It started after the 2016 presidential election with one woman in Hawaii. Teresa Shook asked on Facebook who would be interested in marching on Washington for women’s rights around Inauguration Day. She got help creating an event page, and woke up the next day to find some 10,000 people saying they would attend. That was just the beginning, as interest spread virally, more people volunteered to help organize and advertise sister marches, and hundreds of organizations started making plans to attend, including many labor unions. To the surprise of many, this social media enthusiasm translated into hundreds of thousands of marchers demonstrating in Washington, DC, and millions more around the country on January 21st.

As much as the nationwide event highlighted the fervor of demonstrators, it also demonstrated the power of social media and its increasingly critical role for unions—bringing workers together, sharing information and even engaging in virtual organizing and collective bargaining. Indeed, at a time when unions have struggled with declining membership, union leaders increasingly recognize that such new forms of organizing are critical to future success.

“Social media is a way for us not only to directly communicate with our members—and potential members—but to get real-time feedback on their interests and issues,” explains Mark Brueggenjohann, media director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). He added that “social media can never replace old-fashioned, face-to-face discussion when it comes to organizing. But in today’s increasingly fractured workplace, social media is a vital tool to help grow the labor movement.”

This is particularly true for younger workers. Innovative uses of social media and related technologies represent a critical opportunity to engage younger workers and expand membership, particularly since they are less wedded to traditional modes of organizing and rely on smartphones and other digital communication.he says. “We’ve got to get ahead of the old labor model and modernize.”

How workers have employed social media

In January, the IBEW successfully organized more than 1,400 Baltimore Gas and Electric (BG&E) workers. It was the fifth attempt to form a new local there, dating back more than 20 years to 1996. To make this happen, Mr. Brueggenjohann notes, organizers and employees set up a Facebook page to communicate with workers in disparate locations throughout Maryland and neighboring states. This made it possible to answer questions about dues, the timing of the vote and more. Not only was the IBEW able to share videos and other popular content, BG&E employees who previously never interacted with each other at work could connect online via the Facebook page.

Social media is fundamental now to educating and having a communications platform to organize.

Mark Zuckerman, president of The Century Foundation

“Social media is essential to having more worker voice. It’s a very efficient way to educate employees in general about what’s happening in the workplace and more specifically their place of work,” notes Mark Zuckerman, president of The Century Foundation, a think tank, and lead author of a report on virtual organizing. “Social media is fundamental now to educating and having a communications platform to organize.”

While workers previously had reason to worry about using electronic communications to express grievances and organize, a 2014 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling decided that workers are permitted to use work email to discuss wage and other workplace issues, as well for labor organizing. In addition, the ruling now requires employers to make available employee contact information to union representatives, including personal phone numbers and email addresses, to assist their organizing efforts.

Expanding reach through technology

Mr. Zuckerman sees both the ruling and other NLRB tools as keys in the growing opportunity of even small groups of workers to successfully organize. “If you have five workers who decide they don’t like their pay and they should have fairer scheduling, they can file an online petition” on the NLRB’s website. This is the kind of worker empowerment, aided by new technology and the ability to communicate beyond the view of employers, that can increase workplace leverage, Mr. Zuckerman notes. “But this will take some courage, some calculated risk, because some employers will respond inappropriately and retaliate.” Still, he’s optimistic about the new generation of younger workers pursuing new strategies to improve their conditions: “They are tech savvy. They are used to online platforms and speaking out for themselves.”

This combination of long-standing unions and traditional organizing strategies with new affiliations and social media tactics provides a picture of how unions can reintroduce themselves to new generations of workers, enhance their bargaining power and reinvigorate membership. Mr. Brueggenjohann notes that the IBEW has successfully recruited workers with targeted ads on Facebook, YouTube, Pandora and LinkedIn. “With micro-targeting,” he says, “it’s easy to hone in on certain occupations and workplaces we want to recruit.” In 2016, during a Verizon strike, the union used social media channels to help build support from both members and the public to pressure the company to return to the bargaining table.

We’ve got to get ahead of the old labor model and modernize.

Mark Zuckerman, president of The Century Foundation

These kinds of innovations positon unions well to expand their
engagement with workers. But there is more work ahead if unions are
going to fully embrace the potential of social media and related applications. Mr. Zuckerman envisions a not-yet-built social media platform that would simplify the efforts of workers to connect and organize themselves. The younger generation can help redefine “the relationship with an employer,”
he says. “We’ve got to get ahead of the old labor model and modernize.”

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