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Saturday, September 27 • 15:51 - 16:10
"Evolving Tactics in the Deployment of Social Media by Trade Unions"

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Background: The influence of labor unions has waxed and waned in North America over the last two hundred years (Lichtenstein, 2002). Recent developments in communications have allowed firms to coordinate their operations globally (Hardt & Negri, 2000). Generally speaking, firms attempt to structure communication networks to aid in the multiplication and deepening of the global division of labor. However, these same communication platforms make possible the multiplication and circulation of class struggle as workers share knowledge across a variety of contexts (Dyer-Witheford, 1999).

Objective: This paper explores the political dimensions of online social media platforms with respect to the mobilization of workers engaged in class struggle. Critical theory has emphasized the ways in which communication technologies have facilitated asymmetrical power relations in contemporary capitalist society by highlighting issues like commodification, privacy, security, consumerism, political corruption, and ideology (Dean, 2009; Andrejevic, 2002). Conversely, this paper confronts online social media as both the means and the result of class antagonism. As the capitalist class attempts to harness technological development to the expanded subjugation of society through the imposition of work, the working class simultaneously seeks to use technology to realize greater autonomy and contentment in their own lives (Cleaver, 1981).

Methods: I build on my previous research on the use of social media by the group OURWalmart. OURWalmart is an employee-led organization working with the United Food and Commercial Workers union to improve working conditions for Wal-Mart associates. This organization relied on social media platforms extensively in the coordination of the Black Friday labor actions in 2012 and 2013. The next stage of my research consists of a comparative analysis of the various tactics and contexts in which social media have been deployed by a number of Canadian unions including the Service Employees International Union, Unifor Canada, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. I pay particular attention to the affordances and limitations of social media platforms in the course of planning, coordinating, and circulating information about labor actions. I conduct interviews with union specialists in public relations, communications, and recruitment—as well as with rank-and-file union members—with an eye to assessing the current state of integration of online social media within broader organizing efforts.

Results: These interviews seem to indicate that particular deployments of social media impact the interactions between environmental factors, employer behavior, and union strategies. This impact appears alongside a cluster of ten key union tactics previously identified as influencing union organizing success (Milkman and Voss 2004).

Conclusion: Trade unions today face formidable challenges with respect to leadership, recruitment and retention, workplace democracy, and political climates charged with anti-unionism among political and business elites and rank-and-file workers. Online social media will play a decisive role in addressing these challenges. By deepening our understanding of the successes and failures of previous social media campaigns labor can struggle more effectively moving forward.

Andrejevic, M. (2002). "The Work of Being Watched: Interactive Media and the Exploitation of Self-Disclosure." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 19(2): 230-248.

Cleaver, H. (1981). Technology as Political Weaponry. The Responsibility of the Scientific and Technological Enterprise in Technology Transfer. American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dean, J. (2009). Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies : communicative capitalism & left politics. Durham, Duke University Press.

Dyer-Witheford, N. (1999). Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism. Chicago, University of Illinois Press.

Hardt, M. and A. Negri (2000). Empire. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Lichtenstein, N. (2002). State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton, Princeton University Press. 

Milkman, R. and K. Voss (2004). Rebuilding labor : organizing and organizers in the new union movement. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press.


Brett Caraway

University of Toronto

Saturday September 27, 2014 15:51 - 16:10
TRS 1-147 Ted Rogers School of Management

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