the Internet is Changing Unions
(page 1 of 2)
By Eric Lee
that the net has become a mass medium, it's time to look at
how it has changed trade unions.
will point to such things as cost savings. There's no question
that email is cheaper than fax, telephone and old-fashioned
postal mailings. Cost is often cited by trade union officials
as a reason to invest in any new technology, including the net.
But I think
his misses the main point, which is the role played by the Internet
in reviving and strengthening the labour movement. There are
three major effects which I intend to address in this article:
Internet internationalizes unions and is leading to a rebirth
of classical trade union internationalism.
Internet democratizes unions, decentralizes them, makes them
more transparent and open, weakens entrenched bureaucracies
and provides new tools for rank and file activists.
Internet strengthens unions by helping them organize and reach
new audiences, as well as build public support during times
of need, such as strikes...."
little debate any more about how much the Internet has changed
the world -- it is now widely understood that the emergence
of a global computer communications network is an event comparable
to the invention of the printing press. (Though I do think comparing
the net to the discovery of fire are stretching things a bit.)
It has changed
much in the world we live in, including how we buy and sell
things (from books to shares on the stock market), how we learn
and teach, how we are entertained and informed. Everyone who
uses the net understands this. It is a tranformative experience.
And it is
changing trade unions too, even if they don't realize it yet.
It's a little
hard, at first, to accept the idea that new communications technologies
change institutions like trade unions. And yet a glance backward
at the 19th century reveals that the telegraph too had a profound
effect on the world's economy and culture and even -- albeit
somewhat less obviously -- on the emergening trade unions.
In Tom Standage's
delightful book, The Victorian Internet, a history of the telegraph,
he recounts a story of the first trade union meeting conducted
"online" -- hundreds of employees of the American
Telegraph Company working the lines between Boston and Maine
met for an hour, conducted their discussions and even passed
resolutions, all in Morse code.
the idea of "online" trade unionism (using Morse code)
didn't catch on in the 19th century. But no less an authority
on the early labour movement than Karl Marx was convinced of
the transformative power of new communications technologies.
In The Communist Manifesto, he wrote that it was not the occasional
victories of workers that was the "real fruit" of
their struggles, but the "ever expanding union" of
union," he wrote, "is helped on by the improved means
of communication that are created by modern industry, and that
place the workers of different localities in contact with each
technologies create new possibilities for trade unions. In the
nineteenth century, they made unions possible -- or at least
unions that went beyond a single location. National trade unions,
which were common by the end of that century, would have been
unthinkable without the national economies, which were in turn
dependent upon the telegraph.
trade unions emerging today, at the beginning of the twenty-first
century, are being made possible because of the Internet.
of this happened overnight. There is a history going back more
than twenty years of trade unions using computer networks. The
global networked trade unions now being born have their roots
in the early 1980s.
1981, personal computers were hobbyists' playthings. They existed.
Some people bought them. Some hobbyists even built modems, which
allowed them to exchange files through telephone lines. In the
late 1970s, electronic bulletin boards had been created. But
you really had to like this sort of thing to buy and use a computer
of course, had nothing to do with any of this. They continued
to work in the old tried-and-tested ways (without using computers)
for years to come, lagging far behind businesses, which adopted
personal computers widely in the 1980s and got online by the
But in 1981,
there was a first, tentative step made. Larry Kuehn and Arnie
Myers of the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) saw
a demonstration of how a modem worked and were impressed. They
introduced portable computers (not very portable by today's
standards) with modems and printers to union leaders and quickly
created the first labour network. Soon the whole Executive of
the BCTF was traipsing around the province sending off messages
to each other on the clumsy machines.
no rush of imitators even though the project was fairly successful.
(The union survived a brutal assault by the right-wing provincial
government in part because its internal communications allowed
swift and effective responses.)
a fellow Canadian -- Marc Belanger of the Canadian Union of
Public Employees -- managed to put together Canada's first nationwide
packet-switching network. It was not only the first such network
created for a union -- it was the first such network created
in Canada, period. It was called Solinet, short for Solidarity
short time, hundreds of CUPE members were using Solinet's unique
conferencing system which was also the first in the world to
work in two languages, English and French.
the need for cheap communications was driving European-based
International Trade Secretariats to seek out alternatives
to phone calls and even the new fax machines. (International
Trade Secretariats are global organizations of trade unions
in particular sectors of the economy, such as teachers,
metal workers, transport workers and so on.)
they came upon a German-based network called Geonet and
began using this to exchange emails and even set up online
bulletin boards. The ITS for the chemical sector -- now
known as the ICEM -- and the International Transport Workers
Federation (ITF) were pioneering global labour computer
communications years before most of us were even using personal
computers, let alone the Internet.
more than a decade after Kuehn and Myers got hooked on the
idea of modems, enough was happening to justify an international
conference to discuss where things were going. This was
held in Manchester in 1992, hosted by one of Britain's largest
unions, the GMB.
Manchester conference and a successor one in 1993 included
among the invitees all those who had been involved -- including
Kuehn, Belanger, and the Europeans, such as Jim Catterson
of the ICEM and Richard Flint of the ITF. Poptel, a workers
cooperative had been launched in the UK to help coordinate
this work, and a rival grouping in the US -- IGC Labornet
-- set about to bring American unions online. For several
years the two systems -- Geonet's and IGC's -- existed side
by side, unable to communicate with one another, offering
rival conferencing systems for those few trade unionists
who were already online.
interested in all this sometime in 1993. The International
Federation of Workers Education Associations (IFWEA), which
employed me to produce its new quarterly "Workers Education",
took a great interest in these new developments. It became
the first international labour body to have its own website,
early in 1995. I began contacting all the early pioneers
who had been making slow progress for more than a decade,
learning about this remarkable hidden history of an emerging
labour network, when suddenly all hell broke loose.
to the creation of the Mosaic browser in 1994, the Internet
became, overnight, a mass medium. (The Mosaic browser is
the forerunner of Netscape Navigator.)
book, The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism
(Pluto Press, 1996), I pointed out that the most optimistic
estimates showed then about 50 million people online. The
day was coming, I wrote, when there would be double that
number. As I write these words, early in 2000, there are
over 200 million people online. Many millions of these are
trade union members and thousands of unions have established
websites and begun using the Internet as a basic tool of
many of the countries with the highest rate of Internet
penetration, such as Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway,
are countries with the highest rates of trade union organization.
Thus the percentage of Internet users who are trade unionists
is actually probably quite high, and it is not unreasonable
to suggest that there are currently tens of millions of
trade unionists online.
that the net has become a mass medium, it's time to look
at how it has changed trade unions.
unions will point to such things as cost savings. There's
no question that email is cheaper than fax, telephone and
old-fashioned postal mailings. Cost is often cited by trade
union officials as a reason to invest in any new technology,
including the net.
I think this misses the main point, which is the role played
by the Internet in reviving and strengthening the labour
movement. There are three major effects which I intend to
address in this article:
The Internet internationalizes unions and is leading to
a rebirth of classical trade union internationalism.
The Internet democratizes unions, decentralizes them,
makes them more transparent and open, weakens entrenched
bureaucracies and provides new tools for rank and file
The Internet strengthens unions by helping them organize
and reach new audiences, as well as build public support
during times of need, such as strikes.
most important of these, by far, is the first -- the re-internationalization
of the labour movement.
has to start by remembering how bad things have gotten.
A hundred years ago, there existed a kind of labour internationalism
that is hard to imagine today. Working people often dug
deep into their pockets to support far away strikes and
unions were often built by highly mobile workers who moved
from country to country. The ties between unions in different
countries were much stronger in 1890 than they were in 1990.
In 1890, unions were able to organize centrally co-ordinated
worldwide protests including general strikes in support
of a single, global demand -- the 8-hour day. And they were
able to co-ordinate their actions so that it all happened
on a single day: May 1, 1890. That was the first real May
Day. It would have been unthinkable a hundred years later
to organize a similar global campaign, even though communications
technologies were much improved.
unions have been particularly affected by the de-internationalization
of the labour movement and for many years, the heavy hand
of the AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department held back
any kind of genuine solidarity campaigning, particularly
at rank-and-file level. And this was not only true of the
USA, but of most trade union movements in most countries.
International departments of unions talked to one another;
ordinary workers did not.
Internet has already had a huge impact and one can now say
without fear of exaggeration that it has contributed to
a remarkable re-internationalization of trade unions which
has in turn empowered those unions, allowing them to survive
and grow in the most difficult of times.
example took place in early 1998 when tension between Australian
dock workers (known as "wharfies") and their employers,
backed by a viciously anti-union government, peaked -- launching
what came to be known as the "war on the waterfront".
was breaking every hour as unions, employers and government
fought it out in the country's courts -- and in ports around
Australia. The Maritime Union of Australia, representing
the wharfies and the target of vitriolic hatred from the
right, had just launched its own, slick website. But it
wasn't being updated. Like so many trade union sites, it
was just an online brochure.
of web activists from other unions, including the teachers,
worked together with the Australian Council of Trade Unions
to get up a regularly updated site on the net, but even
this proved to be a sporadic effort. The most successful
attempt to maintain daily coverage on the web was done by
a local activist in Melbourne, an anarchist who went by
the online name of Takver. His "Takver's Soapbox"
website, together with the Leftlink mailing list run out
of a leftist bookshop, became the best sources of up-to-date,
online information about the dispute -- which increasingly
took on an international character. More