Where trade unionists start their day on the net.

From Internet to "International"

The Role of the Global Computer Communications Network in the Revival of Working Class Internationalism

by Eric Lee

This paper was presented at the "Marxism on the Eve of the Twenty-First Century" Conference, 18-21 March 1999, Elgersburg, Germany

"Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union 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 other."

-- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

It is my belief that the Internet is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the revival of labour internationalism in the twenty-first century and with it, the revival of socialism.

The global computer communications network we call the "internet" is necessary because one cannot imagine a workers International coming into existence today in any other form than online. I will expand upon this idea in a moment.

But not sufficient -- because it will take more than a global computer network to re-create the labour International. It will take the will of class conscious individuals and movements who approach the question with open eyes.

Let me begin with a simple definition of "International". To Marx, the International was a world-wide organization of working people which aimed to coordinate their activities across borders and thereby strengthen them in the struggle with capital. The First International was no more -- and no less -- than that. Others may disagree, and the Leninist tradition certainly doesn't accept this definition of "International", but it is how Marx himself saw the concept and implemented it in practice.

Internationalism is central to Marxist thought; it was with an internationalist message that Marx and Engels chose to close the Communist Manifesto. Marx devoted considerable effort to the creation of a workers' International which was unique in the series of "Internationals" which followed in that it was a very broad-based union of workers without a strong ideological slant. It engaged in practical affairs related to the day-to-day needs of trade unions, and one of its main roles was to collect and distribute information.

We cannot romanticize too much about Marx's International. Lacking funds and decent means of communications, it was not particularly effective. In reading through the minutes of its General Council meetings, one can sense the frustration at not being able to act in many cases. Information reaching the International in London was often sketchy and out of date. The Internationals which followed could not play the same role. The Second, still around today and still based in London, was and remains a global federation of social democratic parties. Particularly today, when trade unions and social democratic parties are often not nearly as close as they once were, and when social democratic governments are no guarantee of pro-labour policies, the Socialist International can hardly be considered the true inheritor of Marx's First International.

Regarding the Third International, let me only say that nothing did more to undermine and discredit the cause of international socialism than the Stalinist regime in the USSR and the countries in its orbit. The Third International seemed more inspired by the 19th century tsarist diplomatic corps with its many intrigues -- described in some detail by Marx himself in his little-known writings on tsarist diplomacy -- than by Marx's vision of working men and women uniting.

In other words, there has never really been a true workers' International. That is why what we must be thinking about is not a Fourth or Fifth International, but a First.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade ago, the world described by Marx in which there would only be one social system for the developed countries and that one based upon a free market -- finally became reality. Call it globalization, call it a unipolar world, but the world described in "Capital" has finally become real.

This is, of course, an oversimplification, and not the central theme of this paper. Nevertheless, the reason why the beginning of the 21st century seems such an appropriate time for the labour movement to make another attempt at the elusive dream of a workers' International is because of capitalism's global triumph.

Marx was a social scientist and not a prophet. Much of what he wrote about capitalism is not necessarily true today. And yet so much of what he described more than a century ago -- a global system of production and markets, cyclical crises, the immiseration of the proletariat -- seems far more appropriate to our time than to his own. Only in a world like the one described in Capital and the Communist Manifesto -- a world very much like the one we live in today -- is a workers' International likely to arise.

Global labour unity was not possible during the many long years of the Cold War -- a war which began not in 1945 but in 1917, and which split the labour movement everywhere for more than eight decades between those who supported the Soviet regime and those who opposed it. With the Soviet regime now behind us, labour unity becomes a real possibility not only within countries but around the globe. One indication of this already happening is the growth of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), once the pro-Western global federation of national labour centers, but today the sole survivor of the Cold War within the labour movement as its rival -- the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) -- withers away and disappears.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, trade unions tried in different ways to grapple with the emerging global capitalist system which was increasingly dominated by transnational corporations. The more innovative efforts were the "company councils" formed by international trade secretariats. These embryonic global unions could have been the foundation for a new workers International. In reality, the costs of setting up and running global trade unions proved to be an insurmountable barrier to their creation.

A pioneering thinker along these lines was Charles "Chip" Levinson, who served for many years as general secretary of the international trade secretariat for the chemical industry (today known as the ICEM). Levinson authored several seminal works of progressive trade union thinking, include the remarkable "Vodka Cola" which foresaw the transformation of Communist countries into capitalist ones due in part to pressures of the world market.

He raised the idea of creating a "countervailing power" to the transnational corporations which even by the early 1970s posed a threat to existing, national trade unions. In his 1972 work, International Trade Unionism, Levinson casually mentioned possible trade union uses of computers, including computer networking. He suggested that databases of corporate information could be shared by unions in Europe and North America, and went further, raising the possibility of conducting online distance trade union education using networked computers. When he wrote these words, the Internet was a brand-new experiment being conducted by the US Department of Defense, and it was not even publicly demonstrated until after Levinson's book was published. For this reason, I have called Chip Levinson the "Jules Verne of labour telematics".

But the computer networking aspects of Levinson's book were only a minor point. The international trade secretariats aimed to use more traditional methods to build the global labour movement into a "countervailing power" to capital, and these included cross-border strike action, transnational collective bargaining, and so on. Levinson was optimistic in the 1970s that the first global agreement between an international trade secretariat and a transnational corporation was imminent. Unions would soon discard their national frameworks and the new International would be born. This turned out to be rather premature.

One should not look at this too simplistically and blame only the enormous costs of transportation and communication for the inability of the unions to create international structures to parallel and match those of the corporations. Other factors were certainly involved, including a general state of unpreparedness among the unions for the new globalized reality of capitalism -- a state which largely persists to this day. But nor should one underestimate the problem of costs. Creating a global council of, for example, Ford auto workers sounded like a good idea in the 1970s. By the 1990s, it was clear that the cost of flying in representatives for a few meetings was unbearable.

The arrival of a cheap and fast global communications network could not have come at a better time. Just when the unions most needed such tools -- in order to grapple with transnational capital -- they arrrived on the scene. Obviously, this was not just good fortune. Capital itself had created the new communications tools precisely to allow corporations to function more smoothly in a global marketplace.

The adoption of computer networking by trade unions beginning in the early 1980s but taking off in the mid-1990s, has created the technical basis for a renewal of labour internationalism and the creation of the next International.

It is surprising how far back use of the networks by trade unions goes. As early as 1981, leaders of the British Columbia Teachers Federation (Canada) were using portable computers and coordinating union activities -- include a province-wide strike -- via modem. By the mid-1980s, networking-by-modem had been adopted by several International Trade Secretariats which by virtue of the tasks required of them (and very limited budgets) found the new technology to be an irresistable means of communication with far-flung offices and affiliate unions. A nationwide computer network for a trade union was established for the first time in Canada in the mid-1980s and it was called "Solinet" -- short for "Solidarity Network". The country's largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) was officially behind it, but like so many of the early initiatives, the force behind Solinet was one individual -- Marc Belanger.

It should be emphasized that much of the early activity did not involve use of the Internet. The 1980s were a time when online bulletin board systems (BBS) proliferated, and when anyone with a modem and a personal computer could create a virtual network. Particularly in North America, this proved to be a popular way for trade unionists to explore the new technology. It took the explosion of interest in the Internet in the 1990s to turn labour networking by computer into a mass medium.

The first international meeting to discuss labour's use of the new computer communications technology was held back in 1990, and large international conferences devoted exclusively to this topic followed in 1992 and 1993. The first half of the decade saw some early impressive use of the net, such as the launch of a daily labour strike newspaper during the San Francisco journalists strike, and the creation of a nationwide independent labour network in the USA called Labornet. The first international labour website, belonging to the International Federation of Workers Education Associations (IFWEA) was launched in early 1994.

Long before the Internet became a household word, trade unions around the globe were already pioneering its use, seeing it as a cheap and fast alternative to telephone calls and faxes.

Nevertheless, not all unions raced to adopt the new technology. There was -- and remains -- considerable resistance. Even some of the International Trade Secretariats have yet to create websites, and several national trade union centers have not yet established any presence at all in cyberspace.

Much of the resistance comes at the highest levels of the unions themselves. It is not unusual for a union official to declare that he "has email" -- meaning that he has a secretary who downloads and prints out his messages for him to read.

Often the pressure for change comes from below, from middle-level and rank-and-file activists who become enthusiastic about the new technology.

Using such tools as websites, discussion forums, mailing lists, live online chat and videoconferencing, trade unionists are dissolving the borders which previously separated them. Forced by the logic of the networks (and global capitalism) to behave as if there were no countries, they become conscious internationalists.

There were early examples of this going back to the first half of the 1990s. Canada's "Solinet" sponsored a series of online discussions about issues of concern to trade unionists. But one need not have been a Canadian to join in. As a result, while Canadian unionists were discussing among themselves problems like unemployment, they were joined in their discussion by visitors from other labour movements, including one active participant from the newly independent Russian unions. This put the whole discussion in a different context. It was no longer possible for these unionists to see unemployment as a national problem which could be solved at the level of legislation in Ottawa; something new was needed.

To be honest, there is not much evidence -- yet -- of a massive transformation of consciousness by trade unionists in an internationalist direction. But there is cause for hope. For example, if you pick up the January 1999 edition of the monthly magazine of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) in the UK, you'll see that the regular column written by the General Secretary is entirely about the importance of international work. And it concludes by stressing the role of the Internet, which he defines as a challenge to unions. Such an article would have been inconceivable a year ago.

But on the whole, most trade unions continue to focus -- both in their print publications and websites -- on local and national issues. The expressions of a new internationalism are few and far between. I cannot forget an email message I received several months ago from a steelworker in the USA telling me that with so many problems to face in his own country, he had no time or interest for the problems of foreigners.

I must emphasize that we are only at the beginning of this process; the mere creation of online brochures is hardly a revolution. The increasing adoption of more sophisticated tools, and the coming online of hundreds of millions of working people, will ultimately create the networked global unions which are the basis for the next International.

By the mid-1990s, there were already tens of millions of people online. To some observers, including this writer, the presence of 40 or 50 million people in a global computer networked seemed cause for interest and indeed excitement. Even though the Internet had begun as an academic network and was joined by computer hobbyists and later, businesses, it still seemed likely that many of those online were already ordinary working people. The point could still be debated as recently as four or five years ago, but today it is clear that the Internet has become a mass medium linking together over 163 million people in nearly every country. The tens of millions who have come online in recent years are overwhelmingly working-class people. As prices of computer hardware, software, accessories and access have plummetted, workers and their families have joined the networks.

There is no accurate way of measuring how many of those who have come online are workers or trade unionists. We do know that in those countries with extremely high trade union density (such as the Nordic countries) the rate of Internet penetration is very high. Certainly in those countries, there are many millions of trade unionists already online today. In the US and Canada, where trade union density is relatively low, trade unionists are often the beneficiaries of somewhat higher income levels, and having more disposable income than other working class people, it is reasonable to presume that they have come online in even greater numbers than their unorganized counterparts. It would not be unreasonable therefore to guess that the number of trade union members with Internet access today can be counted in the tens of millions.

Even though most trade union use of the Internet today consists of email and websites which are little more than online brochures, this is beginning to change. A first step is the creation of "second generation" trade union sites which are much more interactive, and which include the possibility for union members to talk to their leaders and to each other. These new forums are sometimes unmoderated, meaning that any union member can say (or write) whatever they please. Why do trade union bureaucracies allow such free-ranging discussion to take place in cyberspace when they would not allow it at a union conference? In part because many of those who would ordinarily intervene to suppress unwanted debate do not sufficiently understand the technology. And in part because you cannot suppress debate on the net. Close down one forum and it will spring up somewhere else. As a result, using email discussion lists (popularly known as "listservs" -- listserv being the software which runs them), web forums (also known as bulletin boards) and live events (chat rooms), trade unionists are talking to one another as never before, ignoring borders and geographic distance.

A next step is the implementation of videoconferencing, allowing people to actually speak to one another and see each others' faces. I had thought of this as a kind of science fiction as far as trade unionists were concerned, and was pleased to discover that this technology too is being implemented in various places. Swedish trade unionists working for Ericsson use videoconferencing to hold their regional union meetings (with the company's permission, and using the company's equipment and network). They have been doing so for years. Meanwhile, the progressive Local 1199 union in New York City is deeply involved in the setting up a community videoconferencing network, first in Harlem, financed by the local government.

One issue which has not been addressed by unions as they increasingly become reliant on the new technology is security. Imagine a world -- one which is not far off -- where unions use email as their primary means of communicating with members. What would prevent "hackers," in this case hired by corporations, from crashing such systems, or sending out false messages that appear to come from the union? What would prevent corporations from listening in on such messages, particularly as unions increasingly use corporate systems for their own purposes?

(One of the international trade secretariats, FIET, has launched a global campaign called "Online Rights for Online Workers" which demands the right of unions to use corporate networks to communicate with workers, but little attention is paid to the security side.)

Websites are also at risk from various kinds of cyber-attack, and several labour sites have been victimized by this in recent years. Solinet's own system was attacked by a virus and many valuable files were lost. One of the international trade secretariats, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) had its system shut down a couple of years ago by a "ping bomb" attack. The British Labour Party's website was "hijacked" by hackers who substituted their own text and graphics. And recently both the US and British Labournet sites were shut down by cyber-attacks.

US defense experts have raised the notion of "netwar" to describe electronic warfare in the next century as rival powers will attempt to sabotage each other's mission-critical computer systems. "Netwar" will also be an increasingly important part of class struggle in the next century.

Another challenge facing the unions and one which is not yet being taken up with any real seriousness is the problem of multi-lingualism. This is hardly an issue for transnational corporations, which can compell local affiliates, suppliers, workers, etc. to speak the language of the home country, particularly if that language is English. But the labour movement is compelled by its own values to allow people to speak their own languages, and as a result when it uses computer networks, it must find ways to translate material -- perhaps even in real time -- from one language to another. Translation costs are extremely high and this is another one of the reasons why early efforts to create world-wide company councils and other embryonic global labour organizations failed. But a solution is just over the horizon -- automatic translation software.

Such software can be seen in use today on the web, though the results are laughable. Nevertheless, in order to get reasonably accurate translation for our purposes, all that is needed is more computing power. As Moore's Law dictates that every 18 months, the power of computing hardware doubles, it is reasonable to expect that it is only a matter of time until decent translation software becomes widely available. This will be an invaluable tool in creating new global institutions and networks for the working class -- indeed, without such software, one can hardly imagine a new International being born.

Even without high-quality translation software, global computer communications networks have made it possible to move beyond traditional notions of domestic/foreign labour issues. Every online trade union publication is by definition a global labour publication. There are no borders in cyberspace. And yet, people continue to behave much as they behaved before, with a few exceptions. The website of the CFDT in France, for example, while devoting considerable energy to producing information for French trade unionists about international affairs (which is to be applauded) provides nothing to those of us visiting their website who do not read French. News about CFDT, or even an introduction to the organization, is not provided in any language other than French.

The more far-sighted trade unions have moved beyond this kind of thinking. The Finnish trade unions, for example, provide regular trade union news in English, and provide translations into Finnish of labour news from around the world. One might say that the Finns are able to be such good internationalists because they have already achieved such a high standard of living and their labour movement is one of the pillars of Finnish society. But the South Korean labour movement, though repressed and hunted by the authorities, does the exact same thing -- providing email-based and web-based summaries of Korean labour news in English while translating into Korean labour news from around the world. The Koreans too have their own special reasons for being such good internationalists -- without international support, they could be crushed by repressive regimes.

It takes time for consciousness to catch up to reality. That is what we are seeing today happen to the international labour movement.

Kim Moody in the United States and Peter Waterman in the Netherlands have both written about the "new social unionism" typified by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) which they see as offering an alternative to the traditional business unionism typified by the AFL-CIO in the US. Moody places his emphasis on the role played by democracy in creating such new, militant unions. Waterman is encouraged by the uses made of the new communications technologies by "new social movements" such as the ecology, women's and human rights movements. He writes of "communications internationals" and the creation of a "global solidarity culture".

I believe that the net makes such internal union democracy possible, and allows the creation of a global solidarity culture within the unions. Such unions, more democratic than ever before, better connected than ever before, are being created today.

A new International -- the first International -- is being born.




Lee, Eric, The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism (1996)

Levinson, Charles, International Trade Unionism (1972)

Moody, Kim, Workers in a Lean World : Unions in the International Economy (1998)

Munck, Ronaldo and Peter Waterman (editors), Worldwide in the Era of Globalization: Alternative Union Models in the New World Order (1999)

Shostak, Art, Cyber Unions (1999)

Waterman, Peter, Globalization, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms (1998)


Automatic translation software - example:

Canadian Union of Public Employees / Solinet -

Communications Workers Union (UK) -

Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) -

How many online?

International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) -

International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) -

International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) -

Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) -

Labournet -

LabourStart -

Online rights for online workers campaign -

email address:

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