November 1996


The Evolution of a Web Site for Labor

by Chris Bailey

When someone first suggested on the union-d mailing list to create a Web site for the workers at the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company in Liverpool, I was already discussing with GreenNet the possibility of starting LabourNet in Britain along the lines of US LaborNet. GreenNet and LaborNet are both members of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). They share access to many of the same computer conferences and for about two years I had been providing British trade union news to LaborNet via a conference called

On receiving the request for the dockers' site, GreenNet agreed to launch LabourNet immediately by providing one free. This later developed into a free service for all strikes and lockouts.

None of the trade unionists who had discussed starting the Web site, including me, had much idea how to produce one. GreenNet sent me some notes on HTML, and then Jagdish Parikh of US LaborNet worked with Greg Coyne and me via email over a weekend to produce the first pages. These crossed and recrossed the Atlantic several times before we got them right. They were pretty basic, just text.

The next problem was getting updates from the dockers. They had only a vague idea of what a Web site or even the Internet was. I suppose we had visualized that they would just hand us a computer disk of relevant material each week. After two weeks of frustration trying to get across to them what I needed they FAXED me a big pile of documents and letters most of which was totally unsuitable. I was getting into despair about the whole thing.

It was at this point that Greg Dropkin phoned me. Greg was working with the dockers trying to get reports about the lockout into various media with very limited success. There was a virtual blackout from the press and TV. The dockers had not mentioned the Web site to him, but he heard about it from the Labor Beat cable TV programme in Chicago. We discussed the problems I was having and the situation immediately changed.

Greg met the dockers' representatives regularly and discussed their requirements and the latest developments in the dispute. He then wrote this up for the Web site. He traveled with the dockers when they went on pickets and filed on the spot reports together with photographs.

In hindsight it seems obvious that if we are to use the Internet as a new medium for providing labour news we need reporters and journalists, but it wasn't when we started. The most successful Web sites in support of unionists in dispute have been the San Francisco Free Press Web site and the sacked Detroit News workers' site. Both involved unionists that were also reporters and journalists.

Our failure to realize the significance of this illustrates a more general point. Those of us who came up with the idea of a Web site for the dockers tended to be trade unionists who were also computer "enthusiasts." I think the dockers viewed us with a good deal of scepticism to start with. They were only going to be convinced by real results.

We were keen to use the technology, but hadn't given too much thought to the more mundane problems involved.

We began to get them. International support has been the key question for the Mersey men. They soon found that wherever they went in the world to gain this support other dockers constantly mentioned the Internet as their initial source of information.

It was also becoming obvious from the growing amount of email I was receiving that the whole thing was beginning to take off and the news we were putting out was being widely read. We updated the Web site at regular intervals, but needed to get urgent material out more quickly. I was putting our news bulletins onto several labour lists and conferences and it soon became clear that they were being passed on to others I didn't know about. I estimate that our bulletins probably now reach more than 1,000 people world wide within a few hours of being sent out. Most of these will have some connection with the labour movement in their own country. This undoubtedly does make a powerful contribution to publicizing the Mersey dockers' case and keeping other unionists informed of developments.

I soon started receiving email reporting other labour disputes and events from many different countries. The authors obviously wanted me to post it on so I did. I was signing our reports LabourNet UK. I started getting material signed LabourNet Germany, and LabourNet Portugal. Nobody was quite sure what LabourNet was, but they clearly wanted to join in! An established union network in Germany called SOLINET contacted me with a view to linking with us and US LaborNet and exchanging our conferences.

Through such developments the original Web site is acquiring an international character with a definite European flavor. The most rapid expansion in computer communications in Europe has so far been in Britain and the German speaking countries, but it is now beginning to take off elsewhere. I feel certain that LabourNet, started for the immediate needs of the Mersey dockers, together with other labour sites and networks sprouting up all over the world will eventually become part of an invaluable news and communication system for the labour movement.

Many of the problems facing the trade union movement internationally arise from the globalization of production and distribution brought about by the use of computer technology by employers. We can use the same technology to fight back.

Chris Bailey ( live in Cambridge in the United Kingdom and is Secretary of the union branch (local) there for metal workers and machinists. Before starting LabourNet, he worked in computer repair and upgrades, mainly for the labor movement.

Copyright © 1996 by Chris Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

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