The means to fight globalisation? Using the internet to support rank-and-file trade unionism

Dave Renton

 

In the past ten years, a number of trade unions have invested in websites to promote themselves to potential members, to communicate union decisions, and to help branches with recruitment and campaigns. A number of rank-and-file web initiatives have also sprung up, including the international labournet pages. The first was established in the United States, the second in Britain. Labournet UK, for which I sometimes write, emerged from the 1995 lockout on the Liverpool docks. This paper reviews the history of the labournet initiative, describing its continued organisation since the end of the dockers' dispute in 1998. It then relates this activist experience to the literature on internet activism, criticising the main existing accounts for a tendency towards exaggeration and self-importance. It concludes by arguing that labournet activity plays a small but useful part in the totality of trade union work.

 

Labournet: a brief History



The first LaborNet was a North American site, established in 1991. The second one was a British site, which began life in 1995 as Labournet UK. At the end of September, workers at the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company in Liverpool had been sacked after refusing to cross a picket line. Their dispute began as a lock-out, and centred on the dockers' simple demand for reinstatement. The idea came for a support website from Greg Coyne of the union list Union-d, and was taken up by Chris Bailey a lay officer of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union in Cambridge and a friend of Steve Zeltzer of the American site LaborNet. Chris Bailey has described himself as a net sceptic, who had long sent British union stories to Zeltzer, but whose attitude towards the possibilities of labour activity over the Internet was cautious. In March 1995, Bailey attended a forum on the new technology and was converted. 'At this conference, I was totally convinced by the presentations of Abdul Alkalimat, a Black activist from Chicago, and Milverton Wallace, a journalist and former founding editor of the daily Jamaica Record. They both spoke concerning the "revolution" that the Internet represented as a publishing medium'. 

The Liverpool dockers were locked out in September 1995, after refusing to cross a picket line. Their strike resulted in a certain immediate flurry of press interest, but this died down rapidly. The local press continued to cover the dispute but mainly from the perspective of the employers. National newspapers held back meanwhile, arguing that strikes didn't happen, couldn't happen, in post-Thatcherite Britain. For various reasons, the Liverpool dispute was especially well-suited to be publicised online. The technology was approaching a level of maturity, with growing numbers having access to computers and modems. Early on, the dockers saw the need to agitate at an international level. Catholics from Liverpool, it was easy for them to see the political dimensions of their own dispute. Many dockers were former sailors, they had migrated from port to port, before settling down to work on the docks. They had contacts in many countries. There was a great thirst for knowledge about the dispute in many countries. By 1995, the best stewards in the British working-class movement were drained by sixteen years of Thatcherism. The levels of confidence in the labour movement were low, and many people were waiting for Labour Party to win the pending election. Few British workers agreed to take solidarity strike action on behalf of the dockers, and those that did had to defy the instruction of the dockers' TGWU to oppose secondary strikes. For all these reasons, international support seemed to offer the possibility of quicker results than solidarity action in Britain. There were also activists with the experience of raising funds for strikes across borders. In 1995, it was only ten years since the great miners strike, which had also been sustained by international donations, and it was only six years since the dockers' previous strike against the closure of the National Docks Labour Scheme (which had ensured secure employment on the docks) so the activists and the personal connections were in place for international work to happen. 

GreenNet agreed in November 1995 to host a dockers' support site. Despite this backing, the site developed slowly. None of the people who had discussed starting it, had any clear idea as how to organise one. Bailey had some difficulty obtaining suitable material from the dockers, and when they did send him information, it was far too much to use. Eventually, Bailey was contacted by another activist, Greg Dropkin, who had met Bailey and Zeltzer in the course of solidarity work with South African and Namibian trade unions. Dropkin was working with the dockers, mainly on their newspaper The Dockers' Charter, which was then edited by the journalist Simon Pirani, who had previously worked on the miners' paper in 1984-5. Dropkin saw the use of the internet as a means to communicate information. He brought the skills of an experienced writer. He travelled with the dockers and filed reports and photographs. In his words, 'I did some interviews for The Dockers Charter, but only got involved with Labournet in January. I had used the internet once, and knew virtually nothing about it. One night, the dockers travelled to picket Sheerness at 6am. The photographer Dave Sinclair and I went along. I wrote a short report in the café and phoned it through to Chris Bailey, whose wife Lotti transcribed the tape. Chris put up the story that morning – we added a photo later.' 

The dockers did succeed in generating considerable international interest in their struggle. During the dispute, Labournet gave examples of the solidarity that was received. Dockers had 'turned up in Le Havre without an interpreter and won support from sceptical French dock workers'. Others had occupied cranes in Montreal and Cardiff ... convened two international conferences of dock workers; spoken in Stockholm on International Women's Day; provoked industrial action in ports around the world; addressed 5,000 meetings in Britain ... and faced the hesitancy of their own union and the embarrassed silence of a Labour Party awaiting office'. 

In November 1996, Bailey was invited by the web magazine CMC to record his experiences of the dispute, one year from the site's launch. 'Those of us who came up with the idea of a Web site for the dockers', Bailey recalled, 'tended to be trade unionists who were also computer "enthusiasts." I think the dockers viewed us with a good deal of scepticism to start with. They were only going to be convinced by real results. We were keen to use the technology, but hadn't given too much thought to the more mundane problems involved'. The first day of international solidarity was called for 20 January 1997. There were strikes in America, Australia and New Zealand, and support demonstrations in Switzerland, Mexico and elsewhere. On 8 September 1997, the strikes reached their peak. American and Canadian longshore workers closed all west coast ports from Alaska to Los Angeles in support of the dockers, with other actions happening in Japan, South Africa and around the world. 

One result of the intensive net coverage of the dispute was that it drew attention towards the role being played by the International Transport-workers' Federation (ITF). The ITF took its lead from the national officers of the dockers' own union, the TGWU. The federation formally supported the dispute but held back from arguing that it should be supported at by international solidarity action. Between December 1996 and January 1997, the ITF endorsed the dockers' first International Day of Action. After that they withdrew from supporting any further strikes. One contributor Peter Waterman revealed that the ITF dockers secretary Kees Marges had in 1989 warned against solidarity action and direct links between workers:

In order to ensure that so-called strike tourism does not show its face again (see the experiences with the [British] miners' and seamens' strike), and that, in this manner, uncoordinated actions take place that could bring both the TGWU and the continental unions in legal difficulties, the TGWU will, in a letter to all ... Shop Stewards ... urgently request that no visits to European ports be carried out on their own initiative. If and when possible, an attempt will be made to enable such visits to take place in an organised manner.' 

In the various exchanges of correspondence, the ITF position was defended by Richard Flint, the Federation's Director of Communications. In the middle of this public debate a San Francisco docker, Jack Heyman, resigned as an ITF inspector. Heyman had been instructed by the Federation not to attend a Dockers' Support Conference in Liverpool, on the grounds that the dispute was unofficial and could not win. He then published his correspondence with the ITF on Labournet. 

The dockers' support site meanwhile became a news service hosting photographs and an online edition of The Dockers' Charter, the dockers' newspaper. The dockers' call to action was translated into French, Spanish, German, and Russian. Over time, Labournet developed into a free service for all strikes. During the course of the dispute, dockers in Montreal in Canada, Santos in Brazil, Los Angeles in the US, Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Stockholm in Sweden also began producing their own World Wide Web sites. Several activists from Germany contacted the organisers, and a linked website was established there. Even after the end of the dispute in 1998, activists agreed that the site should continue. Most of the dockers' support sites also took the same decision. 

The site continued in much the same form until spring 1999. Then a dispute broke out, in response to NATO military action in Serbia. Bailey argued that the site should refrain form taking any collective position for or against war, Dropkin and others disagreed. On 1st April, a few days after the bombing began, Dropkin circulated the other members of the Labournet collective with an initial view of the conflict. No editorial line was imposed, and material from Kosovan unions (several of whom supported military action) and Workers' Aid for Kosova was carried, but so was anti-war reportage. Bailey was increasingly critical - suggesting that the site's focus on labour disputes had been lost. Eventually Bailey took unilateral action, sacking the committee of the UK and German Labournet sites. 'The great power of the Internet' Bailey wrote, 'is that it goes BEYOND democracy. No one needs to submit to the decisions of others, whether they be either a minority or a majority, or even express an opinion on an issue if they don't want to.' 'We disagree with this method', replied the critics, 'We are committed to the principle that those who do the work should have the power to make decisions collectively including, when necessary, majority decisions with which a minority disagree strongly.' Eventually Labour Net UK was re-established at a new domain, while Bailey established a rival site alone.

At the time of writing there are seven sites on a Labournet ring. 



Labornet Australia http://www.labor.net.au/
Labornet Austria http://web.utanet.at/labournet.austria
Labournet Germany http://www.labournet.de/
Labornet Japan http://www.labornetjp.org/
Labornet Korea http://www.nodong.net/
Labornet Spain http://www.labournet.org.uk/spanish
Labornet US http://www.labornet.org/

The content is uneven. Some Labournets have elected steering committees, other are dependent on a few core activists. The site that used to host Labournet Canada is now squatted by an internet pharmacy. Chris Bailey's LabourNet site, has had no new text added in more than three years. The German site sends out daily bulletins to some fifteen hundred subscribers. Labournet US has discussion boards for car, hotel and maritime workers and for members of the Teamsters' union.

Labournet UK



My own role in these websites has been unexceptional. I began writing code for Labournet UK in autumn 2001. I had been working for around a year with Greg Dropkin, particularly in the local campaign Merseyside Against Detentions, which supported asylum seekers detained at Her Majesty's Prison in Walton. It was a successful campaign, which raised money to pay for asylum appeals, which gave emotional support to a particularly ground-down set of people. The highlight of the campaign came in summer 2001 when a number of the detainees themselves went on hunger strike in protest against the conditions in the jail. From the outside, we were able to publicise this action, and a number of reforms were made. I left Liverpool in summer 2001, and lost contact with the refugee defence group, but was persuaded to keep in contact with Greg, and to start volunteer coding for Labournet. I began a small number of translations from the German website Labournet.de, and joined the collective as one (the least active) of a core of what is now four.

The site continues to be hosted by Green Net. We describe our 'common aim' as being the 'strengthening trade union democracy by using computer technology to provide accurate information and the right to be heard to trade union activists'. We invite unions and others to send us their own stories, and we act as a repository for their reports. We also commission our own articles, depending on a collective assessment of our priorities. The list of sections that can be accessed from our front page gives a good idea of the range of our coverage:

Israel and Palestine, Anti-War, European TUC Day Of Action, Burma, PCS, GMB, Coke, Colombia, Firefighters, Rail and Tube, TGWU, Miners, Kosova, Docks, Strike Spotting, Health Service, AUT, NATFHE, CWU, Anti-Privatisation, Defend Asylum Rights: Fight Racism, UNISON, Construction, Hazards, Asbestos, Iran, South Korea, William Cook, Siemens, Offshoring, Convention of TU Left, Debate: Respect, Debate: Open Borders, ESF, NUJ, London Weighting, Amicus, Fujitsu West Gorton, Auto, Yarl's Wood Blaze, Trades Councils, History, Disability, Appledore Shipyard Occupation, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Haiti, Venezuela, M&S, Sodexho, McWorkers, Education, Internet..., Employment Zones, Mumia, Canada, Cuba, DRC (Congo), Egypt, Japan, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, International News. 

Since 2001, the website has scored a number of 'coups'. We were among the first to publicise the links between Barry Reamsbottom the old leader of the civil servants' union the PCS and a number of Cold War relic organisations which existed to fund trade union 'moderates'. The story was picked up by Private Eye, and our article may even have contributed (in a slight way) to that enormous change of opinion within the union that resulted in the election of Mark Serwotka, one of the most high-profile members of the trade union 'Awkward Squad'. We have also publicised the financial crisis in the GMB general union. This crisis is something which the leadership of the union has tried to keep silent from its membership. There has been some coverage of the story in the mainstream press, but relatively little given that the GMB is Britain's fourth biggest union.

The four people who make up the Labournet core, come from different political backgrounds, including the libertarian socialist organisation Big Flame, the Workers Revolutionary Party (Workers' Press), the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Outlook. In one recent batch of email correspondence, one member of the inner core described how they believed the English left should look, 'Orientation to the Labour movement and to the working class generally is one of the major problems with all the groups as far as I am concerned. I keep banging on about the need for a new workers party - loosely modelled on the Scottish Socialist Party - with an orientation to organised labour, and hopefully with the backing of a section of the union movement, and an orientation to the working class in the community. A phrase I keep using is "time for a turn to the working class" - instead the Left is chasing around so-called "progressives" which is thoroughly depressing.'

We often debate whether or not to run stories. There have been controversies over whether or not we should support the Socialist Alliance in elections, and also as to whether or not we should cover 'general' Palestine solidarity stories, without any strong trade union content. Most of the core group seem to share the idea that existing left-wing websites focus too generally on 'radical' issues, while the space for Labour Net is to cover specifically trade union stories. On the other hand, we don't see racism or militarism as any other than class issues - at stake in the press campaign against refugees is the desire of capital to police the migration of labour. The question of how to mark the divide between general 'left' and specifically 'trade union' stories is one that we debate frequently. There has been particular controversy around the issue of whether or not to interview the leading figures of the new Respect coalition. Although Respect has emerged from within the anti-war movement, and although part of its appeal is to trade unionists, several members of the core group have expressed an unwillingness to report Respect stories in the same fashion as other trade union or anti-war news. Here are two members of the core group, discussing whether or not to carry an interview with George Galloway, the former Labour MP who heads the Respect list for the Euro elections. The first was a view expressed by one activist who thought the review should have been spiked, or at least not run as a main story:

Why should Respect get an interview with their star unless we intend to do that for everyone else who might well attract the votes of rank and file trade unionists, and even so, why do we want to do that at all, given the origins and basis of this site which has [nothing] to do with MPs or ex-MPs? I am concerned, not merely because of my own scepticism about the Respect project, but because I think there is some difference between a political magazine and what we're trying to do here. 

The second was a cautious defence of the original piece:

Why did we "interview" Galloway? Well it isn't really an interview as such, more of a report on a discussion Galloway had with representatives of student union magazines for the College and University along with some other journalists ... There is no sub-plot here to promote Galloway ... We just thought it would be of interest and the opportunity was there. The article doesn't set out to promote Respect, indeed it reads fairly sceptically about the issue whilst reporting what he said.

The agreed consensus was to carry the interview with Galloway, but to report it in a 'debate' section, also including more critical accounts.

 

Theorising labour globalisation



The most important theoretical statement of the possible relationship between the labour movement and trade union organising is a 1997 book published by Pluto Press, Eric Lee's The Labour Movement and the Internet. In this book, Lee began by arguing that multinational capitalism required a multinational answer. Yet, the old labour and socialist internationals no longer existed. The unions were in decline, and the international spirit had been absent on the left since the early 1900s (it was easy to demonstrate the latter point - simply by leaping straight from the effective demise of the Second International in 1914 to 1997, without mentioning any events in between!). The old labour international had in fact been undermined by the advantages that capital possessed in terms of its monopoly of communication. 'But ironically, the very technology which has given corporations such a great advantage over unions - advanced communications, especially computer communications - has become cheap enough and accessible enough to allow unions to move toward a new internationalism.' Without stepping back to demonstrate that union weakness was in fact the product of information technology (more obvious candidates might have included the high unemployment of the 1980s, or the anti-union backlash associated with Reagan and Thatcher), Lee went on give several, powerful examples of internet use, especially in Canada and the United States, and for groups of employees including doctors, nurses and teachers, who enjoyed early internet access, and who had used it to answer problems such as the dispersal of workers over distance. Lee ended his book with a ringing call to arms. 'Thanks to the Internet', he wrote, 'a century-long decline in internationalism has already been reversed. For thousands of trade unionists who log on every day, the International has already been reborn'. 

One of the polemical strengths of Lee's book was its criticism of the technophobia exhibited by many trade unionists. A March 2004 article on Lee's website suggests that the full force of his critique remains in place, 'If you're ever nostalgic to see what computers looked like several years ago, just wander into a trade union office ... A few weeks ago, I visited a trade union branch office in a large insurance company. There were computers everywhere, mobile phones, all the latest gadgets. But the union's own connection to the Internet was through a modem that belonged in a museum, not an office.' Of course, many unions work in a culture of extreme financial duress. Part of Lee's criticism was therefore also addressed at the minority of union officers who overspend, 'I've heard of union officers demanding to be given the latest palm-top computers, only to discover that they actually had no use for them. Of course unions should be extremely careful with how they spend their limited resources. Buying "toys for boys" should not top any union's priority list.' 

Yet Eric Lee is by no means uncontroversial. A forty-nine year old veteran of radical left milieux in Israel and the United States, Lee was born in New York, and has worked for the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, Kibbutz Beit Hashita and the New International Review. In the mid-1980s he was an IBM programmer, and in 1990, Lee was elected a member of the Central Committee of the United Workers Party, Mapam. He has supported the US wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and Israel against the Palestinians. Part of his critique of union extravagance is motivated explicitly by the suggestion that Lee could spend the same money better. Lee's personal website advertises his services in 'Web design and Internet consulting for the trade union movement'. 

Similar as they may at first appear, the expressions of Lee's theoretical arguments are radically different from the Labournet approach. Lee's website Labour Start aims itself primarily at existing trade union structures, rather than the more spontaneous expressions of workplace discontent. The main body of material on Labour Start is made up of press releases by national trade unions or stories form the mainstream press. During the Liverpool dock strike, Lee refused to criticise the official union structures of the TGWU and the ITF. In his words, 'the Liverpool dockers' struggle was "unrecognised" and they could not enjoy the full support of their union (the Transport and General Workers Union) nor that of the ITF. Without such support from their own union, the best website in the world couldn't help.' The gap between this perspective and that of the dockers' themselves is wide.

A number of activists have followed Eric Lee onto our screens. Peter Waterman is another who argues that capitalism has entered into a decisive new era. Borrowing form the language of academic cultural studies, Waterman argued in 1997 that computer-mediated communication represented the future for not just trade unions but any anti-capitalist left worthy of the name. 'In so far as we are living under a globalised and networked capitalism, any effective response has got to be globalised, networked and anti-capitalist. The new internationalisms are, in practice communication internationalisms, both making public concealed information and giving new meanings to what is publicly "known". I also think that cyberspace provides emancipatory movements with an appropriate space, and one which they can more appropriately use than can capital, state, patriarchy, racism, fundamentalism, etc.' It is worth asking why, what is about internet technology that makes it inherently more open to emancipatory rather than non-emancipatory movements? If nothing else, the sharp division would suggest a certain teleology in which emancipatory movements announced themselves and behaved themselves consistently in the appropriate democratic manner. As a model, this would fit badly with the history we have already described - one in which the dockers' own union gave limited support, where solidarity was never automatic but had to be won, and in which even the exemplary carriers of the new internationalist spirit could themselves be divided by arguments over tactics and personnel. 

At the heart of Lee's The Labour Movement and the Internet is an analysis of late capitalist society. In an era of increased trade and internationalised production, so the key task facing unions becomes the need to organise an international level. Lee has been by no means the only participant in these debates to argue for net activity on such terms. At a conference in Korea in 1999, Chris Bailey argued that 'The trend of modern capitalism is towards both globalisation and networking. These features are closely related, but distinctly separate.' Globalisation, Bailey argued, depended on 'An explosive expansion of computer and telecommunications technology.' Thus the net coverage of labour disputes become the obverse of new technology, intensified just-in-time production, and all the other processes that mark the introduction of a new economic order. 'Computer technology has created the conditions for a global communications network that is essential to the operation of capitalism today. But capitalism has also shown that networking need not be simply limited to communication and the flow of information, it has become a feature of the capitalist manufacturing process itself ... The creation of a globalised and networked trade union model is unthinkable without building an international labour computer network based on use of the Internet.' It does seem to me that there is an extraordinary conflation contained within this analysis. The reporting of disputes is conflated with the disputes themselves, the reporting of stories online is treated as the epitome of international solidarity, and both are conflated into giant, almost Hegelian concepts 'internationalism', 'networks', 'the new internationalism'.

All prophets are despised at home, and Bailey found himself having to explain why more people had not come forward to take up the challenge. 'Progress in creating such a network has been extremely slow. Most of the work so far has been done by a handful of individuals devoting their time to this task. In some cases these have received a limited amount of support from various trade union or political organisations, but, probably in the majority of cases, their work has been carried out on a purely voluntary basis.' Bailey argued that the labour movement was slower than other social forces in adopting an internet strategy because the organisations of the labour movement tended to possess a hierarchical structure (at this stage in his argument it is hard not to be reminded of his earlier argument of the need to use the internet to go in his words 'BEYOND' democracy'). 'Is it possible', he argued, 'to dispense with such a command structure and base the labour movement purely on a communication and information network as the other social movements do?' The solution, Bailey argued, was the creation of rival networks, and ones indeed with the same powers of command and centralisation which had given the existing unions their strength, 'the mass of union members will see no great point in the work we are doing unless it produces alternative command structures capable of winning battles against the employers. Only through such victories are large numbers of union members likely to become involved in computer communication work.' Fortunately for Bailey, the models for which he was arguing had already been proven to work, 'These are the concepts Labournet worked with when it provided computer communications for the 500 Liverpool dockers sacked in 1995.' 

The debates over globalisation formed a part of the internal discussion within the Liverpool dockers' campaign, with Hugo Radice, Chris Bailey, Michael Lavalette, Bill Hunter, Greg Dropkin, Mike Carden, Hugh Rodwell, Sam Lanfranco, Peter Waterman and others debating the international campaign. Figures such as Bailey were associated with the arguments for internationalisation as the best means to oppose globalisation. Others tried to argue for a strategy of bringing out workers in the North West or of using the international solidarity as a means to raise the stakes back in England. It was a fiercely practical debate, free of grand abstractions, and rooted on the simple, pressing questions - how could the dockers win?
Dave Hollis was challenged by Bailey during the 1999 clash over the future of Labournet. A German activist, he has published his own justification of internet labour activism, counterposed this time not to 'Globalisation' as a universal form but to one of its specific features, namely the offshoring of computer work. 'Globalisation', writes Hollis, 'is different from international trade of earlier times. Worldwide networking allows Capital to divide and coordinate its activities, development, production and logistics, across the globe ... There is often a discussion in left-circles which begins with the statement that capitalism has been international for the last 500 years or so. Although this statement is correct, modern networking has led to capitalism having a completely different way of working.' 'Global capitalism', Hollis continues, 'has provided us with the means to fight for and put a globalisation from below into practice – the internet ... "Consider that we currently live in a world where almost anyone located in an urban centre can share their message globally with a free blog and a few dollars spent in an Internet café. Access is not – or will not for much longer be – a major communications stumbling block for civil society organisations. The much more pressing need is for civil society to learn how to appropriate the network technologies that we now have access to, bending and moulding them so that they can be used more strategically and politically."' 

Such passages seem to point in two directions at once. On the one hand, there is the hint of the same idea of the internet as the alternative to globalisation which we have encountered in Lee, Waterman and Bailey. This is also coupled to a striking emphasis on the role of computer workers as the one group of workers central to anti-globalisation campaigns. On the other hand, there is also a much more practical sense in which labour net journalism is defended, as a useful means for activists to communicate between countries, in which strike action must always be rooted, workplace by workplace, and where computer-mediated communication is simply one of several strategies for spreading news. Elsewhere in the same paper, Hollis writes, 'The most important point is access to resources and structures.' To paraphrase one well-known authority, there is a sense in Hollis' paper of an analysis ascending from the abstract to the concrete, and therefore being of real use.

Beyond the internet's end

I have tried to intervene in these debates in two previous papers. One was addressed to the question of what constitutes globalisation? Drawing on Rosa Luxemburg's idea that there was a shifting frontier of control, situated between capitalist and non-capitalist countries, I tried to argue that what most people have described as globalisation has not in fact been any new process by which trade has been internationalised, but something else, the deeper intrusion of commodification into leisure activity, and the intensification of work. Such an analysis reinstates an older conception of the state and capital and allies, not antagonists. It also suggests that the highest expression of labour relations in our own period is not so much the offshoring of existing production (Hollis' claim), but the policing of the labour process in the first and third world. Searching for a situation that seems to epitomise the new relationships, the one that strikes me is the death of Chinese migrant labourers at Morecambe Bay. Transported right across the world, in order to reduce the costs of production, these workers found themselves living in conditions akin to slavery, and ultimately died. If any activities could be said to represent the alternatives to a contemporary spirit of globalisation, they would not be internet activism, but migrant defence, participation in the Social Forums (an international communication unmediated by computers), the recovery of leisure, or trade union activity itself. 

My second paper was written in winter 2000, when the falling price of internet companies was leading many commentators to challenge the previous orthodoxy that web communication represented a new technological revolution, a unique opportunity to engage in trade without cost. I argued there for a more modest conception of the internet, as something that did not revolutionise life in itself, but which still offered a new location on which older social conflicts would be expressed. I spoke there of 'the end of the internet', meaning not the technology, but the hype which surrounded it. The virtue of global communication lies in the spread of its reach. Yet what international media gain in versatility, they must lose (equally) in intimacy. People's opinions are shaped primarily by human contact, by discussion with lovers, other family, workmates, peer groups and friends. To say that the internet is the ideal medium of labour communication is to argue its superiority over other forms - human speech, print - when the reality is that the most effective dialogue requires multiple communication, not in one medium only, but in as many as can be done.

Drawing on these previous papers, it seems to me that the labournet project can be defended, not as 'the new internationalism', but as something solider, as a new expression of the old labour movement slogan 'workers of the world unite'. Greg Dropkin made much the same point during the docks' strike, defending net activism on practical grounds. 'The Net', Dropkin wrote, 'has not proved to be a magic wand':

Since June, the most extensive industrial solidarity action has been taken in Gothenburg, where members of the Hamnarbetarforbundet (Swedish dockworkers' union) have imposed a 12 hour delay on vessels calling in Liverpool. Their action followed a visit from two of the sacked dockers. The Hamnarbetarforbundet made no use of the Net, though they intend to get connected. They keep in touch with Liverpool organizers by fax. The Net does not replace the picket line, mass meeting, occupation, leaflet or collecting bucket ... No one will see a Web site without access to it, and no one will risk their job just because they read an appeal on a computer ... But the readership of the Web site and Net bulletins goes beyond the head offices and top trade union officials. The Net has proved itself in making new contacts and keeping interested activists up-to-date. 

There are limits to labournet activism. How to communicate with workers who don't own computers, or even can't read? What if they are literate, but in another language? What if they only consume material, without contributing stories of their own? Despite these potential limits, labournet activism still has its uses. There were three points during the dock strike, in particular, when the publicising of events online made a material difference. The first came early on when the General Secretary of the Japanese dockers union federation wrote to labournet, to say they intended to donate a million yen and asking how to contact the dockers directly. The second came during one of the international delegations, this time to the ILWU longshoremen's union on the West Coast of North America:

Tony Nelson and Bobby Morton turned up in Los Angeles to address a local ILWU (branch) meeting, thinking they had to start from scratch with the history. They were told – 'we know all that. What happened on Tuesday when you met the company?' Neither the dockers, nor I, nor Chris, had any idea that young LA dockers with computers were downloading the dispute reports and circulating printouts for other union members who actually read them.

The third occasion involved the same supporters. 'Union activists on the US West Coast picked up from labournet that Japanese dockers planned to strike in solidarity, which influenced the argument inside the ILWU over calling a 2 hour, 8 hour, or 24 hour stoppage'. It was Chris Bailey who passed on the news. The longshoremen's union had originally voted to take a full one day strike in support of the Liverpool dockers. The leaders of the American union then attempted to bargain this down to two hours. Rank-and-file activists were able to use the news from Japan, as a way of holding the union to a serious (eight-hour) strike. The publicising of solidarity in one country contributed to further solidarity in others. 

One main function of the labournet sites is not in fact to organise labour, but rather to spread the news of existing disputes. Most strikes take place within a single workplace. Some take place across an entire industry, but still within a single nation. The number of disputes which follow the pattern of the miners' strike of 1984-5 or the dockers' lock-out of 1995-1998, and present the opportunities for international support is inevitably smaller. Even then, indeed, the primary expression of such support was fund-raising rather than solidarity action. The striking dockers in the West Coast America were taking secondary action, but the enormous break-through that their action represented shows how mundane the reality is of most 'international' disputes. The most effective labour organising will remain that campaigning that takes account of the workplace, the section and the branch. The duty to think global is indeed urgent, but it means nothing without local roots.

 

 

Why not check out Daid's website http://www.dkrenton.co.uk