Today’s labor law practitioners increasingly hear a common troubling narrative: that an employer was blindsided by a union filing a petition to organize its workforce. Historically, employers have been able to see signs of nascent union organizing: union literature and cards in the workplace, union staff visiting the worksite or reports of unwelcome home visits, for example. But these traditional forms of union organizing now frequently are preceded by extensive social media campaigns, subtly imposing the union’s message months before actual card-signing efforts. The result is that the workforce is subjected to a message campaign perhaps well before the employer knows its workforce has been targeted. This deprives the employer of the ability to take early responsive measures, putting employers at a communication disadvantage that may be insurmountable.

Social media as an organizing tool: Why it is effective

Social media provides substantial advantages over traditional organizing tactics:

1. It removes logistical obstacles. Traditional methods of union organizing require personal interaction, exposure and a substantial investment of time. For example, the dispatching of union representatives to distribute fliers, approaching workers personally to coordinate meetings, or making home visits requires a team of qualified organizers. It frequently entails confrontation, either with management, law enforcement authorities or even the employees themselves. The social media approach has permitted organizers to approach workers without any such obstacles. They can communicate privately, gradually over time, from their home workstations or cell phones, and at a time when conflicting family responsibilities do not distract.

2. It provides “targeted” and accessible messaging. The social media organizer may tailor his or her message to a particular employee and may nurture a relationship over time (such as becoming Facebook friends), focusing on the individual concerns of that employee or small group. This also allows a sustained effort aimed at a leader within the workforce whose influence will offer great advantage at the card-signing stage.

3. It is the language of youth. Social media is the language of the new generation of workers in the U.S., and, increasingly, of women. More and more, these demographic groups talk in terms of tweets, posts and YouTube videos. And they trust people and entities who speak that language more than those who do not. One of the powerful elements of social media is the ability to manufacture a sense of camaraderie and inclusion, and labor unions are capitalizing on that feature.

The tactics: How unions use social media

Even a cursory review of publicly available sites illustrates the extent of labor unions’ use of social media. Today, every major labor union has a prominent social media community, such as a Facebook page, that pushes out the union message. These pages provide links to YouTube libraries where the unions have posted video messages, stories and instructional films. The Teamsters have a YouTube library containing more than 200 searchable videos, supplemented regularly with new messages about the benefits of being a Teamster or the recent organizing victory of one of its Locals.

More directly, union staff uses social media to initiate conversations with key employees that can play out over time and in confidence. According to a July 2010 report by the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center titled “New Approaches to Organizing Women and Young Workers,” union organizers use texting to communicate with employees at work, sometimes during the employer’s own campaign meetings. Other organizers solicit target recruits to become friends on Facebook, noting that the tactic is particularly effective with women and younger workers.

The unions also use social media to develop leads on other individuals who are receptive to the union message. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s (UFCW) “Target Change” page (covering the campaign to organize Target) solicits visitors’ email addresses in exchange for novelty giveaways. An International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local invites: “If you’re interested in organizing a union in your workplace, just send us an email—an organizer will contact you.” The Transport Workers Union’s Facebook page includes a “Join The Movement” link through which it invites visitors to provide their names, email addresses and geographic data.   

What employers must do

Employers who value union-free status must provide an alternative to the message and forum offered by the unions. Employers must establish a social media presence for the employer and for the workforce that communicates an honest pro-employer message and also permits employees to communicate with one another. Management must proceed cautiously into this arena to ensure compliance with employment and labor laws. But a robust social media presence will become more essential to the employer as unions become more nimble at tweeting, texting, and friending its workforce.

If employers are not willing to cede the social media space to unions, they must match the unions’ investment in understanding and using this potent new communication tool.