Where trade unionists start their day on the net.

Unions Online: The International Dimension

Notes for talk given at Unions 21 - London, 27 February 1999

by Eric Lee

You can discuss IT and Internet and unions and hardly mention the international angle at all, or segregate the international part into a separate part.

You can talk about bringing a union closer to its members using email. Or saving money on printing and mailing costs. Or running local or national campaigns efficiently. Or selling union related products and services. Or providing services, such a legal advice, health and safety, etc. Or speeding up and broadening union democracy by creating online forums, open to all, or allowing strike balloting and election of officers online.

These would all be enough to justify increased trade union use of computers in general and the Internet in particular. One need not ever mention the international side of things.

But I have been invited here to speak about the international dimension of unions coming online. And there is good news and bad news.

The good news is that unions have been able to cooperate as never before across borders and across oceans using the new communications technologies. Cooperation is taking place not only at the traditional level of international departments of national unions or national trade union centres (such as the TUC or the AFL-CIO) but also at the rank-and-file level, as activists talk to one another. The possibility exists for the first time to create that old radical vision, a workers International.

The bad news is that the new technology isn't good enough to do this and that technology alone will not do the job.

The technology isn't good enough because it doesn't allow people who don't speak the same language to communicate. This most basic problem still requires human intervention -- translators -- and this is extremely costly and cumbersome. In a perfect world, we would all be speaking Esperanto, and at one time, this was a very popular idea on the left and in the labour movement. But it has not happened, and though English is widely considered to be the de facto international language -- by English-speakers -- the reality is that you are never going to get beyond a small minority of working people in the world if all you do is use that language. Automatic translation software already exists. You can see examples on the net, for example at the popular AltaVista search engine. But these programs only serve a handful of the European languages. And the results are laughable.

But the problem is not only technology. Let's take an example from close to home: the Liverpool dockers. Never before in the history of the trade union movement was the Internet used so effectively to promote global labour solidarity. Dock workers all over the world -- and not only dock workers -- learned about the Liverpool dockers struggle by visiting Labournet and other websites. The story is often told of Liverpool dockers visiting trade unionists in other countries and being told, "Oh yes, we know all about your struggle -- we read about it on the web." News of the dockers two days of international solidarity, in which ports were shut down in North America, Japan and elsewhere, were conveyed using email and the web. And yet despite all the publicity, all the wonderful use made by activists of the new technology, the Liverpool dockers were eventually defeated. Technology was not enough to save them.

In other words, we have to be realistic at the same time as we are visionary.

We have to acknowledge all the obstacles, and there are plenty of them, to using the Internet as a way to build international labour solidarity. One we've dealt with these, we can come to the visionary part.

First among these is the problem of language, as I mentioned before. I might add that language is much less of a problem for global corporations that it is for unions. I was in Israel the other week, and when you go into a Burger King in that country and want to order a "Whopper", you say "Whopper". Even though there is no "w" sound in the Hebrew language. A "Big Mac" is a "Big Mac" -- even in the language of the Bible. American corporations conduct their business in English, and if you want to do business with them, even buy a hamburger from one of their outlets, you have to speak to them in their own language. The unions, which respect other peoples' cultures, are obligated to pay translators. If God had not destroyed the Tower of Babel, some transnational company would have. Corporations profit from the proliferation of languages; popular movements such as unions suffer.

Another problem is the number of people who are not online and who are not going to be online. When I wrote my book, "The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism" back in 1996, I reported that with 40 million people online, the Internet was a force to be reckoned with. And that someday, it would reach 100 million online, and trade unions could not ignore it. Today, according to one source, there are 153,500,000 people online. But that still means that the overwhelming majority -- over 95% of humankind -- are offline. There are vast areas offline, such as Africa. There are estimated to be only about a million people online in that whole continent, nearly all of them in South Africa. The wildest estimate of the number of Chinese online today is 1.5 million. In other words, 99.9% of the Chinese are not online. And the number of people coming online in the developed countries is plateauing -- the Internet is hardly growing at all in North America these days. Much of the expected future growth is in places like China, where one study talks about 37 million people being online within the next few years. That's a lot of people -- and would rank China just behind the United States in terms of the number of people online -- but it would still exclude over 95% of the Chinese. The ones getting online will be businessmen, government officials, academics and researchers. I would imagine that very few working people would be part of those 1.5 million online today, or the 35 million about to join them. In other words, hundreds of millions of working people and the poor all over the world are being excluded from the Internet revolution. Until they are included, it cannot replace other media used to reach those people, including print, radio, television and face-to-face meetings.

Another problem is that mere access to information, just as literacy itself, does not guarantee that people will make the right decisions. Literate populations can be led astray just as illiterate ones can. (Just look at the example of Germany under the Nazis.) Similarly, access to the vast Internet with its limitless sources of information does not ensure wisdom. The proliferation of racist websites offers one example of this. If merely linking people up would ensure progress, we should see trade unionists increasingly tossing out of office corrupt, Mafia-linked officers and replacing them with militant, democratic trade unionists. But if we take the example of the Teamsters union in the USA, which just elected James Hoffa Jr. as its president, we can see that merely having access to information is not enough. And when I mentioned that example to a trade union conference last month in New York City, a Teamster activist and Hoffa supporter told us that the Hoffa people no less than their reformist opponents used email and the web. In other words, the new technology can be used to bring down reforming trade union leaderships and replace them with old-guard, corrupt, Mafia-linked leaderships. Nothing in the technology itself prevents that.

There has been much talk of how the Internet is being used by social change activists. The Zapatistas, we are told, have a web site. Internet strikes have recently taken place in Europe. Internet activists stopped the US Congress from passing censorship laws. And so on. But most of these stories have the character of urban myths. The simple fact is that a website cannot be a substitute for a picket line. An email message can never have the power of a consumer boycott. An online chat room is no substitute for a strike.

With all due respect to the examples just mentioned -- it was the armed uprising of the Zapatista rebels that got the attention of the Mexican government and world wide opinion. The so-called Internet strikes in Europe have largely consisted of consumers putting pressure on companies demanding lower rates. Internet activists were not able to mobilize anyone to demonstrate against the US Congress' passing of the Internet censorship bill, which was ultimately defeated not by popular action but by a judge, who ruled it unconstitutional. Show me an example of the Internet being used as the primary tool by anyone, anywhere -- being used successfully to enforce change. I don't think that example exists. Yet.

Because when all is said and done, the reality is that the Internet is an unstoppable force, and over time will link up not 150 million people, but billions. Eventually, the vast majority will be connected.

The problems mentioned above -- including the creation of automatic translation software that really works -- will be overcome. We will grow to accept the net in the same way as we accept the telephone, and just as there are no books about "The labour movement and the telephone", no one will talk about the subject any longer. The day that we no longer feel the need to talk about this subject in a special way is the day that global networked unions have become a reality.

Those global networked unions are the basis of the next International.

They will make real the vision, enunciated nearly 30 years ago by Charles "Chip" Levinson, of a "countervailing power" on the side of the unions to match the emerging multinational corporations. But they will offer more than a "countervailing power". Global networked unions will express the desire of humankind for a new world, one free of poverty, inequality, injustice, and war. More than the basis of a new workers' International, they are the basis of a new world.

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