Nearly two decades ago, a couple of teacher trade unionists in British Columbia witnessed a demonstration of a new technology which allowed computers to exchange data across ordinary telephone lines using a new device called a modem. Oddly enough, they thought that there might be some use in this for their union.
Within a few months, the British Columbia Teachers Federation became the first trade union in the world to adopt computer-based communications, supplying activists and leaders with portable computers and printers. The network they set up proved to be indispensable in their battles to preserve their union in the face of an anti-labour provincial government in the following years.
For a decade or more, the British Columbia teachers had few emulators in the labour movement anywhere. As late as 1995, few unions were using computers as a means of networking.
The explosive growth of the Internet and World Wide Web in the mid-1990s changed all that. Today, there are over 2,000 trade union websites and several million trade unionists online.
Their numbers are not evenly divided across the globe. A much greater percentage of teachers in the United States will use the net than teachers in Mexico. Nevertheless, even in developing countries, the growth of the net has been phenomenal. Some analysts project that certain regions may actually be skipping the stage of a copper-cable-based telephone system and moving straight ahead to fibre-optic and wireless communications, with the Internet at their heart. In any event, some of the most interesting work being done by trade unionists on the idea is taking place in countries like Brazil, South Africa and South Korea.
The Internet is being used today by trade unionists to do many things that were previously done only by older forms of communication. For example, it has turned out that the web offers a low-cost alternative to print-based trade union publications and many unions now put the full text of their journals online.
Distance trade union education is being carried out online (for example, by Britain's Communication Workers Union -- http://www.cwu.co.uk), and the net is also being used to coordinate cyber-campaigns - sometimes global ones - in defense of trade union rights and workers' interests (for example, the global campaign in support of Russian workers' rights to be paid their wages -- http://www.icem.org/campaigns/no_pay_cc/index.html). A number of unions use their websites to recruit new members (like the New South Wales Teachers Federation in Australia - http://www.nswtf.org.au/memform.htm), others sell union-sponsored goods and services from their sites, still others run online conferences using the net's many tools such as mailing lists, web-based forums and chat rooms (see for example the NEA's excellent combination of articles, an online poll and a discussion forum -- http://www.nea.org/neatoday/9904/debate.html).
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the first trade union online network, where are unions heading with the new technology? One answer can be found in Sweden, where trade unionists employed by one high-tech company routinely hold their union meetings online using videoconferencing. Another may be found in Britain, where three unions with a combined membership of two million have just offered free Internet access to their members. In the USA and Canada, a number of unions routinely broadcast audio and video content over the net, creating a virtual online labour TV and radio network.
Many problems stand in the way of the net becoming an even more powerful tool for labour. More training is needed everywhere, the problem of language must be solved (eventually, but not now, by automatic translation software), and a communications infrastructure of some kind must be made available in the developing countries. But the biggest obstacle we are facing today is probably a lack of awareness by most trade unionists of just how potent a weapon the Internet can be.
No one considers the Internet to be a panacea for labour's problems, nor a substitute for face-to-face meetings, phone calls or even print publications. It is simply one more tool to be added to labour's toolkit, one more means for members of unions to stay in touch with each other and with their organisations.
If I may be allowed a slightly visionary moment, I think it also a bit more than that. Just as another tool - the telegraph - allowed the creation of national trade unions a hundred years ago, so today the Internet provides the technical basis for the labour movement's next step forward: global, networked unions.