have access to email.' This is in a country where 25% of the adult population already has access to email. So your average, ordinary trade unionist, there's a decent chance he already has email. So don't tell me that you want the leadership to have access to it, when already it's almost universal access. 

So I would say that even in this statement it shows they're five or six years behind the times. That would have been a terrific proposal in 1992, but it's 1999, and most people hearing this, people hearing it on the web, will laugh at the idea that the goal of the union movement should be to get the activists online at this point. 

I remember reading an article of yours in doing the research for this, and you were suggesting that British unions have pretty much missed the boat on the Internet, but that if you went back about four or five years, at conferences there were grand pronouncements about 'This union's going to do that' and 'This union was going to do that', but nothing seems to have happened. 

Well certain things have. I was pointing to a particularly ironic case, that the second-largest union in the country, the General Manufacturing Union, called GMB, it had hosted these two international conferences on labour and computer networking in '92 and '93. Its General Secretary had opened the conferences with fantastic speeches about the importance of computer networking, and so when you go today to their website and a little sign appears saying, 'Sorry, still under construction'. They completely missed the boat. But not all British unions missed the boat, and it gave I think one or two examples of unions that actually were doing OK, and were thinking constructively and creatively about the Internet. 

Well what happens when a union does think creatively and constructively, what kinds of things do surface? 

They become more effective; they win more public support; they engage their members more; they become more democratic as unions. An example? OK, we had just now, a major, bitter strike of the nurses in Quebec, Canada. These nurses had a website, their union, which prior to the strike was a typical Trade Union website, a big photograph of the President of the Union, some text about what the union does and why it existed. It was a brochure. And it was entirely in French. Because why would anybody who doesn't read French visit the website of the Quebec nurses. They got into a strike which was branded illegal by the government there because they are considered to be in the central public service and have no right to strike. The government threatened to arrest their leaders, began fining them a million Canadian dollars a day while they were on strike, and all kinds of terrible threats. And a number of us at different websites tried to build solidarity for them through the Internet, which they noticed. And one of the things they did, was they immediately added a page in English. And they began updating the site every day with news reports about the struggle. And then they began adding lists of organisations which had sent messages of support. And the site was transformed from a brochure to a campaigning website. Public sympathy for the nurses was already widespread in Quebec, because people like nurses, and nurses who go on strike, people tend to support them. But they got public sympathy from all over Canada, and then from all kinds of obscure places around the world, including places like London, where I was building support for them. And this certainly helped bring this to a decent conclusion from the point of view of the nurses. The government eventually backed down on acute issues. 

So what we're seeing here is the internationalisation of social action, that international leverage can bring results for local people in their own local disputes? 

The best example we have of that last year is the wharfies' dispute here. I know from the point of view of Australians, this was an entirely local affair between the MUA and the company and the government, which was backing the company. But from my point of view, I was in Israel at the time of the dispute, it was a global dispute. And it's an interesting feature as to what happened. For example, the organisation that should have co-ordinated international solidarity of the unions in support of the MUA is the International Transport Workers Federation, the best in London. They had a court order brought against them in British courts, restraining them from intervening in the strike for several days that the company and the government here had brought against them. They were immobilised. 

The ACTU had a website which occasionally had some updates about the strike, but they couldn't maintain it. The MUA website had no information about the strike. From the moment the lockout began, their website had no information. So it fell to one guy, whose name I think was David Tackfer, somewhere in Australia, to produce this website called Tackfer's Soapbox. We had daily, and I think at one point hourly, updates on what was happening in the picket lines and so on and so forth. And his site was read around the world, and I read it every day and on my site Labourstart, I promoted. At one point, Tackfer himself was on the picket line for about 24 hours, so Labourstart, which at that time was based in the Galilee in Israel, was the only live source of news about the MUA struggle from the point of view of the labour movement, and it was getting a tremendous number of hits. And I had one or two Australians wrote to me and said, 'We didn't know what was happening, so we went to your site today to see, because nobody else is updating.' 

The international support that we were building, not just me, but everybody, led to the threat of a boycott of Australian shipping, a threat that began to be implemented on the west coast of the United States. One of the things I think that ended the dispute favourably from the point of view of the wharfies, was the international support that was built for them. That I think is a classic example of the mobilisation of an international labour movement in support of a trade union fighting a battle for survival, and we won that. 

Does it take the work of one individual? In an instance like that, there was one guy who just happened to be interested. Is that what makes the difference now? 

That's one of the odd things that's actually happened, is all the good cases of trade unions effectively using the web, are all cases of crazy individuals who've basically done this by themselves. Committees have never done this. Trade union bureaucracies on their own have done nothing innovative with the Internet, it's all been done by individuals in the trade union movement. 

Is the net the way forward then for the union movement? Is this a way out of what seems to be a fairly solid decline, a consistent decline in the popularity of the membership, developments of the union movement? 

Yes. It's not the only way out. I mean, for the unions to survive, they need strategy, they need vision and they need all kinds of things, They also need the Internet. They need it for things like to modernise the communications, to create a communications network, to talk to their members, to allow their members to talk to each other, to create a sense of community among the membership which doesn't exist. We were told this morning by a trade unionist that when they hold the meetings here in Sydney, a handful of them would get together in a room, wait a few minutes, realise there was no quorum, and go out and have some beer. That was what the trade union consists of these days. So there is no sense of community. That can only be built now electronically. On the net. But also for organising. You read the ACTU's report on the need to organise people in Australia, and they talk about two sectors that are targets for the ACTU. One is the IT workers, and to organise people to work off information technology, you have to use information technology. The other are young workers, and we know that young people are much more attracted to the Internet than middle-aged or older people. So the Internet can be a tool for organising, it can be a tool for campaigning, like with the MUA, and it can be a tool for education. These are all critical things for the trade union movement. So I don't see it as a panacea. I think unions can have wonderful websites and use email and television and still be destroyed. And I can't guarantee 100% success of a union who listens to everything I tell them that they will necessarily survive. But they will not survive, I can guarantee 100% that unions which do not adopt this technology, and do not use it, will absolutely with certainty, die. That's clear. 

It's interesting you mentioned the information technology and services area, because there was probably quite a significant battle in Australia in the late 1970s. Telecom or what is now Telstra was called Telecom then, and they were trying to introduce computers into the workplace, and there was a substantial degree of resistance from the union to the introduction of computers because computers would take jobs and requires a reorganisation of the workplace. Do you think unions have ever really got over the change from an industrial society to an information economy, to one where services and provision of services is possibly more important than the making of stuff? 

There's always a time lag, it takes the unions time. It takes all large bureaucratic institutions time to adapt to changes. It takes unions an exceptionally long time. And there is a historic tradition in the labour movement, of resistance to technological change, with the fear that any technology will change, of any kind, means job loss. And the fear is often legitimate. You can't fault a union for resisting technology which will in face mean a job loss. And you can make the argument with the unions that the experience of the United States for example in recent years, there's solid evidence now, and only now, that because of the booming of information technology, has it played a major role in the boom in the economy as a whole. The American economy is extremely low unemployment, steadily declining unemployment, years and years and years without recession, and much of this is attributed to the IT sector now. And there's the theory of the long boom, that this may in fact go on for decades. I'm not sure this theory is correct, but you can build a case that we might actually be heading into one of the longest periods of prosperity we've ever known in the capitalist system. So from the trade union point of view, we should be aware that this technology might actually create jobs. It will create jobs in societies that use it properly, societies that don't resist this, societies that embrace the new technology will probably prosper. 

Does it require a different kind of person to prosper in this kind of society? 

Yes, you have to be a little bit more flexible, adaptable, more creative. You have to work harder. People who can come to work half asleep, and not be alert, not care what they wrote, will not survive. Businesses that work that way don't survive. The problem with the Internet, and Internet speed, is that businesses that blink, that for a millisecond forget something, disappear. And this creates human casualty that if you happen to be working for that business, that's bad for you. So in general, societies, institutions, organisations which show flexibility and creativity, will survive. And that applies to unions as well as businesses. 

Does it require a different approach to education? 

The Internet. It opens up new possibilities in education. Online distance learning, which is what you would do using the Internet, does not replace classroom learning, does not replace study circles. It can't replace the relationship between a teacher and a student, or a student and a study, but it can be a tool that can supplement that, and extend educational possibilities to people, to regions, to countries that didn't have it before. It also means the globalisation of education. 

You're hear in Australia as part of Adult Learners' Week. What do you see as the most important things for people to be learning? 

I think learning how to learn is important. Learning how to learn by yourself is important. Learning the skills to learn independently. That becomes increasingly important in a network society like ours. It's extremely important in a country like Australia where people often live so far away from each other, such a vast country, that not everybody can come together and go to the same universities but you can, with tools like the Internet, everyone has access to quality education at some point. 

So as individuals, we all need to be so much more flexible, we need to be so much more able to deal with the way the world is by ourselves? 

We should be independent. Independent, flexible, creative, those kinds of things. 

How does that sit with your views as a labour movement person? Is it about independence, or about collectives these days? 

You know, I lived, and I'm still a member of a socialist society, a kibbutz, where there is always a conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. In totalitarian societies there wasn't such conflict because the individual was not seen as having needs, but mine is an anti-authoritarian, an anti-totalitarian socialism, and I recognise that there are individual needs, individualism is not a bad thing. Greed is a bad thing, but individualism is not a bad thing, and that might be one of the things that turns people off to the labour movement and the left, is this idea that everything must be collective, when people know from their own day-to-day experience that committees are not as effective as dynamic individuals, but I'm not pitching against democracy, I think decisions should be made collectively. But sometimes things should be implemented by individuals who can do it well and not implemented necessarily by teams, that's not always the best way to do it. 

There's recently been a critique made of the left in Australia, and it's aimed a whole variety of public sector organisations that see themselves as being sort of soft-leftish, that know the kinds of things that we should be saying, the kinds of things that we shouldn't be saying, and everyone is trying not to do the wrong thing, and not say the wrong things, but there isn't an actual vibrant debate about the reasons behind this. There's a sort of a facade of soft-leftism, but there isn't actually strong argumentation or strong thinking behind that facade. Is that something that you've felt? 

Look, in general, the left around the world is not a particularly exciting dynamic in creative left. If I was a young person now, in the late 1990s, I'm not sure I would rush to the left the way I did in the 1960s. That's one of the problems that I think we use the unions to help solve. Because I think that the left has to be revitalised and it can only be done globally. You can't talk about reviving the Australian left in isolation. Revive the global left means new thinking, new strategies, drawing upon old traditions and heritage that very few of us know about. It's very important, because there's a whole generation growing up now without a left, without any kind of tradition of a left. 

And encouraging people to think, to be critical? 

Well critical thinking's part of a democratic left. One of the problems is that we had a very powerful 'left' for many years that discouraged critical thinking. I'm thinking of the Communist parties, which absolutely forbade individuals from thinking critically. And that fortunately is now gone, but it has not been replaced by a vibrant democratic left that encourages critical thinking by individuals. 

Which I guess takes us back to education, for people to engage in these kinds of activities, that there needs to be a certain level of education, a certain openness to new ideas. 

That's right, and a lot of it will come through the networks. You know, when you go online and this happens to the people a lot, I had a note once from a steelworker, an email message, saying that 'I had no idea that there were struggles taking place that were similar to my own.' Going online and spending some time in learning things, globalises your world view and internationalises you, whether you want it to do that or not. At the moment there is absolutely no barrier there, if there's no language barrier of course. For Australians there is no language barrier. Australians will find themselves very quickly drawn to non-Australian sites, and will very quickly know much more about the broader world than they would have known just reading the newspaper, watching television..

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