Notes for Speech to the Labor Online 99 Conference in New York City, 16 January 1999

by Eric Lee

We must be absolutely realistic about how effective the net has been so far.

We must be wildly "unrealistic" -- that is to say, visionary -- about what we will be able to do.

Let's look at some recent struggles.

Despite years of effort, there has been no noticeable democratization as a result of greatly expanded use of the net.

The net has not made union affairs open and transparent to members. (I need only mention the example of scandal-ridden District Council 37 of AFSCME in New York City.)

The Internet has not empowered the new, reforming, democratic wing of the trade unions, levelling the playing field between reformers and the Old Guard. (See, for example, the election of James Hoffa Jr. in the Teamsters.)

Above all, increased use of the net has not made a noticeable contribution to the much-needed globalization of the unions. (For example, no one mounted any significant online protest at the arrest, trial and sentencing of Zhang Shuangang, an independent Chinese labour activist.)

The utopian idea that all websites are created equal, that every netizen can individually challenge corporate power, has been refuted by the reality of a commercialized, corporate-dominated web.

Our unions' members come online by their millions, but they do not do so to visit our sites.

If we go back and read, for example, Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, or the papers presented in 1992 and 1993 at the Manchester conferences on labour telematics, or even my own book, written in 1995, and if we are completely honest with ourselves -- we must admit that what we had hoped would happen (the emergence of a much more powerful, robust, militant, democratic, internationalist labour movement) has not happened.

One hundred and fifty million people are now online (87 million of them in the US and Canada), there are more than 1,500 labour websites, hundreds of mailing lists, chat rooms, web forums -- and the labour movement still largely looks like and acts the same as it always did.

And yet -- everything we wrote and said from the first conferences at the beginning of this decade until today is true and valid.

The new technology is empowering.

So what is holding things up?

In my view, consciousness lags behind reality.

In our own heads, we have not caught up with the reality of a globalized, digitized capitalism. (But the corporations have.)

Peter Waterman writes of the need for a "global solidarity culture".

I have written about the birth of a new International.

I believe that we are both talking about the same thing.

We cannot think in the old ways anymore. And the new thinking must reflect the new reality of a global capitalism that knows no borders. (We can now correct Marx and point out that the capitalists are the ones who have no country.)

Because I am convinced that consciousness ultimately follows reality, and because I see the first buds of spring in the work being done by the people at this conference, I believe that we are on the brink of a great transformation of the labour movement.

The new labour movement will be global, democratic, militant -- and it will be wired.