OPINION: Unions increasingly use social media to boost Labor actions

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‘It’s part of the war now’

By OLIVIA COHEN 

Allan Lengel, a veteran journalist who co-founded Deadline Detroit, was at the Detroit News in 1995 when six labor unions representing employees of his paper and the Detroit Free Press went on strike for 18 months.

The striking workers traveled the country to get the word out about the conflict, sharing updates through press releases and phone calls. They even published their own competing weekly paper called the Detroit Sunday Journal. 

When the walkout finally ended in 1997, the internet was still in its infancy. “I remember asking a colleague what a webpage was,” Lengel said.

Today, unions use social media not only to organize but also to mobilize support and to shape a convincing narrative about themselves and their employers.

During the Detroit newspaper strike, the strikers needed other journalists to help do that. But now, unions don’t need a single reporter to show up to a press conference. They can invite speakers and broadcast directly to the public through livestreaming.

PICKET LINE IS ONLINE
The picket line has moved online.

“Social media is part of the war now,” Lengel said.

David Carson, photojournalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and vice president for the (St. Louis) United Media Guild, said social media is helpful for the Guild because their online followers can easily reshare their messages to their own followers, amplifying the union’s voice more than they would be able to in the past.

“I also think social media has played a huge role in the wave of organizing efforts and the unionization of workers…,” Carson said via email.

“The only challenge I see is people relying too heavily on social media to spread their message. Social media alone isn’t going to get employees the contact they want,” Carson said. “It is going to be part of the solution of how you build power but it’s not a standalone cure all.”

WHY UNIONS USE SOCIAL MEDIA
Andy Hodder, a lecturer in Employment Relations at the University of Birmingham, in the U.K., has studied the ways social media play a role in union activity and Labor issues. He found that union members who engage with their union’s social media posts are more likely to take part in industrial action. 

“Social media platforms are also used by unions to try to influence public opinion on strikes, including people impacted by any action,” Hodder said, though he added that unions are very aware employers also monitor social media accounts.”

Hodder said unions use social media in different ways, including to build up to a strike and to share the personal stories of workers who are striking.

In 2022, Starbucks workers used TikTok to publish a video of thousands of workers walking off the job. It accumulated more than 28 million views. The baristas have since used social media to organize and expand a nascent Labor Movement within the mega corporation.

“Social media has been the elixir, the blasting powder and the glue that unions have quested for,” said Stephen Franklin, a veteran Labor reporter for 40 years.

In fact, so many organizers have embraced social media that many unions offer guidelines about how to engage:

  • One early guide from the Minnesota AFL-CIO, dated November 2009, is a time capsule of social media itself, with tips for using Friendster and MySpace.
  • The Communications Workers of America posts a list of 10 downloadable tips on its website. It cautions members against making false statements or engaging in specific attacks on individuals.
  • The Newspaper Guild offers guidance about how to speak out about workplace issues in a way that is legally protected. It advises that criticism of an employer is protected if it is related to the terms and conditions of employment, “but you cannot bad mouth your employer’s product or your employer’s management team.”

KEY WINNING EFFORTS
Franklin said the best example of unions using social media is the recent contract fights by the United Auto Workers and Teamsters unions, both of which were fighting for wage increases, among other demands. He said that in both cases, by using social media platforms to produce videos and posting consistent updates, the unions were able to curate a “buzz or sense of motion” around their respective fights.

He added that this has become critical because unions want to show support among their ranks to their opponents. They constantly need to show that they are on the members’ side and that what’s taking place is open for all to see.

DRAWBACK
Gina Masullo, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Austin-Texas, said that one drawback of social media is that information can easily be distorted, attacked or reshared in ways the author didn’t intend it to be.

“The internet is really unregulated, and there is a lot of debate on whether it should be or shouldn’t be,” said Masullo, also associate director of the Center for Media Engagement.

AUDIENCE ONLY GETS BIGGER
Each year, more and more Americans are getting their news from smartphones, tablets and computers, which helps explain why unions have embraced social media.

Today, half of U.S. adults get news at least sometimes from social media, according to the latest Pew Research Center data, released in November.

Facebook outpaces all other social media sites. Three-in-10 U.S. adults say they regularly get news there. Slightly fewer (26 percent) regularly get news on YouTube. Smaller shares regularly get news on Instagram (16 percent), TikTok (14 percent), X (12 percent) or Reddit (eight  percent). Even fewer Americans regularly get news on Nextdoor (five percent), LinkedIn (five percent), Snapchat (four percent), WhatsApp (three percent) or Twitch (one percent).

In terms of its benefits, Franklin said socials allow unions to telegraph their goals to the company and to create drama around negotiations. From his own experience, he said in the Teamsters case, they truly shocked UPS with their social media messaging, signaling that they were going to get tough and on which issues they were not going to surrender.

Overall, … Franklin said a union’s social media presence has been essential for increasing solidarity within the union itself.

“Social media has become a means of support for those who want to link others, and a loudspeaker for those who want to create a wave or drum up support or make their causes more transparent and compelling,” Franklin said.

(Olivia Cohen is a Chicago-based journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Chronicle at Columbia College Chicago. She has reported for Bloomberg Law, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Chicago Sun-Times. Reprinted and edited from the St. Louis Gateway Journalism Review.)

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