Using the Internet to promote international labour solidarity
- Bridging the gap between vision and reality

Eric Lee

The idea of using the Internet to promote international trade union solidarity is not a new one. As early as 1972, Charles Levinson was raising the idea in a rudimentary form in his book, International Trade Unionism. More than a decade ago, the international trade secretariats -- including Levinson's own organisation, the ICEF (now ICEM) -- were beginning to use computer mediated communications to promote international labour solidarity.
In 1992 and 1993, international conferences were held and the vision was clearly laid out by practitioners in the labour movement and by such scholars as Peter Waterman. There was already talk of the possibilities of a new internationalism and, indeed, of a new International.
In the wake of those events, in 1994 I began writing my book, The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism.
In this paper I want to briefly lay out the vision of a new labour internationalism promoted through the global networks, the reality in the international trade union movement in late 1997, and the major obstacles which need to be overcome before the vision can be realised.

New tools for a new International

The tools being made available today to trade unionists on the Internet are allowing cross-border trade union organising, improved services for union members, international labour education projects, and global co-ordination of solidarity campaigns in ways we could never have imagined as recently as five years ago.
These tools allow trade unions to meet the challenge of globalisation by helping us build a countervailing power to the transnational corporations (which already use these new tools).
The general trend we're seeing is an integration of all those tools into an open and standards-based world, with email and the World Wide Web at its core. The age of proprietary, closed systems is ending. Previously, trade unions attempting to use computer-mediated communications were often trapped into closed, proprietary systems. These included the AFL-CIO's use of Compuserve to provide its on-line forums, or the use by European unions of the Geonet conferencing system, which was inaccessible to unionists plugged into the APC conferences -- and vice versa.

There are five broad categories of Internet tools we trade unionists can use today:
1. Electronic mail, voice mail and fax delivery via the networks. These are familiar to many unionists, and represent a low-cost, very fast means of communication, both one-to-one and one-to-many. It is now possible and easy to include binary files (including multimedia) and HTML-encoded webpages (like Netscape's Inbox Direct) in email messages.
2. Conferencing (building on-line community) -- including web-based forums (which are now beginning to proliferate), email-based mailing lists (using LISTSERV and Majordomo software) -- still a productive and efficient tool, USENET newsgroups, closed proprietary conferences, and on-line chat (in its 3 current incarnations -- IRC, HTML and Java-based webchat, and personal chat tools like ICQ).
3. Publishing -- using the World Wide Web, both text and multimedia (images, sounds, video) and using the new "push" technology (also known as webcasting or netcasting).
4. Telephony -- using the Internet as an alternative, extremely low-cost, global telephone network.
5. Videoconferencing -- the availability of low-cost tools (like freeware programs such as CU-SeeMe, tiny digital video cameras costing less than 100 US dollars, etc.) Possibilities for holding inexpensive on-line international meetings as a supplement to (and not substitute for) costly face-to-face meetings.

These new tools allow unions to do the following (a very partial list):
Promote international labour solidarity - conduct on-line protest campaigns
Vastly speed up and cheapen communication within unions and between unions
Hold more frequent meetings - particularly when geographic distance poses problems
Conduct distance education - courses and seminars - including interactivity
Publish timely information - including the use of colour, video, and sound
Conduct organising campaigns - including on-line membership applications
Create bulletin boards and union calendars
Run question and answer sessions with experts - on legal issues, health & safety, etc.
Allow members to purchase union services on-line

The reality

A great deal of progress has been made. Tens of millions of people around the world now have access to electronic mail and the World Wide Web. Millions of those people are trade unionists. There are now well over 1,200 trade union websites and dozens of on-line conferences and communities.
Most of the international trade secretariats and a large number of national trade union centres have created websites -- albeit of varying quality. Many national unions and union locals have also joined the rush to create a "presence" on the net.
Nevertheless, we must not delude ourselves and think that the labour movement has effectively entered the digital age; it has not. Unions have been slow -- painfully slow -- to adopt the new technology. As a result, labour's voice in the on-line world is as weak as it is in the non-digital media of television, radio and print. Perhaps even weaker.
For example, the possibilities inherent in streaming audio and video technology, which could allow the creation of labour radio and television stations on-line, have not even been explored, let alone realised.
The mere creation of an on-line brochure is not enough. Yet many unions seem to see that as the conclusion of a process when it is barely a beginning.
And the entire Internet revolution in the labour movement, as in the world, is largely confined to the industrial nations. The enormous working classes of Africa, Asia and Latin America are still excluded -- with the exception of the occasional island of on-line activism such as Korea and South Africa.
Even if 60 million people are now on-line, that means that 99% of the world's population is not yet connected. So long as the Internet is the property of that tiny elite of the world's population, it cannot begin to realise its potential in the creation of a new workers' International.

Obstacles to the creation of a global labournet

1. Infrastructure and hardware: We need much faster connections to the net -- and we need computers and net access for far more people. In order to use such tools as videoconferencing, you cannot work with 14,400 modems. Trade unions will have to upgrade their communications infrastructures to support broad bandwidth solutions -- such as ISDN, DSL and cable modems. In addition, the labour movement will have to promote the widest possible distribution of personal computers in the schools, to workers' homes, and to community institutions, such as public libraries. The network computer (NC) offers a promising low-cost alternative which might make the Internet accessible to millions. But these problems will not be solved by the corporations for us; we in the labour movement have a vested interest which they do not necessarily share, in bringing the net to the working class and poor.
2. Encryption and website security: We must keep email and Internet-based telephone calls secure and we must protect our investment in the net (such as websites) against hacker attacks, including corporate-sponsored hacker attacks -- and government censorship (e.g. South Korea's recent shutdown of access to Geocities).
3. Language: We must find ways to overcome the American/English domination of the net. This means an increased investment in translations -- but a savings in printing and typesetting bills. The use of automatic translation software will grow, as will videoconferencing (which is an easier interface for people not speaking in their native tongues -- they don't need to read or write, just speak and listen). We must demand that software companies and standards institutions guarantee access to the net to those of us who do not use Latin-character-based alphabets, such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hebrew and Arabic.
4. Training -- and overcoming fear of computers: As computer-mediated communications become pervasive, not being able to read or write email will be the equivalent of not being able to read or write, period. Trade union staff will have to invest in learning how to use the new tools even though those tools are often quite user-friendly. Part of this training will also have to be language training -- learning to use the international languages of the labour movement and communicate effectively in them.
5. Learning to overcome provincialism and think globally: Because a website can be seen -- and will be seen -- by people from outside your country, as will postings to web forums, newsgroups and mailing lists, one learns to think and speak differently. We must think globally and act globally. That is the only way to confront globalisation -- and win.

Eric Lee
Kibbutz Ein Dor, Israel