‘It’s part of the war now’: Unions increasingly use social media to boost labor actions

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.

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 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 we’ve seen across the media industry. As corporate owners made round after round of cuts, it was the newsrooms with legally binding union contracts who often got the better deals,” Carson said via email. “The union contracts force companies to negotiate with employees to make changes the company wants. And if it came to layoffs employees with union contracts have secured better severance and benefits than what companies offer their nonrepresented employees.” 

Carson added that workers at newsrooms without union protections see how unionized newsrooms are treated through objectives shared on social media. 

“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 stand alone cure all.”

Strike in Chicago provides a glimpse at how one union is using social 

This has played out in real time the past seven weeks at Columbia College Chicago, where I am the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Columbia Chronicle. From this vantage point, I’ve watched the union, and more recently, the college, use social media to debunk each other’s claims and draw attention to their objectives. 

Photos by Addison Annis

The fight has played out in the comments, at times, with criticism levied at our paper and journalists.

Jeremy Shermak, general manager of student media at Columbia College Chicago, has followed the strike closely on social media, in part, because of his role as a staff member that helps oversee the Chronicle. But he also is a scholar of social media, with a doctorate in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. 

“Social media dialogue tends to turn nasty as tensions increase. This has been proven time and again in politics and even sports. As the strike has continued, there has been a noticeable increase in incivility, particularly in the comments,” Shermak said. “This aligns with long-standing research on social media posts related to politics, science and even sports. It’s disappointing but not surprising.” 

The Columbia Faculty Union officially went on strike seven weeks ago over cost-cutting measures the college is taking, address a $20 million deficit. A tentative deal was reached on Dec. 18.

The union, known as CFAC, heavily relied on social media to communicate with students and faculty – as well as to counter its critics, though it was quiet in the days leading up to the tentative new contract deal.

When our newspaper declined to run a letter to the editor until we were able to fact-check the union claims – some of which we already had reported to be untrue, it published the letter itself on social media and called us out.

Social media has “peeled back the curtain a bit” when it comes to labor negotiations, allowing for more transparency and clarity – when used with good intentions,  Shermak told me.

“However, research has repeatedly shown that incivility on social media increases as tensions rise and labor social media is no different. The downside is no surprise because name-calling, false accusations and other uncivil discourse are synonymous with any divisive topic on social media,” he said.

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.

Also in 2022, T-Mobile’s social media support workers began their fight against pay cuts, posting a letter on Twitter, now  X, in their first effort to form a union.

“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.”

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. 

“That has not traditionally been labor’s way of doing things,” Franklin said. “Contract negotiations were held in the dark and kept secret. Workers did not know what was happening until they were given the contract and social media exposed union leaders to their workers’ voices and in many unions, there’s a hierarchy with little sense of transparency or engagement for the rank and file.” 

This practice has slowly started to shift as unions have integrated social media more and more into their communications efforts. 

Columbia College Chicago’s part-time faculty union live-streamed a bargaining session with the administration via Instagram days before they called to strike. 

When the Washington Post Guild went on a 24-hour strike on Dec. 7, protesting for a fair contract and that their management was not bargaining in good faith, the union communicated their strike’s objectives through video stories and illustrations on Instagram. Specifically, the Guild wants a minimum salary of $100,100 for reporters, while management offered $73,000. 

There really aren’t downfalls of union embracing social media, Franklin said. 

“The potential for this is terrific,” he said. “It has never existed to this level before.” 

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. She added that the internet is “completely” unregulated. 

“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. “But right now, the way it operates, the United States and their private companies, like X and Facebook, can pretty much do whatever they want. 

Masullo said many other countries regulate the internet and social media platforms more than the U.S. does. 

The 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 US. 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-ten U.S. adults say they regularly get news there. Slightly fewer (26%) regularly get news on YouTube. Smaller shares regularly get news on Instagram (16%), TikTok (14%), X (12%) or Reddit (8%). Even fewer Americans regularly get news on Nextdoor (5%), LinkedIn (5%), Snapchat (4%), WhatsApp (3%) or Twitch (1%).

This is important because it shows where people already are, and unions who use social media to message can find a captive audience – and perhaps an audience that isn’t as discerning about facts, as Masullo already noted.

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. 

“The company didn’t expect a public and profoundly loud or clear campaign to be carried out on social media,” he said. 

Robert Anthony Bruno,  director of the labor education program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign,  said that although unions are effective through social media messaging, they do it in fairly sophisticated ways. 

He said unions using social media typically try to appeal to younger audiences and primarily use the platforms to educate others on the union’s objectives and goals, rather than education. 

“It is fairly unsophisticated in how they use it,” said Bruno, a professor for the School of Labor and Employment Relations. “It’s mainly to promote value and less about strategy.” 

Bruno added that oftentimes the person or people running the social media accounts of unions or worker advocacy groups are not experts in the field, but rather a member of the union, usually a communications director. 

“The union leader on social media is usually doing other things for the union, so it’s not as high-impact, although it is still a powerful tool,” Bruno said. 

Overall, however, 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. 

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