Wizard of the Wires

From CWU Voice, monthly magazine of the Communication Workers Union (UK), January 1999

Eric Lee is no ‘nerd-head’. He’s a man with a mission – and it’s to get us all online. Linda Quinn enters Eric’s electronic world to find out what’s on his hard disk.

He didn’t touch a computer until he was almost thirty. But now Eric Lee is a world authority on the internet with several books under his belt. As a student of industrial relations at Cornell University in New York he was even given a special dispensation to avoid computer work. So how come he ended up as a computer programmer working on a kibbutz, a communal farm – in Israel?

Meeting Eric in a real office at an address with a post code is a novel experience. Normally I contact him by email. He seems to check his electronic mailbox every five minutes to judge by his speedy responses. I still prefer the ‘old-fashioned’ phone method, though I avoid mentioning this to him.

Eric is in the UK to work with the CWU in developing our internet strategy. He believes in using the speed of the internet as a labour organising tool.

His web site, Labourstart, is a mine of up-to-the-minute information on international trade unions. It’s thanks to web sites like Eric’s that our Critchley dispute is known throughout the world. Click on ‘Labourstart’ and you can be transported to anywhere in the world. It puts trade union members in touch with each other. It’s also a daily on line newspaper for the labour movement. You’re unlikely to read in a British paper that seven executive members of the telecoms union in Korea have been jailed for trade union activity. Or that the vice-president of the Colombian general union has been murdered.

During the recent dockers’ dispute in Australia, Eric carried fresh news of the ‘wharfies’ on an almost hourly basis. The International Transport Federation had been banned by a court order from reporting on the struggle.

"The Australian union didn’t have the resources to maintain its own web site, so it fell to me to tell the story." But Eric wasn’t physically there; he created the site from Israel!

Eric left the United States in the 1981, attracted by the ideals of kibbutzim. "We weren’t paid any money. I worked six days a week, eight hours a day. We shared profits, decision making and elected the bosses. All decisions were taken in common about what to do with the profits. I became a programmer on mini-computers.

"I found out about e-mail stuff when the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations asked me to edit their magazine. I had no idea why trade unions would want to use e-mail. I thought maybe some techie had come up with the idea.

"I produced the first issue on the subject of the computer and the Labour Movement and it gave birth to my book."

Was there, then, a connection between the idealism of working and living co-operatively on a kibbutz and Eric’s interest in the bigger global village - the internet? The internet is as near to a classless society as you can get. Information is pooled, ideas exchanged, individuals become part of a global family.

"An example of how trade unions can use the internet," says Eric, "is the ABC Disney dispute.". Disney is a multinational corporation that owns television stations in the US. It locked out broadcast technicians – members of our sister union, the Communication Worker of America – in a dispute over health care. Disney transferred transmission of the programme to London.

"I was their contact in London because they knew me through the internet. Within hours I was able to put them in touch with the CWU communications department. They then got on the phone mobilising members to support the picket and getting press coverage. Twenty four hours later there were 100 trade unionists standing with our American strikers in central London and the story was in The Times the following day. But the story and pictures were up on the internet within an hour of the picket! That’s the power of the internet."

So what challenges does the CWU need to meet?

Our aim right now is quickly to bring as many CWU members on line possible. And to do it at the lowest possible cost to members. It would vastly improve communications within the union and with the outside world. The CWU has to be able to offer a daily news service, a place for member to talk to each other and to the union.

"That’s why the union objective should be to provide every member with a free e-mail number for life as part of union membership.

"Union members could then pick up and send their mail, and check the electronic equivalent of the office noticeboard for updated news on pay negotiations, health information, how to deal with sexual harassment or legal claims.

Our aim is to communicate instantly with 260,000 members at no cost.

"It is now virtually impossible for any union of any size to do a mailing regularly to all its membership. They have become sleeping giants.

"We must begin to create the spaces where members talk to each other - even when separated by physical distance.

"We don’t buy newspapers anymore for the news. We get that from radio and television. The internet is now truly an alternative to TV. Clinton’s recent testimony to Congress was watched live on computers by a quarter of a million people at any given time.

"For a union with a digital movie camera and an internet connection, it could produce union television programmes and radio without having to rely on multinational businessmen like Murdoch for air time."

But won’t people always prefer to read in print? And anyway, not everyone has access to the internet.

Eric points out that 150 million people are now ‘online’. They are using technology that wasn’t used five years ago. There are now more than 1500 union web sites.

The CWU is about to launch a live event on the web. Every member with internet access will be able – simultaneously and in ‘real time’ – to join in a discussion with each other and with leaders of both the CWU and the Communication Workers of America on issues of common concern.

Eric says: "In the past all international work was done by a handful of people. All that is changing, whether individual unions feel they need to change or not. We have to embrace it, You can’t stop it."