By ED FINKELSTEIN
With now over 5,000 members, the unique Facebook group Pro-Union St. Louis! has given union members an outlet to talk to one another across union jurisdictions and mobilize for issues and concerns.
The support of Teamsters Local 688’s boycott of Schnucks Markets is a prime example of how word of the boycott spread organically, much faster than without its support.
The site’s founder is Steve Erdelen, a former union member of the United Media Guild and a progressive public relations entrepreneur.
To understand how and why this pro-union site was developed, the Labor Tribune presents this interview with Erdelen, a firm believer in unions as the vital link to America’s prosperity through the prosperity of its workforce.
LT: How did the Facebook Group Pro-Union St. Louis come about?
SE: I could have never started a group like Pro-Union St. Louis! if I didn’t manage earlier Facebook Groups and learn from them. My first venture into Facebook Groups started when I began spending more and more time on Facebook in 2009. I was in treatment for Stage 4 prostate cancer and I was out of work in sales and marketing and bored out of my mind. I had joined up with some old friends on Facebook and it seemed like we all had one common link.
Then I realized that we were mostly from North County and that all of us hung out at Northwest Plaza when we were kids. So, I thought I could find more Facebook friends if I started a Group and called it “I hung out at the fountain at Northwest Plaza as a teenager.” For some crazy reason we had nearly 800 members in just a few weeks and we had a blast talking about the old days at the Plaza. It was fun and I was hooked. Today, we have 4,108 members.
Next thing you know, everyone was telling stories on the page about how they met their husbands or wives at the Plaza and that they used to work there, shop there, eat there, buy tickets there, or just hang out. During my formative years, Northwest Plaza was in many ways the “Town Square” of St. Louis County.
After everyone told their own personal stories about the Plaza, the questions about the future of the mostly abandoned Northwest Plaza site kept coming up. I felt compelled to get involved in pushing for new development. We organized some very successful rallies and free concerts through the group to show our support for redevelopment and it brought a lot of press attention and eventually… real development to the NWP site.
That’s when I realized that Facebook Groups can really work well in bringing about change. A second Group, The Rock Road Reporter (4,267 members), started in late 2010, now serves as a Northwest St. Louis County community page.
NOW A LABOR GROUP?
Once those Groups were up and running, I thought there should be Labor-oriented Group on Facebook.
Some friends and family members thought I was nuts, because I did some freelance work in corporate marketing and they thought that this new Group might hurt my prospects for new business. No problem, I figured that if somebody was that uptight about their politics, I didn’t want to work with them anyway.
Surprisingly, there still wasn’t an area-wide Group focused on Labor when I started the Group in 2013 and Labor issues were always a passion for me. It was wide open and I jumped.
Most of the original members of Pro-Union St. Louis! were union supporters from my other Groups who were invited early on to join. Once other union supporters on Facebook saw that we were racking up a few hundred members, I guess they figured that we were legitimate and started joining in some pretty good numbers.
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We had many early members join from Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562 and Electricians Local 1. My dad was a “steamfitter” in Local 562 and many members of my family are either pipefitters or electricians. Personally, I was a member of the St. Louis Newspaper Guild (now the United Media Guild) and I still have a withdrawal card in my wallet from Teamsters Local 688 that dates back to 1981.
Unionism is in my blood and luckily 32 years of marketing experience in the corporate world makes it easier for me to promote unions. My sidekick, back up administrator and resident genius for all three Groups is Kevin Basil Carmody, a dues paying member of the National Education Association.
LT: What’s the Group’s mission?
SE: Our beginning introduction to the Group reads: “We're Pro-St. Louis and we're Pro-Union! If you're a union member, know a union member, want to be a union member, or just want to show your support for working hard and earning a "Living Wage," please join our Group today.”
We really have only two primary objectives for the Group: Promote collective bargaining and promote a “living wage” for every worker. Things can get very complicated and convoluted sometimes, but we always seem to land right back on those two objectives.
LT: What impact has the recent Teamster’s Schnuck boycott had on the Group?
SE: It’s been huge. The support from other locals has been overwhelming. We’ve probably added over 800 new members who saw a shared post from our Group and wanted to join to show their support for the more than 200 fired Schnuck’s warehouse workers replaced with low-wage workers with no benefits.
The Group page has pretty much become Ground Zero for communicating upcoming boycott events and sharing photos from different hand billing events around town. It all started when a member (who was not a Teamster) shared a photo of Todd Schnuck and mentioned exactly what Schnucks was up to.
That post went viral and was shared nearly 10,000 times. When you figure that most people have about a hundred friends or more on Facebook, you can assume that the post was seen over a million times. That’s when the big influx of Teamsters joined the Group. Soon after, we had a deluge of auto workers and iron workers.
The Schnucks boycott is easily the biggest issue because it’s very simple for everyone to relate to. The details of some Labor issues, just don’t have all the pizzazz and drama that the Schnucks situation has. Everyone knows about Schnucks.
LT: Who are some prominent members of the Group?
SE: We have a congressman, the county executive, state representatives and senators, city mayors and councilmen etc. On Labor’s side, we have rank-and-file members, presidents, vp’s and business agents from large and small Locals. We have a few news reporters and media types and we have some great local Labor activists and Labor writers.
To me, the most prominent members are the retirees and the folks who put their work boots on every day but still take the time to drop by the Group later to see what’s happening in the Labor Movement. I imagine the politicians tune in from time-to-time to see what the latest issues are for their Labor voters.
The news media just hovers waiting for a breaking story. Sometimes they get one. If our Group has bored any prominent members of our greater community, they sure haven’t left yet.
LT: Is it difficult dealing with Group members who seem to have no filter?
SE: Yes, but I can directly relate to their passion, so I don’t get too excited about it. If they’re too unfiltered, I will usually warn them by private message. If they’re totally out of whack, I’ll remove them from the Group immediately.
Some people complain about the language constraints in the Group, but I won’t bend on the ugly stuff. If a member wants to drop F bombs, they’ll have to drop them somewhere else. If anyone is to take our Group seriously, the first thing we need to do is be civil about whatever ticks us off. We’re going to keep it classy in the Group and if people aren’t on board, they can get off at the next stop. I think most people prefer to have boundaries and we have them in Pro-Union St. Louis!
LT: Do you believe the Group has any influence on the member’s political beliefs?
SE: That’s never been the goal of the Group. Our mission is simply to promote our constitutional right to bargain collectively and promote a “living wage” for all workers, union or not. Our members are overwhelmingly Democrats and I don’t see that changing right away, but I like the fact that we never fail to recognize and praise the Republicans who vote on the side of Labor.
I do think our Group is a good hangout for people who are interested in politics, because we get some really good political debates going every once in a while. I’m not sure how much influence we have on a members’ political beliefs in general, but I can say that there is a lot of interesting political information posted that members can chew on and they can always participate in a debate if they’d like.
SE: I know that Missouri Labor is up against it. There are three billionaires who will again try to control the airwaves with anti-Labor themes; a super majority of Republicans in Jefferson City will again try to pass legislation to break unions; and I don’t see a big bump in Missouri’s minimum wage or unemployment benefits anytime soon.
Regardless of who is in the Governor’s office, unions will be under total siege for the next four years.
I think the state Democratic Party needs to take a whole new approach to regaining the State House in the next few election cycles. There is a lot of vitality returning to the Party, especially with young Sanders supporters who are very, very pro-Labor. We should encourage and financially support those young people to run for office in Missouri’s anti-Labor strongholds in the future.
The good news currently is that trade unions in the area can look forward to an incredible amount of construction project work in the next couple years. However, our service unions will continue to demand a “living wage” and that struggle will continue.
I’m encouraged that the fight for fair wages is winning in a lot of big cities across the country and became a Presidential election issue. The country needs that spending money to keep the economy going.
LT: Do you believe that social media is an effective tool for promoting unions?
SE: Absolutely. It’s great for getting current Labor information, organizing Labor events and making Labor issues public issues. It’s not as easy as just putting up the AFL-CIO, or your Local’s logo on Facebook and expecting big changes right away. You have to build a base first and always have interesting things to offer your Group members, who will in turn share it with their friends. Labor does so many good things that the general public never sees and those good things need to promoted more in photos, videos and news links on Facebook. If the posts are interesting or heartwarming, they’ll be shared.
Content is King and too much complaining about the opposition is a turn-off for many folks. People are naturally attracted to feel good stories and grow weary of continual negative output fairly quickly.
Social media’s best use for Labor is in building positive perceptions about unions and their huge role in building the Middle-Class. There’s a lot of preaching to the choir within Labor itself, but social media can help Union Locals speak to the whole congregation.
LT: Are all the Group members in a union?
SE: No. Most of them are, but there are plenty of spouses and general supporters of the Labor Movement who not union members. You certainly don’t have to be in a union to join the Group.
SE: A big part of my work is done upfront with new member requests. The main goal is to keep spammers off of the page and approve legitimate requests. When I see that somebody belongs to 150 Groups, but has no friends in our Group, that’s a red flag. I take a quick look at every requester’s profile page to determine whether or not they are legitimate or a potential spammer. I’m sure that we have some people in the Group that really don’t belong there and a lot of gawkers who never participate, but there is no way to pre-determine a new member’s future actions. You have to give people the benefit of the doubt.
It’s worked out pretty good so far. Sometimes people are removed from the Group for rules violations, but if they accept the rules, they can get back in. I’ve noticed that once they’re back in, they typically try to be a lot more civil in their comments.
LT: What does a Facebook Group Administrator do?
SE: I try to keep the page interesting with an interesting Labor related post or story on slow days. When there are a lot of solid posts on a busy day, I just back away from the truck.
I also read all of the posts and comments to make sure they’re within reasonable guidelines and review new member requests. Some members have certain agendas, some post too much, but for the most part, members post some really good comments, questions and news links.
Sometimes I have to step in the middle of a heated debate and break it up, but I only do that when a member personally insults another member and/or uses profanity. I probably spend about two and a half hours a day running all three Groups. If I’m posting and commenting, it’s longer than that.
LT: What have you learned from administrating a pro-union Group page for nearly 4,500 members?
SE: The one thing that really hits home is the fact that the vast majority of our members are very family oriented, they’re close-knit with their fellow workers and they seem to be enjoying a good Middle-Class lifestyle.
They work for everything they have, they’re proud of their association with their union and they support the Labor Movement, or they never would have joined the Group in the first place.
A lot of our members are very passionate about fighting back against the current war on workers and some have joined the Group just to join the Group. I’ve learned that there is no instant cure for apathy and I don’t get frustrated with it anymore. You can’t force people to get involved right away, but you can help to educate them about important Labor issues and hope that they’ll take some action at a later date.
LT: How can a person join the Group? Visit the group's Facebook page.