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THE INTERNET AND
INTERNATIONAL TRADE UNIONISM
Text of a presentation made to:
the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program click here
the Centre for Economic Performance click here
LabourStart click here
the "Networked Labour Conference" held at
the London School of Economics on 6-7 December 2002
and organised by:
- last modified on 17 December 2002
Roger making his presentation flanked by
Sid Shniad of Canada (left) & Richard Freeman of the USA (right)
This session of our conference is called "What Next For Networked Labour?" and I have been asked to speak about the "New Internationalism". I want to examine how the Internet is reshaping international trade union relations and, since I like structure, I want to make a SWOT analysis [for an explanation of this tool click here]. This means that I shall look at the Strenghts and Weaknesses of this technology in the specific context of international trade unionism and at the Opportunities and Threats which present themselves in this context.
Roger debates the issues with
union colleagues from 14 countries
Starting with strengths, it is easy to identify five immediate advantages which are self-evident, but which are still worth spelling out, in the particular context of international trade union activity:
- The Internet is relatively cheap to use. Whereas sending the same message to 100 physical addresses is 100 times the cost of sending one such 'snail mail' item, sending 100 e-mails or 1,000 or 10,000 is essentially the same cost as sending one. A Web site can be hosted cheaply or even - if you tolerate those 'pop up' advertisements - for free.
- The Internet is very fast. Sending a letter from one European country to another takes days; sending a letter to less developed parts of the world can take weeks. By contrast, e-mail usually takes seconds. This is a wonderful advantage for international contacts. This is particularly useful when a trade union activist has been falsely detained or is being tortured, where time is clearly of the essence.
- The Internet is truly global. In a few short years, the Net has reached into every corner of the globe, even if it is simply an Internet café in an African or Asian village. Effectively, wherever, there are unions, there is the Net.
The Internet is 24/7 - it is available all the time. When I was the International Officer of my union (before the days of the Net), I could only telephone Washington in the afternoon and it was very difficult to find a time when I was in my office and an Australian colleague was in hers. With e-mail, it does not matter what time it is in the country with which I wish to communicate and vice versa.
- An enormous strength of the Web - indeed its very essence - is the hyperlink. So, for example, an electronic newsletter can contain hyperlinks to very detailed information on the Web and the reader simply has to click on those links which interest him or her. This makes use of the Internet a rich and personalised experience.
- The Internet is inter-active. It is just so easy for the recipient of my e-mail in Mexico to click on the reply button and respond to my message or for the organiser of a conference in Kuala Lumpur to place the presentations on a Web site that I can access easily and instantly or for colleagues in Canada, South Africa and New Zealand to debate an idea with me through a discussion group or newsgroup.
I can immediately think of as many weaknesses as strengths when it comes to looking at the use of the Internet in the case of international trade unionism:
- Throughout the world, many millions of trade unionists may be connected to the Net but, in the vast majority of cases, even their trade union does not know their e-mail address. This lack of addresses means that and their unions cannot contact them electronically. Very few unions are systematically collecting these addresses and even fewer have anything like the majority of these addresses. In the UK, the best organised union that I know is Connect [click here] which has the e-mail addresses of some 80% of its unusually technical membership. In the USA, Working Families [click here] - part of the AFL-CIO - has managed to pull together some 500,000 addresses of American trade unionists.
- The vast majority of Internet users access the Net via a personal computer and, for millions and millions of trade union members around the world, a PC is prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, in many industrialised countries, there are many PCs which have been rejected as less than totally up-to-date but are perfectly capable of functioning well for many more years. One organisation which recycles second-hand computers to the less developed countries is the World Computer Exchange click here. Another option is not to use a PC at all, but other cheaper devices such as the Simputer [click here] which is a $250 handheld computer designed specifically for the rural poor of the world's less developed nation.
- Of course, even if one has a PC, there is then the need to connect it to the Internet and, in many parts of the world, such connections are either impossible, unreliable or very expensive. Organisations like the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organisation in Turin therefore make use of an educational program called the Internet CourseReader [click here] which enables course participants to minimise the time that they need to spend on-line.
- Even a PC and an Internet connection are of little use if one cannot read or write and world-wide many millions of trade unionists have poor or no literacy skills. This calls for massive literacy programmes in the relevant countries. It also suggests that Web sites aimed at such members should avoid jargon (always a good idea) and use simple language. Another approach is to provide devices that use voice commands such as the previously mentioned Simputer [click here].
- Even the literate Internet user may well be at a disadvantage if he or she does not know English, since something like 80% of Web content is in the English language. The answer here is to have Web sites in different languages and to assist those who wish to learn English.
- Even those with a PC and an Internet connection and with good literacy skills and command of English may not be using the Net because of the issue of confidence. Even in industrialised countries, not everyone - especially those over 50 - are familiar and comfortable with the use of a PC and the surfing of the Web. This calls for training programmes aimed at so-called 'silver surfers' or 'bald browsers' and other groups.
For those of us involved in international trade unionism, there are just so many opportunities presented by the Internet. Let me put forward 12:
- We can train our members - and indeed their families and friends and local communities - on how best to use the Net, including more sophisticated use of e-mail and more intelligent searching of the Web. We should be offering low-cost or no-cost training by throwing open at evenings and weekends the head, regional and local offices of our unions which are full of Internet-enabled PCs.
- We can assist trade unionists in less developed countries by twinning branches or locals in industrialised countries with those in less advanced countries. Those in the more affluent nations should offer unwanted PCs and software plus financial assistance towards training and line rental in the host country. This would be a really practical and effective form of international solidarity and a new version of peer-to-peer on the Net.
- We can use the Internet to organise the unorganised. Ironically, many of those least likely to be a member of a union - the young, the technical, the professional, the service worker - are those most likely to be accessible by the new technologies like PCs and mobiles. Small numbers of members in companies where a union is not yet recognised cannot be serviced cost-effectively by traditional means, but e-mail, e-newsletters and the Web can meet at least some of their needs.
- We can make much better use of e-commerce options. This means that potential members should not only be able to join the union on-line but also to pay their subscriptions on-line by entering credit card or bank account details on a secure Web site. We should be providing on-line sales of union-branded clothing and other items and on-line provision of paid services such as legal advice or holidays. As well as providing a better service to our members, this would enable us to use customer relations management techniques to target information and services to those most likely to benefit from them.
- We can make our Web sites available in more languages. American unions should routinely provide all on-line material in Spanish. Global unions should be using more than the common five or six languages. Since China has the largest population in the world and one of the fastest rates of growth in Internet usuage, all sites concerning the international union movement should be offering an option in Chinese.
- We can develop better on-line translation techniques, so that most trade unionists world-wide can obtain at least a rough translation of any site in a major world language. An exciting development in this area is the work being carried out - initially in English and German - through the "int.unity project" involving the German union ver.di, the British union CWU and the global union UNI [for more details of the language part of the project click here].
- We can make use of our Web sites a more personalised experience. When I log on to the Amazon site, the site welcomes me by name, makes recommendations for future sales based on my previous purchases, and provides me with a one-click option for my purchases - all based on the use of 'cookies' and my input of personal and financial data onto a secure site. We should be doing the same for union web sites, so that - based on information previously inputted by the member on gender, occupation, location and the like - we direct the member immediately to those parts of the site or that news which is most likley to be of interest and relevance.
- We can encourage our members to become involved in the generation of content, as well as its consumption, content. What makes the Net different from radio, television or newspapers is that it is made for interactivity. Therefore we should be training members to be more active and less passive by using discussion fora and newsgroups and by learning how to create and maintain a Web site or a Web log.
- We can make contact with more and more actual and potential members as the Internet continues to exhibit massive growth. According to the Irish nua site [click here], there are currently about 600M Net users world-wide. But that number will double in the next five or so years and triple in the next decade or so. This gives us enormous potential to reach out to more and more people and strengthen our movement in new ways.
- We can confidently anticipate that more and more people will use a variety of devices to access the Net. As well as PCs and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), the advent of third generation mobile (3G) will mean that many of our members - initially in the industrialised nations - will be accessing the Net using a mobile that they will have with them wherever they go. This changes how we can develop relationships with our members. Other devices - games consoles, digital television sets, even Internet-enabled fridges - and the availability of public Internet access points - in stations, libraries, hospitals, and so on - will make Net access truly ubiquitous.
- We can equally confidently anticipate that more and more people will have faster and faster access to the Net, although again initially this will be concentrated in the more developed parts of the world. Technologies like ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line or Loop) and Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) are providing consumers with relatively cheap, fixed-rate, always-one, high-speed access of a kind which transforms useage of the Net. When trade unionists can afford broadband access to the Internet and digital cameras or webcams, communications takes on a whole new dimension, as unions in South Korea are already demonstrating.
- Finally the Web itself is simply at the beginning of its evolution and we can look forward to exciting developments, such as the Semantic Web. The Semantic Web is an extension of the current Web in which information is given well-defined meaning, enabling computers and people to work in better cooperation. The Web will reach its full potential when it becomes an environment where data can be shared and processed by automated tools as well as by people. For some thoughts about the Semantic Web click here and for the Semantic Web community portal click here.
The major threat to the use of the Internet by the international trade union community comes from the nature of trade unions themselves, but all the other threats that one can anticipate will be common experiences for any individual, organisation or community that makes frequent use of the Internet:
- The Internet is a disruptive, even a threatening, technology for those who currently run the trade union movement through traditional, centralised, hierarchical power structures. When an individual member can obtain full details of an agreement any time of the day or night from the union's Web site, the power of the head office official to control and interpret information is challenged. When members can debate the merits of a proposed agreement in an on-line forum rather than wait for head office to convene and control a meeting or wait months for delegates to come together at the annual conference, the dynamics of the organisation change in a fundamental way. Progressive officials will see the new technologies as opportunities to democratise the union and enpower members, but many of them will feel challenged by technologies they do not understand and cannot control and they will endeavour to limit their use and development.
- The spammer, the hacker and the virus creator are crippling the Internet. According to MessageLabs, in 2000 one in every 790 e-mails contained a virus; in 2001, the figure was one in every 380; and, in 2002, it was one in every 212. The more we use the Net, the more vulnerable we are to these subversive elements. Therefore trade unions and trade unionists - like other organisations and individuals - need to use all the armoury at their command (filters, firewalls, ant-virus software, backing up of files) to avoid suffering too much from these wreckers of the Intermet experience.
- The terrorist and the cyber terrorist pose the most serious threat to the Internet and its usage. Although the Internet (originally the ARPAnet) was deliberately designed as a distributed network, there a small number of key physical locations which, if targeted by terrorists, could cause massive distruption to world-wide communications. These are the domain name servers (DNS) which store details of the Internet's domains and convert Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) into Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, so that data can be routed correctly. There are only 13 DNS servers, 10 of which are based in the USA, and in October 2002 seven of them were incapacitated by a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack by an unidentified source. Even more insidious would be the use by terrorists of cyber attacks such as the launch of a virulent virus which could severely weaken the capacity of the Net without the need to access or target key physical locations.
- Another threat is the blocking of access to Web sites by countries or companies because of political or other judgements about what is considered proper for users to see. Most notably, if you live in China, you are not able to access the whole of the Internet. Companies too block access to sites and, whereas the blocking of pornographic sites is understandable, denying access to union sites could be seen as a denial of freedom of information.
- The opposite threat is what I call site-dependence. Many Internet users - even experienced and confident ones - often limit their use of the Web to a relatively small number of familiar sites, frequently stored as favourites or bookmarks. To obtain the real benefit of the Web, one needs to be ready to seek out the new, the different, the unusual and surf widely. To understand something as 'simple' as a dispute or demonstration, one may need to look at several sites.
- Finally there is the threat of information overload. Anyone who has been on-line for any time has found that the volume of e-mail just grows and grows. One has to find ways of managing this torrent of communication. Equally there are more and more sites opening and endless newsgroups, community groups and Web logs available. One has to be selective and discriminate and be guided by sites and users who share one's interests and values.
This SWOT analysis suggests that, as far as the use of the Internet by trade unions internationally is concerned, the strengths and the weaknesses are currently quite evenly balanced, whereas there are far more opportunities than threats. Therefore I am really optimistic for, and excited by, the future for the trade union movement.
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