A Global Networked Labour Response is Necessary | Asia Monitor Resource Center


2000-06-01, Chris Bailey

The trend of modern capitalism is towards both globalisation and networking. These features are closely related, but distinctly separate.

Since the late 1970s, an enormous expansion in the export of capital across national boundaries has taken place. Giant transnational corporations have been carrying out a global ‘rationalisation’ of production and distribution, treating nation-states as largely irrelevant. Neo-liberalism has developed as a political movement accelerating this process by deregulating the cross-border flow of capital around the world.

An explosive expansion of computer and telecommunications technology has accompanied these developments. By shrinking distances, this new technology has been a major factor in the globalisation of capitalist production. It has also played an essential role in bringing about the domination of networked forms of organisation. Although networks of various kinds have existed for centuries, modern computer technology has allowed them to take on new features and modes of operation and made them a central aspect of modern capitalism.

The essential nature of a network and the connection with computer communications has been described by Sally Burch, one of the pioneers of social movement networking in Latin America: “Unlike rigid structures, true networks are essentially flexible. They generate multiple channels of communication in which, as in the functioning of the brain, connections are made as needed and then suspended until a new need arises. In this way, information flows through the channel of least resistance, rapidly making its way to the most dynamic points of the network, on any given issue. Physically, this is very similar to the way the Internet works, and that is precisely one of the reasons why it is so appropriate for any initiative based on networking.”

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. In Flexible Dimensions of a Permanent Crisis: TNCs, Flexibility, and Workers in Asia, Gerard Greenfield describes how transnational corporations work with a mass of sub-contractors to bring about what is essentially a networked production system. Here he explains how “the logic of TNC subcontracting” works for Nike’s strategy in Asia: “From July last year, PT Indomulti Inti Industry stopped producing Nike shoes because Nike’s price was too low” and “failed to consider the labour costs and other operational costs. Other subcontractors accepted the lower prices demanded by Nike, and cut labour costs to absorb the loss. On the other hand Nike has cut orders to subcontractors like Samyang, a South Korean-owned factory in Vietnam, in response to the gains workers were making in organising and collective bargaining. At the same time, Nike has increased orders to Yue Yuen, a Taiwanese-owned subcontractor, which is increasing the production capacity of its factories in Indonesia and Vietnam. For Nike, Yue Yuen has emerged as a ‘reliable’ subcontractor because it can ensure both lower prices and more effective repression of workers.”

An increase in wages or improvement of conditions for workers is thus treated by the Nike production network as ‘damage’. As with any network, the damaged part is bypassed and made redundant. Production flows ‘through the channel of least resistance’.

It is important to note that, unlike purely informational and communications networks such as the Internet, the Nike network contains a definite command structure. This combines what Greenfield calls ‘hyper-flexibility’ with a powerful centre that has strong ultimate authority over the way the network operates.

As Greenfield shows, such ‘hyper-flexibility’ in TNC production methods based a sub-contracting creates ‘hyper-vulnerability’ for Asian workers. There can be no room for complacency for workers in the developed countries either. In manufacturing, they have already been largely bypassed in favour of workers forced to work for much lower wages and under worse conditions in the developing nations. Similar pressures for ‘hyper-flexibility’ are now asserting themselves in the service industries, particularly through privatisation and the subcontracting of jobs in the public sector. The ultimate logic of a globalised networked capitalism would be a world in which workers had no rights and worked for subsistence wages.

How can the international labour movement confront this threat? As Peter Waterman stated in his paper to LaborMedia ’97, “A globalised networked capitalism requires a globalised and networked labour response”. Waterman believes: “We are living through a revolution within capitalism, one even more profound than that from a local and craft-based capitalism to a national and industrial one. Just as that transformation required an equal one from the craft-based guild to the industrial trade union, so does ours from the national and industrial trade union to a globalised and networked model.”

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. Yet 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.

We need to consider why this situation exists. It contrasts sharply with the position amongst other movements working on social issues, such as those campaigning over women’s rights, peace, the environment, etc. These movements have built extensive international computer networks employing teams of professionals. These networks have often been able to act in a powerful way to influence social developments.

One example of this was the successful campaign to defeat the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (see ALU 32). A number of Internet based international networks worked together to mobilise large numbers of people around the world to lobby governments and campaign against the MAI. There were key issues involved here for the trade union movement, but international labour played a very minor role in defeating the MAI compared with networked social movement campaigning groups.

Another example of powerful intervention by Internet based networks has been subject of study by the US military. They concluded that an international computer network, based particularly on the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), had brought about a situation in which the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico “had quickly occupied more space in the media than any other insurgent group in Mexico’s if not the worlds history”. The study was in no doubt that this large-scale intervention by social movement computer based networks changed the course of events in Mexico. Its advice to the US military ought to be taken to heart by the international trade union movement. It asserted that “Hierarchies have a difficult time fighting networks” and “It takes networks to fight networks”.

Why has the labour movement so far failed to emulate the networking abilities of these other social movements? One clue lies in the fact that most of these movements were already networks before the growth of computer communications. An information and communication network has always been the main form in which they have existed. Consider the women’s movement, for instance: “Even before the word networking became synonymous with the Internet, women’s information-exchange strategies facilitated and, to a large extent, made possible the growth of an international movement working on issues of concern to women. Popular theatre and radio listening groups, wall newspapers and women’s wire services, fax trees and newsletters have informed, mobilised and built a global network of women activists. New information tools have joined rather than supplanted this media. Initially the women’s movement was not very enthusiastic about the use of computer technology. The major turning point came in the preparation for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on the Rights of Women in Beijing in 1995. Particularly through the work of the APC in setting up computer networks, women’s NGOs around the world found they could be better informed than national delegates to the Conference. Use of the Internet by women’s groups and individual activists expanded rapidly. The number of women’s organisations operating on APC networks tripled in a short space of time. The APC web site on the Conference recorded more than 100,000 hits.

After the conference, extensive training programmes were initiated, particularly in Third World countries, to teach use of the Internet to women’s groups. Quite substantial funding for this was obtained from a range of civil society institutions and charities.

Examination of other social movement computer networks reveal very similar histories. Already existing networks adopted the use of computer communications and eventually large numbers of supporters became convinced of its networking capabilities. Funding was then raised for extensive training programmes.

Although there is a lot to be learned from the computer network building experiences of other social movements we cannot simply imitate them. The labour movement is very different from these others. It has never been based primarily on a communications and information network. Although networks of cultural and education activity and political debate have always existed around the labour movement, its main organisational form has always been hierarchical. Even the most democratic trade unions impose the will of a majority on a minority and elect leaders who have definite powers over members.

Is it possible 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? In these, people make individual choices about what actions they decide to take concerning information they receive.

In fact, governments around the world have often tried to implement legislation doing precisely that. In doing so, they have been aware that if trade union actions were reduced simply to choices taken individually by union members then unions could not operate. By its very nature, the labour movement is fundamentally different from social movements based predominantly on information networks. It has to have some kind of command structure to function. The whole power of organised labour, particularly through its ultimate weapons, the strike and the picket line, is dependent on this. Union members are often required to act against their own individual interests in favour of a general interest. A degree of compulsion, with sanctions against those who refuse to take such actions, is essential.

The present trade union command structures have become highly bureaucratised. Most unions fall well short of democratic values they claim to stand for. In extreme cases, full time officials operate with very little control from rank and file union members. A major obstacle to creating a networked labour movement is resistance from these established union bureaucracies. They correctly see the wide dissemination of information involved in networking as a threat to their dominant position, based, as it is, largely on their control of ‘channels of information’. Building a networked labour movement means taking on and ultimately eliminating these bureaucratic aspects of trade union organisation.

But this cannot be done by simply building an information and communications network. Such a network remains peripheral to the functioning of the trade union movement and the needs of the mass of its membership unless it also contains an alternative command structure. It has been pointed out earlier in this paper that capitalist transnational corporations are perfectly capable of building networks containing a command structure. Is it possible for labour to do the same? Surely, if we are to confront the power of networked capitalism, it must. Certainly, those of us involved in labour computer communication work cannot and should not attempt to create such command structures ourselves. Our technological knowledge gives us no more right than any other union members to try to determine general union policies. Our job is to build an information and communications network similar to that of other social movements. No more.

But, unlike in other social movements based predominantly on such information networks, 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. Union members around the world are only too aware that the old bureaucratised union structures are failing them, but so far they see no real alternative to them.

How can these alternative forms of organisation come about?

Although our work is essential for creating the conditions for the emergence of new networked command structures in the labour movement, these new organisational forms can ultimately only arise out of workers’ attempts to fight back against globalised and networked capitalism. Our work must facilitate, not substitute the emergence of these new forms.

These are the concepts LabourNet worked with when it provided computer communications for the 500 Liverpool dockers sacked in 1995. LabourNet worked only to help build an information and communications network for the dockers. It did not itself attempt to dictate or impose policies on the dockers, though by putting them into contact with others around the world it did have a considerable influence on the direction they took. The dockers themselves were able to use the facilities and contacts LabourNet provided to construct a world-wide network that was much more than an information network. It possessed the authority to call and organise two international days of action that included strikes by dockers around the world.

The dockers’ international organisation possessed the features of a networked command structure. Various chains of authority in dockers’ organisations world-wide were used, but where they failed to produce action, they were bypassed by the network and replaced with other chains of authority. In the first day of action, the body that supposedly had the authority to call international dockers’ actions, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), was bypassed and reduced to trailing behind the dockers’ network. When asked by the press to supply information on the pending action it was forced to send begging emails to LabourNet to find out what was actually happening!

The ITF did not participate at all in the second day of action, which was even more strongly supported than the first. Before this day of action the dockers had attempted to construct, at a conference in Montreal, a formal international dockers’ organisation based on traditional elected structures. It failed to play any real role in the organisation of the action and, indeed, become something of a hindrance. Its authority was not recognised by many of the organisations involved in taking action. It was the Liverpool dockers themselves, at the centre of a now powerful and flexible global network, that were able to bring about the international day of action. The adaptability of this network was illustrated by the fact that the dockers were even able to keep the employers in the dark about the actual date of the action, only announcing it at the last moment.

The dockers were ultimately forced to surrender by the connivance of the leadership of their union, the Transport & General Workers’ Union. If they had won, there is little doubt that this would have given an enormous impetus to the growth of global and networked union structures based around the Internet, particularly among dockers around the world. During the course of their fight, dockers in Montreal in Canada, Santos in Brazil, Los Angeles in the US, Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Stockholm in Sweden all began independently producing World Wide Web sites. The conditions for creating a training programme dedicated to teaching dockers how to use the Internet for organising were clearly beginning to emerge.

The Liverpool dockers showed the way forward for the ‘International labour movement. Other groups of workers will eventually continue where they left off. In the meantime, those of us involved in building an international labour computer network can and must continue to prepare the ground for such a development. Our work is much harder and produces results much more slowly than that of people building computer networks for the other social movements, but ultimately it will help bring about something much more powerful than even the best of their achievements. 8 September 1997, the day US and Canadian longshore workers closed all west coast USA ports from Alaska to Los Angeles for hours in support of the Liverpool dockers, joining with similar actions from dockers around the world, proved this.

By Chris Bailey, LabourNet UK in the 2nd Seoul International LaborMedia’99


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