Workers' Liberty #53  


Workers and the Internet

Eric Lee, who runs the impressive LabourStart website at, discusses the opportunities created by the new technology.

Though I've forgotten nearly everything else I learned in high school science classes, I've never forgotten the explanation given for the difference between "necessary" and "sufficient" conditions for things to happen. I'm reminded of that now, when writing about the labour movement and the Internet.

I believe that use of computer networking is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the reinvigoration of the international labour movement. It is not enough for unions to merely adopt the new technology to ensure their survival. It is entirely possible that unions which make wonderful use of electronic mail and the world wide web will be defeated and disappear in the years to come. On the other hand, unions which neglect the new technologies will certainly wither and die.

In other words, using the net is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the survival of the labour movement - and its renewal.

In this article I want to focus on a couple of examples of best practice today and to speculate on what will happen tomorrow in this constantly-changing field.

In early November 1998, the American communications giant ABC (owned by Disney) locked-out some 2400 technicians, union members who had dared to call a one day strike. Their union, NABET, which maintains several websites, began to use those sites as never before. They created an online database of scabs, people who had crossed picket lines - including their photos. They produced daily news coverage of the negotiations and legal appeals. They provided an online guest book where trade unionists - initially from the USA, later from all over the world - could send solidarity messages.

When the locked-out technicians realised that ABC had moved some of its television production to its London studios, they contacted me for help. (My own LabourStart website had been covering the lockout from day one.) Using e-mail, I made the connections between a delegation of NABET members who arrived in London and the unions in the UK which needed to provide them with support. Within 48 hours of their arrival in London, leading officials of both the CWU and BECTU, including the president of the Media and Entertainment International (MEI), were on a picket line in front of ABC's London headquarters.

None of this would have been possible - and certainly not with the speed with which we were able to work - without the net.

The last year has seen several outstanding examples of solidarity actions built through the net. Perhaps the most impressive was the world-wide support shown for the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) during its recent bitter struggle with violently anti-union employers and with a reactionary government which was (and is) in every sense of the word an "executive committee of the ruling class". Facing the possibility of annihilation as a union, the MUA and its supporters used several websites (including one on the official site of the ACTU, the Australian TUC) which provided daily and sometimes hourly coverage of the strike.

International support was to have been co-ordinated by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) here in London, but British courts put a temporary restraining order on the ITF. For several days, the only sources of pro-MUA news reports on the Internet were coming from independent sites which the courts had overlooked, including my own. Later, a boycott of Australian shipping was quickly launched. Faced with the possibility of real damage being done to the country's export industries, the employers and their government eventually backed down. (There were, of course, other factors, and there is some debate about how much of a victory the MUA actually won, but that is not the point here.)

International support for the Australian wharfies was built in real-time, using powerful computer communication networks which were a dream only a few years ago.

There are already an estimated 150 million adults online around the world (7.5 million of them here in the UK). How many of them are trade unionists? At least several million - perhaps even tens of millions. It is already possible to reach vast audiences of trade union members with the click of a mouse, by sending out e-mail messages.

This is transforming the way unions work, particularly at the international level. Once, one had to be a trade union bureaucrat, indeed, to work in an international department of a union, to have heard about the global institutions of the labour movement, such as the international trade secretariats (of which the MEI and ITF are two examples). These institutions, isolated by several levels from actual rank-and-file union members, have now been exposed as never before to the millions of workers they represent. (One former official of one secretariat told me that they were now receiving e-mail messages from workers in places like Kansas - something that had never happened before in the history of the organisation.) These international trade secretariats pioneered the use of e-mail in the 1980s and were among the first labour organisations to set up websites in the 1990s. They will be at the heart of efforts to recreate a vigorous trade union movement on a global scale. But parallel to those efforts are the many unofficial websites being set up by individuals and groups which play vital roles in international trade union struggles. The Australian wharfies' campaign online was largely the work of an anarchist computer programmer calling himself only "Takver". The Liverpool dockers online efforts were the work of a handful of British leftists grouped around Labournet. The Korean general strikes of 1997 and 1998 were covered on the Internet by a group of young radicals who set up a task force precisely for that purpose.

One must have no illusions about how these things work. At one moment, the unofficial groups are at war with the bureaucrats; at the next moment they are working together. Sometimes the official trade union websites cannot be updated for legal or organisational reasons; at those moments, the unofficial ones take over. The relationship between the official and independent trade union websites, mailing lists and so on, are complex and dynamic.

An area where we are already seeing a sea-change in the way unions work is the handling of repression. When the South Korean government imprisons 55 trade unionists, including the leaders of major unions, the world learns of this by e-mail. When the head of Swaziland's TUC is jailed, within hours tens of thousands of trade union activists are informed by a network of e-mail lists and websites - and the authorities release him the following day. When the Colombian trade union leader Jorge Ortega was gunned down outside his home a few weeks ago, his name and photograph were appearing on websites the very same day - prompting protests from trade union and government leaders. It may still be possible for repressive regimes here and there to carry out their dirty work in secret, but it is becoming more difficult thanks to the net.

Things which were once a dream of internationalists in the labour movement have become very real - we now have online, daily labour news services, live events involving trade unionists from different countries chatting together, discussion forums in which hundreds of activists can meet and exchange ideas. Where there were once a handful of labour websites, there are now thousands. Only a few years ago, activists were circulating a list of the hundred or so trade unionists believed to have e-mail addresses; today such a list would include many millions of names. One necessary condition for the re-creation of a militant working-class International is therefore being created before our eyes - an extremely fast, very cheap, and truly global communications network. As for the other conditions (remembering the difference between "necessary" and "sufficient") - well, that's our job, isn't it?

Back to the contents page for this issue of Workers' Liberty

Back to the Workers' Liberty magazine index

[ Home | Publications | Links ]