One sees the slogan ‘globalise resistance’ more and more these days, and yet the reality is that the labour movement and left continues to use many of the old techniques and technologies which so colosally failed to ‘globalize resistance’ in the previous century.
As anyone who has ever tried to engage in international work on the left will be aware, not everyone out there understands English. I know this will come as a shock to some people. Last week, the media in the UK reported that two-thirds of the population in this country know only one language. Among working people, the proportion might even be higher.
This is reflected in the work done by the international trade union movement, even in the age of the Internet. For example, some time ago all the major bodies in the labour movement which play a role at global level — the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the various international trade secretariats, the European Trade Union Confederation and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD — pooled their resources and developed a global portal website for the international labour movement.
It is called ‘Global Unions’ and its web address is http://www.global-unions.org. It addresses a wide range of issues which will concern readers of this newspaper, and millions of others, including trade union rights, sweatshops, child labour, transnational corporations, etc. The major organisation behind ‘Global Unions’ — the ICFTU — boasts of having “221 affiliated organisations in 148 countries and territories on all five continents, with a membership of 155 million”. The ‘Global Unions’ website should be aimed, one would think, at some of those 155 million trade unionists. Okay, not all of them. Maybe just the activist strata. Maybe only the ones who have some kind of Internet access.
So how many languages does the ‘Global Unions’ website currently appear in? One. English.
The other websites of the global institutions of the trade union movement don’t do much better; the ICFTU’s own site appears only in three languages. To put things in perspective, there are estimated to be 6,000 spoken languages in the world today. Over 80 of these have enormous numbers of speakers — ten million or more each. And yet even with the most modern means of communication available, the unions respond to globalization as if it were 1950.
One leading figure in the global labour movement told me that, actually, his organisation was pubishing material in too many languages already and was hoping to cut the number of languages down.
Now I think this is entirely the wrong direction to head into. Without the additional costs of typesetting, printing and postage, any online publication can be converted into additional languages relatively cheaply — all you have to pay for is the translation. (Machine translation — by computer — doesn’t work. Yet.)
To show that this is not a pipe-dream, but is the precondition for actually ‘globalising resistance’ and building a new international movement against capitalism, we mentioned on the LabourStart website in mid-January this year that, well, it would be nice to appear in more languages than English. We have no budget and cannot afford to pay anyone to translate anything. And within a month, we announced versions of the site in Spanish, Portuguese, Norwegian, Dutch and Esperanto. And we have proposals to move forward with versions in Setswana, Urdu, Mandarin, Farsi, French and Swedish as well.
That’s after only one month. And with no money at all to spend on this.
So why did we succeed where the global institutions of the labour movement have so singularly failed? We certainly don’t have more resources than they do.
I think the difference was one of how one understands the issues. If you think that international trade union work consists mostly of correspondence between English-speaking international secretaries of unions who may, from time to time, pass on some international bits to other officials, welcome to the 1950s.
My own view is that rebuilding labour internationalism starts on the shopfloor, with the individual worker, who may or may not have a computer, may or may not have access to the Internet, but of one thing we can be certain: she probably doesn’t speak English. Most people in the world don’t.
If you want to communicate at that level, to build the next International from the bottom up, you have go multilingual in a big way. That means global labour publications, at least in their online versions, should begin appearing not only in the usual 3 – 5 languages, but in dozens of languages.
Or, in the case of ‘Globals Union’, a second language would be a good start.