Future of work: The labour movement (Part 3: Assessing the social media-based model)

Future of work: The labour movement (Part 3: Assessing the social media-based model)

Phuah Eng Chye (6 October 2018)

Labour 3.0 seems to be evolving down the path of a grassroots social movement. This is made possible by the advent of social media which has provided the tools for self-organisation at the grass-roots level. Social media has proven useful as a means of bypassing ineffectual traditional organisations and channels. It has already played a key role in organising strikes and other actions, mobilising public support and in winning concessions from employers and legislators. Social media has features that offer significant potential for supporting labour activism while there are also areas of concern.

  • Platform for self-organisation. Social media is unparalleled as a platform for grassroots discussion, communication and self-organisation. Social media facilitates fragmented groups of workers “to connect with each other and with union organisers”. Alex J. Wood notes the sharing of experiences, videos and speeches can build a sense of group identity while online video conference calls and voting apps “enabled workers from across the country to link together and discuss major issues, provide feedback and make decisions. By using a range of internet tools the mobilisation was able to take a novel participatory organisational form independent of the union”. Importantly, social media “enabled an expansive form of solidarity to develop in which community and church groups, as well as other low-paid workers and labour unions and advocates could easily connect to the mobilisation without themselves needing to be formal members”. He suggests that “key to this mobilisation was the fact that the union did not attempt to use social media in a traditional hierarchical manner based around vertical downwards communication. Instead, the union acted as a facilitator of network participation, seeking to increase the bottom-up communication. Network forms of organisation do not require total autonomy but rather an orchestrator which can provide strategic oversight”. In addition, Alex J. Wood points out social media can be crucial in creating new space to afford workers some protection from employer hostility to union-related activities, surveillance and reprisal actions.
  • Scalability and reputational impact. The greatest advantage of social media is how it facilitates scalability. Alex J. Wood notes “social media enabled traditional and self-generated coverage of these actions to be widely disseminated…enabled the amplification, coordination and aggregation of dozens of small disparate simultaneous actions”. As a comparison, traditional labour bargaining tends to be limited to firm-specific issues but the agenda for the social movement is unbounded and is cause-based (such as Fight for $15 and fair scheduling) to expand its outreach. Its impact is also reputation-based. Alex J. Wood suggests this provides workers with a new form of collective voice. The potential reputational damage from the complaints of workers can get firms to act immediately (rather than wait for the law) and to publicly commit to certain standards. The “multiplier effect of social media meant that a relatively small number of workers were able to cause significant reputational damage”. The teacher strikes achieved considerable success because it received widespread public support. If a social movement is unable to garner sufficient public support, it fails. For example, schoolbus drivers in the US state of Georgia attempted to “organized their own work stoppage…were met with public condemnation and immediate firings”. Rachel M. Cohen comments the school bus drivers protest “provides an important test case on whether these teacher movements will lead to a broader working-class uprising or stay limited to organizing among a narrower band of white-collar professionals”.  Lorenzo Zamponi notes Deliveroo riders received “extensive and sympathetic media coverage, and the workers have managed to win over public opinion”. Lorenzo Zamponi observed this was largely due to their “extreme visibility and recognizability”. “Riders carry the company’s logo and colors the whole day long…gig economy companies, and food delivery platforms in particular, are clearly interested in image and communication”. “The figure of the rider as a young adult on a bicycle who delivers a meal ordered online helps reproduce an idea of smartness, coolness, and modernity, spiced with techno-enthusiasm and environmental sensitivity…This appeal makes the companies vulnerable in the public eye: to attack the symbolic component of the business is to attack a key element of the value chain. Riders know it, and joke about it: the day after a strike, tips usually double”.
  • Organisational challenges. Kate Andrias notes concerns that “a move toward social bargaining diminishes the emphasis on worksite organization”, “minimize the extent of worker voice at the place of employment” and “undermine the interests of existing labor organizations”. She notes “the lack of an obvious funding mechanism for the emerging forms of bargaining could undermine workers’ power in the economy and politics”; in that the movement “cannot sustain its efforts indefinitely”. In relation to this, a free-riding problem arises when “unions in a social bargaining context may represent many workers, but the workers are not required to pay dues”. Hence, some reject social bargaining in favour of reviving the collective bargaining model based on the need to “prioritize, over all else, the organization of new dues-paying members at a time when organizing is essential to unions’ viability”. However, Kate Andrias argues it is difficult to reverse the decline of trade unions and that there is a need to explore alternative funding mechanisms to support a social bargaining model. This includes enabling unions the ability to charge non-members a fee for services or to be partially funded by employers. Governments could also provide grants to worker organisations in exchange for assistance with the enforcement and implementation of social bargaining laws and local labor standards. However, the funding should be structured “to ensure the continued independence of unions and their fealty to workers’ interests”. Other possible funding models can also be drawn from the range of internet or crowd-based models.  The Achilles heel of social movements is their ambiguous and transient control structure. Jane Mcalevey[1] compares the social media model to a mobilising model. Social media can paint the Fight for $15 as “the illusion of a huge movement… The problem is that it isn’t also doing any deep organizing…all we’re doing is talking to the already-convinced and we’re not doing base expansion”. She thinks it is inferior to the organising model which focuses “on people who are not yet convinced and not yet involved in our movement…to be clear that there’s a difference between an activist and an organic leader. If we want to get to scale, we need to recognize that there are organic leaders who have influence among our ranks, among ordinary people…In the labor movement, we actually have these systematic methods for identifying leaders and distinguishing them from activists. We can then focus our training and political education work on the leaders because they themselves then become massive replicators of our work and bring along lots of other people”.  Hence, labour as a social movement is generally lacking organisational discipline and depth. Its attention can be easily diffused or distracted while its agenda can be hijacked. It is a valid question as to whether labour as a social movement can be a sustained proposition in the absence of organisational discipline, strong operational capabilities and long-term strategies. There is an obvious power vacuum given the absence of an organisational structure to clarify control over the agenda and the exercise of power. Hence, the risks of the social movement model are the potential risks that activism could easily escalate into confrontation and militancy.
  • Transparency challenges – Public support, fake news and messaging. Winning public support is the key to any social media campaign. Michael Fox relates the contributions of WhatsApp to the success of the Brazilian truckers’ strike in May 2018. “The platform enabled truckers, and their highly decentralized movement, to communicate with each other in real time, sending messages, audio and video across the country…most truckers participated in several groups at the same time. Some were created in the lead-up to the strike and included truckers across the country. Others were formed organically, in the early days of the shut down, in order to coordinate communication around specific occupations and protests”.  In contrast to Twitter where feeds are public, WhatsApp groups provides privacy for people to say what they like. However, the privacy of WhatsApp has been criticised for the lack of accountability in relation to the messages. In this regard, Michael Fox notes with increasing polarization of information, different groups are battling over what is real and what is fake. “These cases highlight the complexity of identifying rumors and misinformation on WhatsApp. Since the platform is private and things are easily forwarded from one account to the next, there is no way to identify who originally created the content…shifting narrative. They kept their identities well hidden, but there is consensus… outside groups were working to influence the direction and the demands of the truckers’ strike.” However, the messaging for public support works in both directions. To counter the US teachers’ strike campaign, Labor Notes said the right-wing based State Policy Network put out a messaging guide suggesting “politicians should emphasize that teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families.” In addition, Valerie Vande Panne note “legislators are seeking ways to punish the striking teachers, and have accused the teachers of bussing in protesters, and local police call the teachers terrorists”.  Alex J. Wood cautions that “despite the potential of social media to renew the labour movement, the internet is not a neutral space; its infrastructure, especially social media platforms, is largely shaped by a corporate logic which can enable surveillance. Walmart hired Lockheed-Martin to analyse social media data…with many worker activists consequently being fired. Unions then must not only make greater use the internet but must also to take on a greater role in fighting for data justice”.

Kate Andrias suggests the rising incidence of social bargaining is pointing towards “tripartism in labor relations” or “triangle bargaining among workers, employers, and the state over wages and benefits”. In the US, “the Fight for $15 is making demands on state actors, as well as employers. It has systematically engaged regulatory and legislative structures, through testimony, strikes, and protests. In so doing, the campaign has positioned government as a co-negotiator in determining workers’ material conditions…moving labor unions more squarely into the public policy space”. “By positioning unions as political actors with authority to negotiate the basic terms of employment for workers generally, the Fight for $15 is embracing a more social form of labor law. It is also eroding the distinction between labor law and employment law. Under the emerging model, employment law is no longer just a collection of individual rights to be bestowed by the state. Instead, it is a collective project to be jointly determined and enforced by workers, in conjunction with employers and the public”.

Kate Andrias believes that “from the efforts of these social movements, the outline of a new labor law is emerging”. “The new labor law would combine social bargaining – i.e., bargaining that occurs in the public arena on a sectoral and regional basis – with both old and new forms of worksite representation. It is a more inclusive and political model of labor relations, with parallels to regimes in Europe and elsewhere”.

In the US, “the new labor law promises several important changes. First, it would reject the old regime’s commitment to the employer-employee dyad. It would locate decisions about basic standards of employment at the sectoral, industrial, and regional levels, rather than at the level of the individual worksite or employer. Second, the new labor law would reject the principle of private ordering…under which labor negotiations are a private affair and the state plays a neutral and minimal role. Instead, the new labor law would position unions as political actors representing workers generally and would involve the state as an active participant in supporting collective bargaining – in a system I will term social bargaining, but which is also known as tripartism or corporatism. Third… the new labor law would reject the bifurcation between employment law and labor law that has governed since the New Deal by rendering the basic terms of employment for all workers subject to social bargaining. Finally, the new labor law would maintain a role for worksite representation – but it would do so through a wider range of forms, not all of which would entail exclusive union representation.”

The transition of labour bargaining from an organisational form (trade union) to a social movement provides a means to bypass institutional, legal and political impediments. But this means a redrawing of the battlelines. Lorenzo Zamponi cautioned “such experiments in collective bargaining with political institutions are potentially dangerous and are to be handled with care. But they also show the movement’s capacity to creatively find a space for negotiation and regulatory advances in a context in which companies are refusing to bargain. Mobilizing public opinion and engaging political institutions are among the increasingly widespread characteristics of social movement unionism”. Despite the initial successes (with Deliveroo in Europe), he cautions “we should not confuse a part for the whole: riders represent only a small proportion of all gig economy workers (10 percent); they are the youngest, more visible, and probably most effectively organizable part of it”.

Hence, the revival in grassroots activism is already giving rise to clashes with traditional vested interests such as businesses, politicians and trade unions whose roles are threatened. In Colorado, some legislators proposed a law for striking teachers to be fired “without a hearing, fine them $500 a day, and possibly jail them for six months if they ignored court orders to stop striking”[2]. The bill was quickly withdrawn due to the political backlash.

The battle has also spilled over into the budgetary process. In several US states, Labour’s political opponents attempted to put the teacher wage increases under a bad light by manoeuvring it as a trade-off requiring cuts in working class benefits (pensions, public services or Medicaid), regressive taxes or funding allocations to schools. Labour supporters criticise legislators for not “taking a bite out of the sizable corporate tax breaks”[3] (such as oil & gas exploration, film tax credits) to fund the wage increases.

The reactions from trade unions have also been mixed. The transparency created by social media allows workers to keep close tabs on events. In several cases, workers have continued with their actions to demonstrate their rejection of deals agreed to by their trade union leaders.

Jamie Mccallum observes that in Chicago, teacher activists did not initially “see the official union as an avenue for progressive change.” This led to an “internal reorganization of the union, from a top-down bureaucracy to a member-led social movement”. The leaders emerged from “an opposition movement inside the union” and a small group of North Carolina educators formed Organize 2020, an internal caucus…to push an organizing agenda within the schools, and broaden the scope of the union’s role in workers’ lives”. Jamie Mccallum notes a quiet tension exists between the union leadership and Organise 2020. “But the future of the teachers’ movement lies with Organize 2020’s new radical orientation”. The labour activist movement has a broader agenda that encompasses “a spectrum of political viewpoints under a universalist agenda for healthcare, education, voting rights, and reproductive freedom”. The influence of the movement has been growing as many of their leaders have won elections to become officeholders of the biggest union locals.

In this regard, social movement tends to be all-encompassing with the convergence of the different dimensions of labour, business, politics, economics and public issues. Having mobilised grassroot support for labour causes, the fight has spilled over with labour activists getting involved in politics – either in mobilising opposition against entrenched officials or running for public office themselves.

Another feature is that the diverse stakeholder base can inadvertently jeopardise attempts by employers to reach cooperative agreements with individual unions. Zachary Kilhoffer, Karolien Lenaerts and Miroslav Beblavý note Airbnb sought to partner with unions and was willing to endorse measures such as a $15 per hour minimum wage for hosts and cleaners and cleaners’ certification in green home cleaning services. “The negotiations, however, fell apart under increasing criticism from other unions and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members”. Similarly, alliances between Uber and some unions resulted in some concessions but nonetheless “the Guild has faced criticism from other unions such as the Teamsters and New York Taxi Workers Alliance for brokering a deal with Uber before building a more formal organisation of drivers”.

Overall, the evolution of the labour movement from a formal institution into a social movement is consistent with information disruption. In this regard, the disruption of the organisation of work is being extended to the organisation of the labour movement. In a traditional industrial workplace, the trade unions were a mirror image of the huge bureaucracies of the industrial organisations. But when the landscape is disrupted by information, labour mimics their employers by shedding regimented structures in favour of a fluid cell-like social movement that can quickly adapt to landscape changes. The labour social movement is thus evolving from a regimented structure into a self-organising (intermediation) platform with the individual unions or worker centres operating as apps.

The labour social movement operates by putting pressure on the brand and consumption (rather than production) of an employers’ goods and services. It relies on communications to scale support for its causes. The boundaries that define the causes and the stakeholders are elastic, stretching well beyond specific firm-level and worker issues. But the broad scope lends itself to an ambiguity of purpose which raises questions as to whether the social movement is a sustainable long-term proposition to represent the interests of labour.

It is still early days for the labour social movement. Though it challenges the authority of the trade unions, the labour social movement has not sought to replace them. The labour social movement is currently an experiment that will add to the diversity of models for organising labour.



Alex J. Wood (9 June 2018) “Three lessons the labour movement must learn from the Fight for 15 at Walmart”. Originally published at OpenDemocracy. https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2018/06/three-lessons-labour-movement-must-learn-fight-15-walmart.html

Kate Andrias (2016) “The new labor law.” Yale L. J. 126, no. 1 (2016): 2-100. http://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2815&context=articles

Jamie Mccallum (11 August 2018) “Getting the common goods”. Jacobin Magazine. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/08/north-carolina-teacher-union-strike-education-schools

Labor Notes (27 April 2018) “The teacher uprising spreads far and wide”. http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2018/04/teacher-uprising-spreads-far-and-wide

Lorenzo Zamponi (9 June 2018) “Bargaining with the algorithm”. Jacobin. https://jacobinmag.com/2018/06/deliveroo-riders-strike-italy-labor-organizing

Michael Arria (10 May 2018) “Our students deserve better: Teacher strike hits Colorado”. https://shadowproof.com/2018/05/10/students-deserve-better-teacher-strike-hits-colorado/

Michael Fox (15 June 2018) “The Brazilian truckers’ strike: How WhatsApp Is changing the rules of the game”. Truthout. https://truthout.org/articles/the-brazilian-truckers-strike-how-whatsapp-is-changing-the-rules-of-the-game/

Michal Rozworski (4 October 2015) “Having the hard conversations: An interview with Jane Mcalevey”. Jacobin Magazine. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/10/strike-chicago-teachers-union-public-private-sector

Phuah Eng Chye (22 September 2018) “Future of work: The labour movement (Part 1: Labour 3.0)”. Economicsofinformationsociety. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/future-of-work-the-labour-movement-part-1-labour-3-0/

Phuah Eng Chye (29 September 2018) “Future of work: The labour movement (Part 2: Labour as a social movement)”. Economicsofinformationsociety. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/future-of-work-the-labour-movement-part-2-labour-as-a-social-movement/

Rachel M. Cohen (22 April 2018) “Georgia bus drivers joined the school uprising and paid a price”. https://theintercept.com/2018/04/22/georgia-bus-drivers-joined-the-school-uprising-and-paid-a-price/

Tom Cahill (8 May 2018) “Republicans meet striking teachers’ demands by raising taxes on the working class”. https://gritpost.com/republicans-teachers-demands-taxes/

Valerie Vande Panne (15 April 2018) “Oklahoma’s revolution didn’t end with teacher strikes – It’s going much further”. Originally published at Alternet. https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2018/04/oklahomas-revolution-didnt-end-teacher-strikes-going-much.html

Zachary Kilhoffer, Karolien Lenaerts, Miroslav Beblavý (August 2017) “The platform economy and industrial relations: Applying the old framework to the new reality”. CEPS Research Report. https://www.ceps.eu/publications/platform-economy-and-industrial-relations-applying-old-framework-new-reality

[1] See Michal Rozworski.

[2] Michael Arria.

[3] Tom Cahill.

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