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Powering the picket line: Workers are turning to tech in their labor battles

Employee activists are using digital tools like Facebook, Twitter, Signal and Zoom to fuel solidarity.

More than 10,000 Deere employees went on strike last week. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Workers striking over grueling schedules, low pay and benefits are finding a common way to strengthen their power and solidarity: through the use of technology.

In Hollywood, workers, who recently reached a deal with their employer, detailed stories of their struggles anonymously through the aid of the IA_Stories Instagram account, run by members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union. One worker recalls eating cold ravioli over the sink, dipping pasta into a cold jar of tomato sauce by hand to maximize sleep time, according to an image of the message. In another post, a script coordinator writes that she had to produce pages during a rehearsal dinner for her own wedding. Another worker chronicled her fear of being fired and forced to go to work after taking her daughter to the hospital following her suicide attempt.

The Instagram account, which has more than 160,000 followers, was created in August and already has about 1,200 posts — most of them images of messages the administrators receive from workers telling their stories.

“Allowing the space for crew members to safely tell their stories was so desperately needed,” said Marisa Shipley, vice president at IATSE Local 871 in Burbank, Calif., and a freelance art department coordinator. She said that at its peak, the IA_Stories Instagram account received more than 200 messages from workers a day. “That’s why it has just exploded.”

As workers across America leave their jobs at staggering rates — a record 4.3 million quit in August — many are taking to social media and using other digital tools to advocate for their rights. Thanks to their ease of use during the pandemic, workers are able to organize strikes more effectively than ever before, bringing attention to their causes and ensuring the public knows what they are fighting for. Across many different industries, from health care to manufacturing, technology and entertainment, workers are powering the picket line through the use of technology.

“It’s very empowering … and a very different world today compared to 10 years ago,” said Kim Mullen, a Kaiser Permanente registered nurse and member of the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, referring to the use of technology in union organizing. Workers at Kaiser Permanente are considering a strike after failed contract negotiations.

About 60,000 Hollywood workers represented by the IATSE were the latest group to authorize a strike, though they ultimately reached a deal over the weekend. Last week, about 10,000 workers at agricultural equipment manufacturer Deere & Co. went on strike after failing to reach a deal. That followed a strike at cereal manufacturer Kellogg, as well as Nabisco and Frito-Lay.

Some workers are relying on private Facebook groups to strategize, organize and communicate their next steps to union members. Messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp are being used for encrypted communications and phone calls. Mass texting apps like Hustle and organizing apps like NGP VAN, MiniVAN and Action Network are used to keep track of member outreach and concerns. Workers are also helping to produce podcasts to create viral moments, build solidarity among members and raise public awareness.

The latest frontier in worker activism: Zoom union campaigns

Workers at food manufacturers Nabisco, Frito-Lay and Kellogg have learned how quickly a simple tweet or post can go viral and create a new level of support from the public.

On Oct. 13, eight days after 1,400 Kellogg manufacturing plant employees went on strike, the union posted a photo to its public Facebook page. The photo depicts a worker picketing during a night shift amid a downpour. The caption, written by Jeff Jens, a packing troubleshooter at Kellogg and social media manager for The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) Local 50G, reads: “Middle of the night — torrential downpour — fire is drowned out — BUT Local 50G stands strong and our picket sign is higher now than ever before!”

The photo has been shared more than 500 times on Facebook and has received 124,000 upvotes and 3,000 comments on Reddit. It was also picked up by Newsweek and United Kingdom online news site The Independent. Jens, who said he’s been “fumbling” his way through using social media, was surprised to see the post’s traction and quickly realized social media was the “tip of the spear” in workers’ fight for better working hours, benefits and pay.

“Everyone started spiderwebbing information about our cause,” he said. “That was the springboard that put us in the national spotlight.”

Workers across the country are on strike over proposed “two-tier” contracts that would cut wages and benefits for new hires and impact workplace morale. (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Jens said the union understood the need to have more social media presence after Nabisco had some success with its social media posts. During the Nabisco strike that began in August, the camp of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — a well-known worker advocate — reached out to the union. Sanders’s social media team tweeted support for the Nabisco workers, which got the attention of actor and comedian Danny DeVito. DeVito echoed his support and added “NO CONTRACTS NO SNACKS” to the end of the post, coining the hashtag #NoContractNoSnacks.

Some workers then pasted DeVito’s face onto their picket signs, leading to more social media buzz. It also fueled workers to project the actor’s face onto one of the Nabisco buildings one night with the phrase “No contract, no snacks.”

“All of sudden people were hearing about the strike,” said Michelle Ellis, digital media director for BCTGM, which represents workers in manufacturing, production, maintenance and sanitation within the bakery, confectionery, tobacco and grain milling industries in the United States and Canada. “It was like a viral thing.”

Frito-Lay workers found a way to get more traction by posting photos on their public union appreciation Facebook page of any business or group that brought the picket line snacks, food or ice. They tagged each business and provided their information in the post, giving them free promotion. That, in turn, spurred more business and individual support, including from an out-of-state supporter who sent the picketers 18 pizzas. But Ellis said viral moments aren’t the only way the union is getting workers’ stories out.

The digital tools

  • Facebook Groups: One of the features social network Facebook offers is the ability for anyone to create a private group. Worker activists have found this to be extremely helpful in organizing and communicating with their members.
  • Signal: The encrypted messaging app runs over users’ phone data connection to allow them to send text messages, make voice and video calls and share files.
  • Twitter: The social media network has helped worker activists reach the public and garner support from celebrities and high-profile individuals.
  • Instagram: The Facebook-owned social network is being used to help tell the stories of workers anonymously by posting images of the messages they send.
  • WhatsApp: The Facebook-owned app allows users to send encrypted messages, start group chats, make voice and video calls and send photos, videos and documents.
  • Zoom: The video conferencing tool has helped activists host remote meetings, review documents as a group and even bargain with their employers.
  • GroupMe: The Microsoft-owned messaging app makes it easy for users to create group chats, where users can share photos, videos or send direct messages to others.
  • Hustle: The app makes it easy to send text messages to large groups of people.
  • NGP VAN and MiniVAN: The database and Web hosting services aim to make it easy for political campaigns, nonprofit groups and other activists to keep track of their members and actions.
  • Action Network and Action Builder: Action Network and Action Builder tool sets help users create email campaigns, send text messages, store member details and set up events.
  • Podcasting: Activists are creating digital audio series to help tell the stories of local workers.

BCTGM also has created its Voices Project, a podcast that explores workers’ stories through their own voices. “When it comes to social media, you’re posting sound bites, and it’s hard to tell the whole story,” she said. The podcast “is a huge platform for us to give a human face and voice to the people in our union.”

Beyond communicating with the public, workers are turning to other tech tools to help improve and track their internal conversations. Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO, said people are also turning to the nonprofit activism organization Action Network for its digital tools including Action Builder. It has features like maps to track where members are, the ability to upload and export documents, and a place to collect member information.

“Gone are the days when a clipboard and pencil will do the trick,” he said.

Mullen, the nurse at Kaiser, said Hustle and WhatsApp have vastly simplified the process of reaching hundreds of members almost instantly. Meanwhile, the mobile canvassing app MiniVAN has saved her hours of trying to find members she needed to speak to in various parts of the hospital. The tool allows her to keep track of who she’s talked to, where each person is located, and allows her to attach notes and assessments.

“I discovered this small room our dialysis nurses live in, and I had been [making rounds] for two years and didn’t know they were there,” said Jenny Barba, also a registered nurse at Kaiser and steward for the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals. “I wish we had something like this a couple of years ago when we started” making rounds at the hospital.

Meredith Whittaker, a former employee who helped organize walkouts at Google in 2018, said the tool she depended on most was encrypted messaging app Signal. Whittaker said secrecy was key to the organizing work at Google because tech employers tend to use surveillance.

“They hire ex-CIA folks to surveil,” Whittaker said. “You have to assume your device has a key logger, maybe is recording audio or taking video — that’s very common — and algorithms are trying to do threat analysis on whether you looked at documents.”

Six things to know about the latest efforts to bring unions to Big Tech

Her advice for worker activists looking for helpful tech tools: Know your adversary, where they look and see employees and don’t let the tech replace the relationship building that needs to happen in-person.

For Beatriz Velez, a high school history teacher at the charter school El Primero Downtown College Prep in San Jose, Calif., in-person contact was the biggest challenge. Velez and her colleagues helped organize South Bay Educators United, a chapter of the California Teachers Association, at the beginning of pandemic.

While the teachers were not able to meet in person, Velez said they found ways to use technology to have personal and private conversations one-on-one. The organizers started with GroupMe, a messaging app that the charter schools were already using on campus, then later moved conversations to video conferencing tool Zoom and WhatsApp to keep activist chatter separate from campus discussions. In some ways, she said, the lockdown aided the teachers’ ability to organize.

“We were able to use all these different ways to communicate with each other instead of having half discussions at the water cooler or parking lot,” she said. “We could have much longer deeper conversations with colleagues.”

But she cautioned that mistakes can happen such as sending a message to the wrong thread of contacts.

“If you’re not careful, that could be a big hindrance on starting a union.”

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