Labour and the Internet

by Eric Lee

Just as businesses have come around the understanding that the Internet offers vast opportunities, so have trade unions begun using computer communications -- albeit somewhat more slowly.

Within three years of the founding of the original Internet (ARPANET), one of the most farsighted figures on the global labour scene, the Canadian-born Charles "Chip" Levinson made what may have been the first proposal for an international labour computer communications network in his 1972 book, International Trade Unionism. Levinson, who headed up the international trade secretariat for the chemical workers, the Geneva-based ICF, proposed that computerized "data banks could be linked by telex to ICF headquarters and information rapidly transmitted to affiliates upon request." Within only a few years, Levinson's vision became reality (without the telexes, of course) and the ICF was downloading information from computerized data banks and forwarding it by e-mail to affiliate unions around the world.

The real beginnings of labour's use of the Internet came in the early 1980s, though these were admittedly not great success stories.

Dave Spooner of Manchester, England was one of the initiators of the Popular Telematics Project (POPTEL) which in 1983-4 attempted to link trade union activists in Ford and Unilever plants in England and on the European continent. A decade later, Spooner summed up the attempt as follows: "Apart from crude messages between the UK and the Netherlands ('Hello, is there anyone there?' etc.), the project achieved no practical result, though we learnt a lot."

The English pioneers in the field of what they call "labour telematics" have successfully organized two international conferences in Manchester on the subject, and in 1993 established a permanent organization -- the Labour Telematics Centre -- to conduct training and research in the field. They work closely with POPTEL, which has linked the main European and international unions through the GeoNet e-mail system, based in Germany.

By the mid-1980s, just as some businesses were beginning to go online, trade unions in several different countries were independently taking their first tentative steps toward joining the online world.

It was only natural that the international trade secretariats, based in Geneva, Brussels and London, would be among the first to see the advantages of e-mail and computerized databases. As early as 1984-5, e-mail was used to link the regional offices of several international trade secretariats. The pioneers were the chemical workers and the London-based International Transport Workers Federation. They have been joined over the years by nearly all the other trade secretariats and by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

In 1986, the largest trade union in Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), established its network, SoliNet (Solidarity Network). SoliNet, set up and run by Ottawa's Marc Belanger, is perhaps the most remarkable success story on the labour Internet scene.

SoliNet is open to the whole Canadian labour movement and has about 1,500 users from 15 unions. Any union member can join. As Belanger jokingly notes, "We have magical software which sniffs out bosses who try to join."

SoliNet has several unique features which make it the subject of study by trade unionists around the world. From the very beginning, it was a bilingual French/English system. Using Canada's Datapac packet switching network, SoliNet created what was actually the first all-Canada computer network, going where even risk-taking entrepreneurs dared not go before.

SoliNet has been used for strike support, transferring leaflets from trade union public relations departments to negotiators in the field. It is also used to coordinate Negotiating Committee work, an especially important feature in a country the size of Canada. The network's conferences are used to track grievances. Software support for local unions, including a database program to track grievances and maintain mailing lists is supplied through the net, and technical support is provided via a conference. Ongoing SoliNet conferences include subjects such as health and safety, international labour, women, and free trade. A weekly labour news service ("SoliNotes") reporting on Canadian labour news is posted on the system every Monday. Special month-long conferences on particular special interest topics such as technological change are held on the net. The system is also used to distribute "model" briefs which locals can edit and present to government agencies. And a number of unions on the system use SoliNet to conduct educational programs, some of these being seminars run completely on-line. SoliNet even runs a university level course on Labour Studies, conducted by professors at Athabasca University.

Belanger's future plans for SoliNet include a gopher service (including an encyclopedia of global labour and a directory of activists) and an international labour news service which will be available via the Internet.

There is no real counterpart to Canada's SoliNet in the United States, though there are two organizations calling themselves LaborNet. One is a CompuServe forum sponsored by the AFL-CIO and is reaching only about 360 people. The other is the Institute for Global Communications, a San Francisco-based organization, with about 300 users online. Considering that the unions affiliated to the AFL-CIO have 16,600,000 members, the few hundred signed on the two LaborNets is hardly an impressive figure.

But the use of computer communications by local and national unions in the U.S. is certainly on the increase. By 1986, the United States had its first trade union BBS, started by the American Federation of Musicians in New York City. Today there are dozens of local and national unions in the United States with such bulletin boards, and they are loosely linked up in a network called SoliNet (another Solidarity Network), which was set up in 1987. Important U.S. unions like the Communications Workers (CWA) and the teachers (AFT) have been experimenting with conferencing features and the use of existing commercial networks like America On Line and Prodigy.

Developing countries and new democracies have also been the focal points of networking development in recent years. The South Africa trade union movement had established its WorkNet as early as 1987. Today, with extensive Western support, labour networks are being established elsewhere on the African continent as well. A recent report to the International Labour Organization and ICFTU focused specifically on the potential of computer networking for African union development.

Russia's trade unions have also begun using the new technologies, helped by a military communications system which links major cities. Kirill Buketov of the Moscow-based organization KAS-KOR considers computer communications vital to the reinvigoration of a labour movement which was crushed under 74 years of Communist rule. "Drawn into the international economy as never before, the Russian trade unions need a greater exchange of information, and direct contacts with kindred union organizations in other countries. It is essential," he says, "that Russian labour organizations maintain continuous and direct contact with international partners, to strengthen and broaden the links between trade unions. This is possible only through electronic communications." In October 1993, KAS-KOR co-sponsored, together with Russian labour unions and several international organizations, a world conference in Moscow entitled "Modern Communications: New Vistas for Workers' Solidarity."

In all countries the impetus for change has come from the increasing use of computer communications by business. Just as the labour movement has been compelled to develop global institutions (like "company councils") as a countervailing power to transnational corporations, so labour dares not fall behind those corporations in the use of advanced communications. (There have even been cases where the unions surpassed the corporations, and where union representatives have come to the bargaining table with more current and more comprehensive information than their corporate counterparts.)

Labour's use of computer networking has not been without its troubles, and these are probably the same as those encountered by businesses which go online. The dominance of the English language is one of the problems. Another is the strange male dominance over the networks (studies continue to show a huge gender gap when it comes to using computer communications). Fear of computers, the problem of security, lack of training, and the high cost of computer equipment in some countries are other problems yet to be overcome by the union movement.

For many years, the various federations of trade unions and social democratic parties around the world called themselves "the International," which was also the name of their anthem. But as Dan Gallin, the General Secretary of the Geneva-based International Union of Food Workers, told me, "only now with e-mail has a real International become possible."