How Unions Are Using Social Media & Digital Communications to Organize Your Employees

Virtual union organizing has become a standard practice for labor unions in the last few years. People are getting more creative in their utilization of social media and digital communications because they are mobile accessible and easy to use. All generations are using these communication tools, albeit for different purposes. It makes sense for labor unions to leverage social media and other digital communications for organizing and running labor union campaigns. There are even platforms that are invitation only, adding to the ability to maintain secrecy as long as possible. Employers are locked out of knowing union organizing is taking place until the petition is filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Each year, virtual organizing gets more sophisticated as labor unions learn to use social media and their websites for outreach. 

Social Media and Digital Communications Create an Ideal Outreach Recipe

It makes sense that social media and digital communications are used for so many types of interactions. With a few clicks, labor unions and employees can communicate with remote and in-office employees, host virtual meetings to keep remote employees connected, share information, answer questions, organize employee protests or walkouts, and more. Digital communication of all types also gives people easy (and private) access to one another. All these ingredients make the perfect recipe for union organizers to cook up a union organizing campaign. Walter Orechwa, Director of Digital Solutions at IRI Consultants, says, "The key to successfully communicating with your employees is just to start doing it. Figure out the demographics and, if possible, the social media platform that they are using to communicate with each other right now. There may be several platforms that can easily be used simultaneously. But start now, not when you have a labor situation; get employees used to hearing from you, your philosophy, your listening, and your responses." 

Orechwa continues, "Make communicating with employees as two-way as possible. Take the good and the bad, show that you are listening, that employees are being heard, and that you care. Should a union target your organization, then these communication channels are already in place for you to transition the messaging as needed. This is not a one-and-done; develop a plan, a timing, or cadence and stick with it – forever, because it's the smartest thing you can do."

Furthermore, social media channels provide a way for labor unions to create a space for employees to express grievances and to spread the claim that their employer can't or won't take the time to hear those same complaints. It's easy to see how digital platforms promoting the creation of private groups have quickly become tools for union organizing efforts and are driving the formation of independent unions. No need to arrange a meeting space or worry about ensuring all interested people have access. Event planning platforms enable union organizers to schedule an event, post a link or phone number that gives access and recruit participants. There are also features available that create sophisticated marketing opportunities for the labor unions so they can spread their message.

There are social media options for every generation too. With four generations in the workforce now, employers need to realize that different generations utilize different social networking platforms differently. A whole research paper could be written on this topic. Following is a summary based on research by the digital marketing agency Indigital concerning social media use by Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. 

  • 80 percent of every generation uses social media at least once a day
  • Millennials and Gen Z use social media many times each day
  • Millennials and Gen X use 5-6 different platforms, which are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest
  • Gen Z has favorite platforms, which are YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok
  • Only 36 percent of Gen Z use Facebook weekly, while 87 percent of Millennials, 90 percent of Gen X, and 96 percent of Boomers use Facebook weekly
  • All generations like YouTube, but younger generations prefer short video forms like Instagram live and TikTok

Baby Boomers use social media to share pictures and videos of family and friends, while Gen X avoids posting information about their personal lives. Millennials have a fear of missing out, so check for updates regularly. Gen Z is willing to share personal information and is not worried about shared data. Labor unions target employees through careful selection of social media and digital communication options. 

Pandemic Driven Changes

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of social media and digital communication for union organizing. Once considered a benefit but not a working norm, flexible working arrangements are common. McKinsey's survey found that 58 percent (92 million employees) work at least part of the time remotely. 35 percent of employees can work from home full-time and 23 percent part-time. It's now believed that hybrid work schedules are here to stay. In many ways, that is a boon for labor unions that had trouble accessing employees working onsite in the early stages of union organizing. It was more laborious to schedule meeting places, secretly recruit employees, and share information, and much more difficult to keep the organizing effort quiet until 30 percent of the bargaining unit (or a significant number of employees) were willing to sign union authorization cards.

The pandemic also had another impact. It made workers more willing to address what they see as workplace problems. Some issues were schedules, safety, hazard pay, and social justice. Even though many employers adopted temporary policies related to working conditions during the pandemic, employees were unhappy when the policies were reversed post-pandemic. It's very difficult, for example, to give people extra pay and then take it away. The pandemic's influence on employees made them more willing to be activists for themselves and the common good. When it was nearly impossible to meet in person, employees turned to virtual communication via social media and digital communications, and the labor unions recognized the new opportunities this afforded them. 

Labor Unions Go Digital

Labor unions are using social media and digital communications in a variety of ways for union organizing. They are becoming proficient at marketing their unions and organizing employees.

  • Training employee union representatives in the best ways to recruit co-workers
  • Getting employee signatures on digital union authorization cards or petitions
  • Holding online meetings about the union organizing campaign
  • Holding promotional events to keep employees excited about unionizing
  • Posting online petitions for various causes which engage employees
  • Raising funds to support the cost of union campaigns
  • Marketing the labor union in general
  • Tracking employee actions by the employee and making notes, including contact information and follow-up
  • Signing up volunteers who want to help the union succeed
  • Utilizing a variety of digital tools for communication with employees, including text messaging, email, and online forms
  • Identifying interests of employees, i.e., interested, influencer or leader, low interest, etc.
  • Embedding links in labor union websites that take visitors to sites where they can read more about the union and leave contact information
  • Embedding links to the labor union websites on social media

Using platforms means the union can collect big data, and data analytics helps the labor union refine its approaches. 

social media union organizing

Sophisticate Digital Communication Gives Unions Control of the Dialogue

Can Facebook become a union organizing tool? Yes, it can and is being used for that purpose. CampaignGears, one of many platforms available for union-backed and independent organizing today, described a real-world example of how a labor union used Facebook for its union campaign. The first point made is that the longer the organizing is kept secret, the better. Another interesting point is that a union representative told CampaignGears, "The union felt that the digital side of the campaign gave it momentum – a sense that voting 'yes' was cool and that a victory was inevitable and exciting." There are tips provided to build a unionization drive on Facebook. 

For example, union organizers are advised not to rely on traditional organizing methods like emails and house visits. Instead, they are told to upload a list of emails to Facebook to create a custom audience and use the audience for targeted ads. To capture leads, organizers are advised to make "a connection to broader workplace issues." Using nurses as the example group, a Facebook page promoting job safety is developed, and petitions are run on Facebook using lead ads. This generates leads of healthcare workers who are not in unions yet. 

Daniel Schwartz, a Partner at Shipman & Goodwin, discusses digital organizing via TikTok on a ProjectHR podcast. His first point made is that professionals need to take digital communication seriously and adapt their messaging to match how people are consuming media. Employers got on Facebook eventually, but union organizing communication is taking place on other social media sites. 

Schwartz points out, "there is no single town hall where everyone is listening," making it challenging for employers to stay ahead. This also offers opportunities for employers to communicate, and TikTok is just one of the newest ways. Employers can't say, "I'm on Facebook," and that's good enough. It's not. The communication platforms are addressing issues and not just serving as meeting places. Employees are asked questions like: Does your employer need better scheduling? Do you think your employer should offer certain paid benefits? So employees are being urged to be dissatisfied with their employers.

Mastering Technology for Organizing

Wired posted an article about the use of TikTok to organize employees. TikTok is a social media site growing in popularity as a communication tool, especially for Gen Z employees. It is being used to target Amazon and Starbucks for purposes of union organizing and is now used for activism that could lead to employees deciding to organize. When Starbucks fired seven employees at a Memphis store, a college student coded a script that allowed people to auto-submit a pile of fake job applications to replace the workers. They did so because they believed the terminations were due to the employees trying to organize a union. 

Another coder created a website called Change is Brewing that gave simple instructions on how to use the script. The website was pushed on TikTok and across many other social media channels. More than 140,000 people flooded the application pool with fake applications. This effort is one way to get people interested in organizing and convincing them it works. 

One of the organizers (Joshi) said, "What I'm hoping is that we created a new generation of organizers who understand digital tactics and social media algorithms better than most past organizers. Now we have this knowledge of how to run campaigns successfully, how to get people out to vote, and how to go beyond views and actually make a tangible difference. And now, we're all real organizers. Digital organizing is legitimate organizing." It's so legitimate that the traditional big labor unions have reached out to the organizers.

Gen-Z for Change, a coalition of progressive digital activists that began as TikTok for Biden, rebranded itself and is now getting involved in the labor movement. It has 540 million social media followers. They have spammed Starbucks, Amazon, and Ralph's supermarket. "Unions are taking over the country," says organizer Joshi, "and people want to get involved with that because it's one of the coolest things that we have ever seen. And it's one of the most promising, optimistic things that we've seen. We've needed optimism for such a long time. We've lacked it." 

Labor unions are flooding social media platforms that include Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Organizers at REI and Starbucks have used hashtag campaigns like #UnionYES. The National Nurses Union (NNU) recently reported on Twitter that Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin, Texas voted #UnionYES to join the union. Numerous platforms are used to communicate with employees, including Signal, the invite-only Clubhouse app, Frank, and more appear all the time.

Social media is giving unions control over the dialogue around union organizing efforts. Employers who don't have a strong social media presence or don't give employees a voice on their websites by allowing comments are particularly vulnerable. That's the assessment of Donald Schroeder at attorneys Foley & Lardner.

Retargeting Potential Union Members

One of the drawbacks to virtual union organizing is that employees can click away from a union recruitment website without taking any action. Today, it's possible to add a tracking pixel on the union website that enables the website owner to follow website viewers when they leave the website. An ad is then placed on another website unrelated to the union website. The retargeted ad has the union logo and invites the viewers to click a link in a call-to-action that takes people back to the union website. 

Retargeting is used extensively by retail brands and is one of the most effective digital marketing tools available for converting website visitors into customers. The labor union can segment the audience for purposes of developing specific ads. For example, the labor union can segment the audience by URL. The people who visit the union webpage that explains the purpose of the union become a group. The people who visited the union digital authorization card webpage became a group, etc. This enables the union to create different ads that are most likely to sway the viewer.

Retargeting is also used in cases where someone has completed an online form and needs to submit additional information. The additional information request step is when many people are lost. In those cases, the ad campaign encourages people to click through and complete the process. 

Retargeting can also be used to address people who have followed through on the union website to keep them engaged. Remember, a union organizing campaign is only successful when employees vote for the union. The employees who sign digital union authorization cards aren't required to vote for the union. Feathr is a company that helps organizations create engaging digital experiences and names six categories of needs that ad campaigns can address. 

  • Covid-19 response
  • Education
  • Engagement
  • Recruitment
  • Retention
  • Advocacy

Get Savvy About Social Media-Based Union Organizing

It seems like Lucy keeps moving the football, meaning new union organizing strategies are regularly emerging that change the game plan. It's a fact of life concerning technology that new options are continually changing, making it difficult for employers trying to stay on top of potential union organizing. What should you do now? Some points to keep in mind include the following. 

  • Stay informed – Employers need to study the labor union strategies and tactics used in successful organizing campaigns that rely on social media and digital communications. If unable to stay abreast of specific and relevant union activity, let IRI Consultants help. Not only do you need to understand modern labor union strategies, but you also need to understand how employees interact with each other outside the workplace to drive messages about their workplace.
  • Assess union vulnerability – Social media creates a union vulnerability because it enables networking and spreading messaging far and wide. However, the only reason employees would get involved in union-related messaging is because they are either not engaged or perceive something in the workplace as unfair or unjust. By conducting a union vulnerability assessment, you can stay on top of areas needing improvement or address with employees. Couple the union vulnerability assessment with information gleaned from studying labor union strategies and employee grievances across industries.
  • Analyze your communication system – Are you using one-way messaging with employees? If so, the communication system has a serious defect because there is no way to understand employees' real concerns if you aren't hearing the employee's voices. Social media is a form of employee voice, except it's being used to organize employees around a message they believe their employer hasn't heard and doesn't want to hear.

Do you understand what your employees are thinking and feeling? If in the throes of a union organizing campaign, are you relying on traditional communication tools like posters, bulletin boards, and captive audience meetings? These forms of messaging leave enormous gaps in communication with employees. Use social media and other digital communication options to get your message out before union organizing starts.

  • Train ALL your leaders – Training in union avoidance is often given to managers and higher-ups. Yet, it's the supervisors down to the frontline who are the weak links because they lack labor law knowledge and critical leadership skills in areas like listening, two-way feedback, and recognizing the signs of unionization. They may even be on social media, putting the company at risk by having good intentions but responding to employee posts inappropriately. Train all your leaders from top to frontline in developing positive employee relations, employee engagement, trust building, and the dos and don'ts of union organizing. 

Develop Your Digital Communications Strategy

IRI Consultants has had the pleasure of working with hundreds of companies across industries who needed assistance with things like developing digital communication strategies, positive employee relations, leadership training, and responding to union organizing attempts. Comprehensive tools like custom video and eLearning can help organizations tackle their employee engagement and communication challenges.  

With a solution like ProofBox, you can instantly solve even the most challenging employee communication needs and build a culture where unions simply aren't necessary. You'll have one easy-to-use comprehensive platform to address the diverse needs of your Human Resources and Labor Relations teams. With resources that help build an authentic employer brand and true employee engagement, ProofBox will become your favorite way to communicate with employees on tough topics. 

You want to know how unions are utilizing social media and digital communications to organize employees, but you also want to know how to develop a workplace culture and employee relations that make it less likely your employees will get involved with labor unions on social media or anywhere else in the first place. Union organizing gets more complex and more secretive with each passing day.

Contact IRI Consultants to learn about the many training tools and consulting services that can help your leaders maintain direct connections with employees and your organization not become part of the unionization trend.

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About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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