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Preface to the Korean Language Edition of The Labour Movement and the Internet

by Eric Lee

It is entirely fitting that the first foreign language of this book should appear in Korea.

South Korea has come to symbolize much in today's world -- first as an example of an Asian "tiger" economy which was supposed to be full of lessons for the older industrialized nations. Today of course, South Korea (like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and others) symbolizes to many people the end of the "tigers" -- and a confirmation of the supposed superiority of the older capitalist societies with their ways.

To trade unionists, the Korean experience in the last few years has also been full of meaning. First we were inspired by the fighting spirit of the Korean unions and the KCTU in particular, during the general strike of December 1996 - January 1997. Later, we watched with trepidation the confusion and paralysis of that same labour movement as it faced the "IMF era" beginning in November 1997.

The experience of the Korean labour movement in the last couple of years is of particular interest to me also because of its use of computer communications -- including the Internet, but not only the Internet. Hence I was delighted to be invited to attend the historic "Labor Media 97" conference held in late 1997 in Seoul. There, KCTU leaders supported by other activists gathered together with a handful of trade unionists and academics from Europe, North America, Japan, South Africa and elsewhere (I was that "elsewhere" -- the sole delegate from Israel).

This book was written long before that conference, indeed, before the general strike began in December 1996. Nevertheless, I think it retains its relevance for a Korean audience today.

The history of how trade unions began adopting the new technology (going back to 1972) should convince even the most conservative, technology-fearing trade unionist that this is nothing new. And it is certainly not a passing fad, nor a fashion. Computer networks are here to stay. And they are an increasingly potent weapon in the hands of social movements -- including the labour movement.

The discussion in this book of the different tools we can use, ranging from electronic mail to discussion groups to online chat to the electronic publishing of documents on the World Wide Web is as relevant as ever. The experimental live broadcast of the "LaborMedia" conference using RealAudio was a first of its kind -- though it is anticipated in this volume.

In countries like the United States and Canada, many of the pre-Internet technologies, such as local bulletin boards, have disappeared. Their experiences, recounted here in part by the people who created them, may yet be of interest to Korean trade unionists who are not connected to the Internet, but who use online networking tools like the Closed User Groups which have proven so popular in your country.

The purpose of this book is not only to promote the use of the new technologies, but also to understand them -- and to understand their limitations. I think that the work of the Korean trade unionists and their supporters in creating a website for the general strike was tremendous, and gave many of us our first view of the Korean labour movement and its struggle. (It is still online, for those who want to see a living example of how a labour movement can use the network as a weapon: .)

Nevertheless, how many people from how many countries actually saw those pages -- as compared with the tens of millions who received their news about the strike from the more traditional news sources, such as CNN?

And to ask an even more provocative question, how many trade unionists and ordinary workers in Norway and New Zealand and Namibia cared enough about what was happening in Korea to have a look at those pages? (Keeping in mind that at best, only one or two percent of the population of this planet has access to the World Wide Web even today.)

Let us speak the truth -- and be blunt about it. It is not enough to create documents for the World Wide Web. We must also create a desire, if it does not already exist, for working people in Korea and elsewhere to learn more about struggles taking place in all parts of this small and crowded planet. In other words, to create what Peter Waterman has called a "global solidarity culture".

For the Korean labour movement, this is a question of life or death.

In the coming months and years, the KCTU will certainly once again be thrust into the vanguard role, leading South Korean workers in struggle. To survive an assault by the state, it will need massive international support. That support will have to be delivered immediately, in real time, as the events take place. The rapid flow of information between the Korean labour movement and the outside world is essential.

That's why every Korean trade unionist, whether connected to the Internet or not, should care about this new technology. The very survival of your movement may depend upon it.

LabourStart is edited by Eric Lee, the author of The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism (Pluto Press, London , 1996) and lots of articles about the same subject. The original content of this page is © 1998 by Eric Lee.