Perhaps the greatest tragedy ever to befall the socialist movement occurred in August 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War.
For years, socialist parties and trade unions had committed themselves to preventing that war from ever breaking out. At the urging of Rosa Luxemburg and others, the socialist International even pledged itself to general strikes in the event countries went to war.
But on the day that the war broke out, and with communications cut off between the various parties, mutual suspicion took charge. Socialists and trade unionists (with some notable exceptions) followed their governments’ lead and working people died by their millions slaying one another in a war that was not theirs to win.
The new communications technology available today (primarily, email and the world wide web) has allowed for the first time the rapid creation of a global consensus within the labour movement when faced with a world crisis.
Within hours of the news of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., trade union organisations around the world were issuing strong statements of condemnation — and expressing sympathy with the victims. They were doing this on their websites and through email.
Some of those statements were, of course, predictable. It should come as no surprise that the Israeli trade union movement — or for that matter, the TUC — rushed to condemn terror and express solidarity with the American people.
But similar expressions of condemnation of terror came from trade union movements in countries singled out by the Bush administration as being supporters of terror.
The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) — which consists primarily of formerly Stalinist unions and some unions in developing countries, most notably in the Arab world — rushed to issue a statement on its website and by email. It noted that the WFTU “condemns these dastardly acts which can find no justification whatsoever”. Among the countries whose trade union movements are affiliated to the WFTU are a number on the US State Department’s list of those which support terror, including North Korea, Cuba, Libya and Syria.
Palestinian unions also issued a strong statement condemning the terror. Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions General Secretary Shaher Sae’d called the attacks an “action against humanity and peace” and sent “condolences to the American people and their families, the victims of this cowardly and shocking event.”
This statement — available on the web, but not in the mainstream media — was particularly important as the media, including British newspapers, eagerly reported on joyous Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem and the West Bank, celebrating the terrorist attack.
The much larger International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) — to which the TUC is affiliated — has posted dozens of statements from global and national trade union bodies, all speaking in a single voice and condemning the slaughter of innocents in the United States. The ICFTU website has a special page listing many of these statements:
Has the Internet played a role in creating a consensus so swiftly among such divergent unions?
I think it has. Two years ago, I met an Australian trade union official who wanted to thank me for my own efforts to create a global trade union news service. He said that the LabourStart website proved particularly useful to him during the Kosovo war, when it was extremely difficult to sort out the reactions of trade unions around the world.
Today, trade unionists everywhere, from Cuba to Israel to Korea, can know within minutes what other trade unionists are thinking. They can thereby rapidly move to create consensus in the labour movement worldwide. The new communications technology makes that possible.