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From Vassily Balog,
Deputy Head, International Dept., General Confederation of Trade Unions

Labour Communications in a Changing Region

By Vassily Balog, Deputy Head, International Dept., General Confederation of Trade Unions, 1 July 1995


A Hands On Educational Conference sponsored by LaborNet@IGC (Institute For Global Communications), San Francisco State University Labor Studies Department, LaborVideo Project and the Holt Labor Library

Saturday July 1, 1995
New College of California MultiMedia Center
San Francisco, California

It is my honour and pleasure to begin by thanking the LaborNet for making this conference possible, and for inviting me to attend the conference and to address its delegates.

I also bring you fraternal greetings from the General Confederation of Trade Unions, GCTU, and its affiliates. The GCTU is the major international trade union organisation in the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS. Today, it affiliates national trade union centres of nine countries - Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine, along with 40 branch Trade Union Internationals.

The total membership of the GCTU-affiliated organisations is approximately 107 million.

The basic objectives of the GCTU are:

  • co-ordination of its affiliates' activities on the protection of social rights of workers, students and pensioners,
  • assistance in their protection of trade union rights and guarantees, and,
  • organising trade union solidarity and co-ordination of its affiliates' international policies.

The Confederation enjoys observer status with the CIS InterParliamentary Assembly, the CIS Council of Heads of State, the CIS Council of Heads of Government, and the CIS Interstate Economic Committee. Internationally, it is in regional consultative relations with the ILO.

Workers' organisations in the region - both "traditional" unions that are going through structural and conceptual change, and those that only recently came into being - are looking for a proper functional place in our changing society. Meanwhile, in the process of transition to market economy, entirely new conditions of employment are being introduced while living standards are deteriorating in a very dramatic way. This affects unions' activities. It also forces them to look for new methods of work and makes them turn to the experiences of their sisters and brothers in other parts of the world.

In Russia and other CIS countries, like elsewhere in the world, the need for an adequate trade union response to the technological challenge and for better use of the modern telecommunication facilities has been in the air for some time now.

Already in 1991, the General Confederation of Trade Unions, then the national trade union centre in the USSR, was the first ever national workers' organisation to set up direct interactive online connection with the International Labour Organisation and its International Labour Information System, ILIS. At first, we used a channel to SWISSPAC through Moscow's SOVAM-TELEPORT to connect with the ILO's host in Geneva, although that gateway soon became economically inefficient for us and was therefore dropped.

Later, in 1993, two labour-oriented conferences, one in Russian, <glas.trud>, and another, in English, - <labr.cis>, were set up on GlasNet. They aimed to provide unions and other users on the net with electronic forums to exchange information and to discuss various labour-related issues. The English-language conference - <labr.cis> - is networked to other APC nodes (including those in North America - and I am happy to note at this point that our colleagues on LaborNet have proudly listed it among their own conferences). It presents a reliable firsthand speedy source of labour-oriented information on Russia and other CIS countries. Their value - both within Russia and beyond - became quite outstanding at the time when our unions and union officials came under direct attack. These conferences, alongside common emailing, provided then unique and independent channels of communication with the outer world making international solidarity possible.

In a further effort to aid the development of national and international trade union information networks, the Independent Labour Information Centre, KAS-KOR (Russia), GlasNet (Russia), and Labortech Communications (USA) held the International Labour Conference in Moscow on October 19-21, 1993: "Modern Communications: New Vistas for International Workers' Solidarity". Some of our good friends, including Brother Steve Zeltzer and Brother Robert Irminger who are present here, attended that Conference and I wish to put our appreciation on the record, for the contribution that they and other colleagues in US, Canada, UK made towards making that event a success.

We organised the conference with the hope that it would help speed up the development of trade union information networks in Russia and other countries of the former USSR, and make it possible to promote integration of trade unions and other labour movement organisations of the countries of Eastern Europe into international information networks.

Participants in the conference exchanged experiences of information work based on modern communication technologies. During the conference, new contacts were established between trade union organisations in different countries.

The conference was open for participation to all interested trade union and labour movement organisations, and those concerned with electronic communications. So far, this was one of those rare conferences held in Russia and CIS over the last five years where representatives from various and - at times, rivalling - unions met together to exchange experiences in information activities.

The number of unions going on-line in Russia and other countries of our region, is rather low so far, but it is steadily increasing. Since union users are dispersed among various networks, it is difficult to provide an accurate figure. My estimate, however, is that, in May 1995, in the ex-USSR and mostly in Russia, already 30-35 trade unions and individuals associated with labour issues/activities were using e-mail and other networking facilities.

Likewise, representatives of some international and national trade union organisations (ICFTU, ICEF, AFL-CIO, AFT, etc.) stationed in Moscow, Kiev and elsewhere in the region use e-mail to communicate with their respective main offices and with some of their local partners.

Unlike their counterparts in the West who are mainly on Geonet or CompuServe, unions in our region mostly use GlasNet for their email communications. GlasNet is a sister network of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). It was founded in 1990 with the aim of promoting democratic communications among individuals, independent groups and non-governmental, non-profit organisations, including organised labour, in the fields of human rights, ecology, democratic development, etc. GlasNet's policy is to make electronic communications affordable to any individual or any independent group of citizens and, in particular, to provide favourable conditions to the non-governmental organisations (NGO's).

GlasNet's rates are relatively lower as compared to those imposed by other, purely commercial networks. Its users can work on-line in Russian, Ukrainian, etc., which, for example, is not available yet for technical reasons on Geonet's Moscow host. It also important to note that today GlasNet provides full range of Internet services, including World Wide Web, FTP, Telnet, etc.

As one can see, modern telecommunications are still not used by the unions in our region as widely as this efficient means of communication would merit. Information links between trade unions in different countries are relatively sparse and undeveloped. Workers' organisations in Russia and other countries of the CIS are virtually excluded from international computer networks.

In this brief analysis, I referred to unions in the ex-USSR countries only. As for the workers' organisations in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, information about their use of computer communications is scarce and insufficient to make any adequate judgement.

How can we improve the situation? In the first place, through education. Many of our sisters and brothers are simply not aware of the opportunities that can be used for the benefit of their unions. Others may know something about it but need to be convinced. Therefore those who already use computer networks should share their experiences with the others.

Trade unions need to use modern communications technology and this need is growing by the day. That is true in all regions and all countries of the world. In today's interdependent world, in conditions of globalization of economic relations, this need is expanding beyond national boundaries and taking on a truly international character.

Gradually, the international labour community is reshaping its own global ideologies, trying to find responses to the activities of governments and employers, including transnational corporations.

Today more than ever, trade unionists need to gather in information, analyse it from the workers' point of view, and convey the results to a wide range of audiences - to other union members, to non-unionised workers, to news media and the public at large, to the government and to employers. They also need to exchange information with their sisters and brothers in other countries as ever more often workers of different countries have to deal with the same transnational employers. Getting the union message across is, after so many years of having proper union views marginalised and working conditions badly reduced, more essential than ever. Unions also need to give and to receive solidarity - nationally and internationally, in a prompt and ample way. Modern technology can help this process today.

Therefore there is a real need for the skills required to access the electronic networks to be passed on within the trade union community - nationwide and worldwide. Most of us who are already on-line started, sometime ago, learning by "trial and error". Those who join us on-line today or tomorrow may be spared this trouble.

There is also a distinct need for the unions to link up with other members of the NGO community, as unions like most other nongovernmental organisations trade in information for social change. We should not forget that unions have many allies among other NGOs. Quite a few of them - like Amnesty International, GreenPeace, various women's and youth organisations - already use modern means of communications, in particular Internet.

Networking fits the nature of unions like a glove. It supports the informal non-hierarchical exchange of information, it helps horizontal communication and decentralised interaction, and it cuts out bureaucratic "dead wood". Workers' organisations can benefit from networking much more than organisations like governments and corporations that depend on hierarchical and centralised control.

These reasons - and I am sure still more could be named - make it necessary to consider setting up an international labour communications network.

The proposed network should make it possible:

  • to ease and considerably speed up distribution of labourrelated news and documentation ,
  • to collect and archive labour-related documentation that would be accessible to all users,
  • to provide unions in various regions with a complementary channel of multilateral communication,
  • to promote development of information infrastructures in the workers' organisations,
  • to promote communication links among various trade union structures.

The proposed network could also function as an International Labour University. Those who follow labour-related mailing lists on the net may remember that a similar idea was recently put forward by Marc Belanger of SoliNet in Canada. (SoliNet is a computer conferencing system established well ahead of anything that unions have had in most other countries. It is owned and operated by Canada's largest employee union - the Canadian Union of Public Employees, CUPE. With time, it has turned into a public system opened to the general labour movement and its allies with approximately 1500 users, which actually helped Canadian unions maintain national collective bargaining against serious attempts to break it up.)

In fact, SoliNet has for some time been providing classes on various matters of interest to trade unionists. In May last year, SoliNet was the venue of the first ever international trade union class. Information texts on the situation in the Russian trade union movement were uploaded by telnet once a week from Moscow to a special teleconference on SoliNet to be later discussed through direct exchange among the audience dispersed across Canada and the lecturers in Moscow.

The University should also act as a bridge between labour users and the technical experts, so that the technical support systems reflect what users really want to do. Apart from facilitating the unions' access to various resources available on the Net, it should be able to help trade unions develop internal and external communications, build and interrogate databases, gather and disseminate information more efficiently - all this in a more efficient way than before.

Training is vital in this project and must not be underestimated for without it the best technology in the world will sit idle or vastly underused.

Finally, let us also hope that such an international labour network will help us eliminate the state of division that the international trade union community inherited from the "cold war" years - a deplorable situation when all are supposed to be equal but some unions still consider themselves more equal than others.

In the beginning, this network would inevitably be based on the existing facilities. Having said that I mean that it may be, in the first place, LaborNet. As it seems, LaborNet today is better equipped for this purpose than any other structure of this kind in the international labour community. Due to the proficient use of various facilities, for example Wide World Web, it is already an important source of data for many users and a valuable intermediary in information exchanges.

With the Labornet serving as a backbone, various national and international labour networks should also be asked to join. In fact, an international labour information network can hardly be possible without SoliNet in Canada, Sam Lanfranco's LABOR-L mailing list, Labour Telematics College in UK, Geonet's Poptel or unions in Russia and other CIS countries.

Of course, one has to be aware what this process of setting up an international labour-motivated network might entail and where it might lead. It may, therefore, well mean some reorganisation. It should, most certainly, involve international efforts from the very beginning. It will undoubtedly require investment.

One should also agree with those colleagues who have suggested that a measured approach is needed whereby we should be able, in particular, to disentangle the differing needs and interests in different industrial or political contexts within the trade union community.

Nobody here pretends that there are universal recipes or readymade answers to all questions. We all are aware that progress is not all smooth and there are many pitfalls and difficulties. It is also true that inflated expectations of how the technology would transform working practices are dashed when others continue to behave exactly as they always have, too defensive to accept change.

Nobody says that it is going to be easy. On the contrary, there is a host of problems to be solved. For example, there are language problems across borders. We must also ensure that we do not exclude from access to information those who will probably never have the resources to be on-line.

Nobody would either claim that modern telecommunications can remove all obstacles. As a new and potentially powerful element of our activity, networking may only facilitate our quest for solutions. And, I feel, it is our duty to raise today as many questions as possible, involving all of us in the discussion. It is only through such discussion, through common approaches and joint efforts that we would be able to efficiently use the two huge capacities together - that of the organised labour and that of the modern communication technologies.

This is a historic opportunity. We must not miss it.