by Lina Dencik
The use of social media platforms for campaigning and protests in recent years has illustrated some important aspects about the possibilities as well as the challenges of digital activism in the contemporary global political economy. Although little attention has been paid to the role of unions and workers’ organisations in recent uprisings, there are certainly lessons to take from this for the labour movement more broadly. The manner in which institutions of power such as large corporations and state governments have jointly advanced the use of digital technologies in ways that undermine and threaten workers’ rights and conditions means that using some of these technologies for resistance needs to be integrated into union strategy and vision. However, it is important that in doing so labour activists engage with and understand the context and uses of digital activism.
The spread of social media provide workers’ organizations with certain transformative potentials. In the United States, we have seen an increased emphasis on labour organisations focusing on reaching workers in communities and at home (online) rather than at the workplace with more society-based labour organisations and immigrant community centred labour organisations, especially in attempts to organize low-wage workers. This has meant that unions have had to become more flexible with types of membership and act in coalition with different types of groups and associations alongside innovative use of social media in order to reach an increasingly precarious and individualized workforce. To some extent, these transformations speak to a renewed enthusiasm for ‘social movement unionism’ in which unions form part of a wider ecosystem of political activism (Waterman, 1993).
However, debates on social media and ‘new’ protest movements have also highlighted some concerns with unproblematic readings of digital activism. It is important not to turn to these technologies as an automatic ‘fix’ for the current challenges that are facing unions and worker organisations. This is not just about questions of control or keeping hierarchical structures in place as is often the accusation towards unions and their hesitance with adopting new technologies. Certainly, some of these issues run through the history of unions and prevail still today. However, concerns about the use of social media also speak to some of the limitations we have seen with recent protest movements. Labour organisations need to be careful about not assuming that technologies necessarily empower, recognizing that the ‘ephemeral’ and ‘public’ nature of social media might also be seen to undermine or distract from more grounded and sustained practices that shifts and transforms the nature of the movement.
The point is that the way that social media gets used will also tell us something about what kind of unionism we think is the future of the labour movement. If unions make social media their main focus and make that focus about visibility and advocacy primarily, they risk neglecting the solid relationships that are necessary to sustain any campaign or organizing drive over time. And they risk making unions a kind of pressure group that relies on media spectacles to put pressure on political and corporate elites. This is certainly a useful dimension to advancing workers’ interests but it tends to be short-term and ephemeral in nature and can sometimes back-fire and alienate workers who have not been sufficiently consulted about campaigns, or put workers at risk by leaving them vulnerable to retaliation by employers without the necessary support in place to protect them. Direct action may be an increasingly key component of unionism as unions are faced with decreasing membership and broken political partnerships as most political parties, certainly in the Western world, have embraced neoliberalism as status quo. But such direct action needs to emerge out of an organized workforce and cannot be co-ordinated solely as a social media stunt.
What is more, it is important for labour organisations to become much more engaged with issues around the social media platforms that they use to pursue an increasingly diverse range of tactics. For example, the issue of the uses of our social media data is one that needs to form a much bigger part of contemporary debates in the labour movement. Not only is it important to consider the multiple ways in which we as users have become the product that is now being sold, providing voluntarily the labour (content and metadata) that sustains the digital media economy but also the central place social media companies occupy in an ever-encompassing surveillance industry. Although much emphasis post-Snowden has been placed on the use of social media data by intelligence services and state agencies, we need to remember that surveillance technologies are increasingly an integral part of business and management structures as well. Large corporations sometimes have the surveillance capacities of entire countries and will often have the same cyber-security experts in place as would a national government. The use of ‘big data’ and locational data, which more often than not is developed from social media and applications, for purposes of monitoring and surveilling workers is becoming widespread and increasingly normalised.
Resistance against commercial social media platforms and digital surveillance is already widespread. It is important for unions to be part of that effort and for other activist communities to become more aware of the labour relations (and ideology) that underpin social media corporations and surveillance uses of technologies. Working with different kinds of groups and organisations will not be a straightforward process for unions. Different cultures of organization and protest permeate different communities, whether that be immigrant community groups, internet freedom campaigners, hackers, or labour activists and they may not always be able to see eye to eye. But the challenges of the current global political economy may mean that they actually share a great deal of common ground that can lead to a broader understanding of worker resistance that goes beyond trade unionism towards some kind of social movement or social justice unionism that is not just about collective bargaining or filing for individual grievances in the workplace. Social media (and their alternatives) can be a significant part of this that bring these interests together – for reaching workers in communities, for resisting surveillance in and outside the workplace, and for organizing and campaigning around workers’ interests. But it needs to be approached and carried out in a way that resists being limited to short-term gains of media visibility and fast mobilisation and keeps the voices of workers and the ambition of long-term organized labour to challenge corporate exploitation at its centre. These are some of the most important challenges that face the use of social media in the labour movement today.