Union Activists Take Notice of Workers’ Twitter Savvy

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By Jacquie Lee

Go viral, get a contract. That’s the theory behind an effort being mounted by the union that represents workers at the Washington Post.

The Washington-Baltimore News Guild launched a social media campaign Jan. 30 to pressure management at the Jeff Bezos-owned publication to provide better pay and benefits, the union said.

White-collar workers are likely to use social media as part of their job, and union activists are capitalizing on that trend to attract interest in labor organizing. It worked at the Los Angeles Times and Vox recently. Those workers joined about 90,000 other professionals who became part of a union in 2017.

“I’d say that Twitter, as a means of both private and public communication, has been an indispensable tool for organizing in the labor movement,” Fredrick Kunkle, a staff writer for the Washington Post and co-chair of its bargaining committee, told Bloomberg Law.

Younger workers are also likely to be digital natives, he said.

“That’s important because many employees today are less familiar in practice with other means of protest that the labor movement has used in the past, such as work stoppages or public demonstrations,” Kunkle said.

And unions need more young workers to fill their ranks if they’re going to survive. Unions did see a bump in membership for younger workers in 2017, but membership rates are still highest among workers aged 55 and older, according to Bloomberg Law data. That potentially leaves organized labor with shrinking ranks as members retire.

Management-side representatives for the Washington Post declined to comment on the union’s social media campaign Jan. 30.

Twitter Extends Discussion

“Social media has been a really effective extension to the discussion that happens in the workplace,” Nastaran Mohit, organizing director for the NewsGuild of New York, told Bloomberg Law. “Twitter has changed that fundamentally because it’s given a larger stage to members to discuss their working conditions,” she said.

Traditionally, a company’s negotiations aren’t affected by public relations because they happen behind closed doors, Tom Kelleher, chair of the Advertising Department at the University of Florida, told Bloomberg Law. But now that social media allows consumers to get information that isn’t funneled from traditional gatekeepers like corporate press teams, “that might give leverage at the negotiation table if one side or the other felt they had public opinion on their side,” he said.

Twitter was “key” for the L.A. Times union campaign, Matt Pearce, an organizing committee member and national reporter for the L.A. Times, told Bloomberg Law. “Tweeting is about sticking your neck out,” he said. “A lot of the process of unionization is breaking down this wall of fear for people who are afraid to disrupt their workplace or speak out because they’re afraid of retaliation or afraid of change.” The L.A. Times gained a union Jan. 19.

It’s also not reserved for young people anymore, Kelleher said. Although young people grew up using Twitter, older workers are online now, too. “Trump is a great example,” he said. “If anything, the age group might be trending up because it does seem to be more of a news source” than social media outlets like Snapchat, he said.

Potential Downfalls

Tweeting alone isn’t enough to bring about change, and social media use could have the unintended effect of creating “slacktivists.” That’s a term for people who support something online but don’t participate in the effort in real life.

“If it’s only Twitter, then the chances of success are significantly less, Sally Davidow, communications director for the NewsGuild, said. “People need to be actually talking to their co-workers to figure out what reservations they have, what their hopes and dreams are for their job, what they feel is missing,” she said.

One concrete step is to demonstrate the importance of employees to a company’s bottom line and the advantages of having a union, Pearce said. The L.A. Times’ union asked its followers to buy a subscription to the paper and tweet screenshots of their subscription receipts. Pearce says the paper picked up 300 additional subscriptions as a result.

Not all social media campaigns are successful. News outlet DNAinfo and its affiliates closed shop in November after forming a union a week earlier, despite a Twitter outcry. The company’s owner, Joe Ricketts, cited financial troubles as the reason for the shutdown, which left 115 people without jobs. An employer can legally shut its doors as a result of a union election as long as the company closes the entire business, not just the departments that voted in favor of a union.

Pearce anticipates the L.A. Times’ union will continue to use Twitter as it negotiates its first contract.

“I can’t say for sure, but yeah a lot of this is building a direct relationship with our readers,” he said. “A lot of this was organic rather than planned out. It’s a form of exercising accountability for our company.”

At the Washington Post, the Guild and management are set to begin their next round of negotiations Jan. 31.

The Washington-Baltimore News Guild also represents the editorial staff at Bloomberg Law.

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