Social Media, Insecure Work and New Solidarities

Working group on changing conceptions of work


Social Media, Insecure Work and New Conceptions of Labor Solidarity


Social media has become a powerful means for connecting people and supporting social movement organizing.  At the same time, rapid technological change, globalization and volatile competitive conditions have contributed to growing insecurity in work, in which the work-place is less frequently a site of long-term stability and collective conceptions of work have been eroded as a basis for solidarity. As a result, on-line solidarity networks have rarely focused on work, while traditional labor organizations have rarely been innovators in their use of social media.  This working group will focus on exceptions, particularly in transportation and food chain industries, where social media have been powerful tools for connecting people around labor issues across multiple and disparate places.  What are the conceptions of work that underpin these new formations of labor solidarity, and how do they compare with formations of solidarity amongst similar insecure workers in the past?  What role do social media play in shaping the nature of solidarity within these labor networks, and how do these roles differ from more traditional media in the past?  At the intersection of history, media studies, and labor organizing, this working group will bring new insights to our understanding of shifting conceptions of work and solidarity.



Social media has become a powerful tool for connecting people and supporting social movement organizing.   From the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 to the dramatic “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” movements in 2011, organizers have employed digital technology tools to catalyze and propel their campaigns.   The characteristics of social media—decentralized, inexpensive, network-driven, with few boundaries—have contributed to them being particularly valuable in struggles with a broad base of support.  Organizing efforts around human rights, democratization, environmental crises, or immigrants’ rights have been particularly successful in using social media to build solidarity across multiple populations.

In contrast, labor organizers—at least those in traditional union structures—have been less prominent in their use of social media, being largely followers rather than innovators.   On the surface, there are at least two broad sets of reasons why this might be the case.  First, the strength of labor unions has been rooted primarily in the solidarity built through long-term ties in stable workplaces.  The levels of trust needed for a serious labor organizing campaign, with all the associated risks, typically requires high levels of face-to-face communication.  Second, most labor organizing campaigns have focused on collective bargaining agreements, with the benefits of a successful campaign accruing to the (relatively) limited numbers of workers employed by that firm.  In both contexts, the broad network-mobilizing strengths of social media have been less useful.

But perhaps a deeper challenge to the use of social media in labor organizing lies in the transformations of work that have occurred over the past thirty years, which have undermined the work-place as a site of long-term stability.  Rapid technological change, globalization, and volatile competitive conditions have all contributed to growing insecurity in work and increasing individualization of employment.   As a result, collective conceptions of work have declined as a basis of solidarity.

Nonetheless, in recent years there has emerged a wide-array of innovative labor organizing initiatives that are NOT based upon a traditional stable site of employment.  Workers’ Centers—organizations advocating for the rights of a wide-range of insecure workers—have expanded substantially in the past 20 years and gained strength through building national networks, such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Food Chain Workers Alliance, and Excluded Workers Congress.  Similarly, community-based labor organizing efforts have gained steam in recent years, coming together through networks like the Partnership for Working Families and Jobs with Justice. These are all cases of connecting people around labor issues across multiple and disparate places.

Solidarity, as Rick Fantasia argued in his 1988 book Cultures of Solidarity, is not simply about the mobilization of pre-existing commonalities based in structural conditions or common identities.  Solidarity develops through complex processes of social interaction, in both day-to-day activities and sustained social struggles.  In work environments where workers are scattered geographically and hired temporarily, solidarity as workers is more often developed along cultural, ethnic, community and lifestyle affinities than identification with a particular company, skill or craft. These new organizing efforts build on such affinities, but also build solidarity between workers community members, consumers, faith leaders, and other concerned citizens and residents, often around complex understanding of collective work experiences and links between working conditions and other issues of concern.

Social media has been an integral part of these efforts, providing power tools for linking disparate people together and building broad constituencies. But although the technologies of contemporary social media are new, the social interactions they enable have echoes in an older history of geographically dispersed worker organizing. In many ways these ‘new’ forms of solidarity bear similarity to forms of solidarity that were built elsewhere outside of the standard framework of American labor relations, both prior to the 1930s across the country, and post-1930s in those sectors of the economy—such as farmworkers—who were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.  There are important lessons from these historical experiences that might help inform our understanding of new forms of labor solidarity as well, and help identify the specific roles social media has played in shaping these forms of solidarity.

Working Group Focus

What are the conceptions of work that underpin these new formations of labor solidarity? How, in fact, do these contemporary forms of labor solidarity compare with formations of solidarity amongst similar insecure workers in the past?  What role do social media play in shaping the nature of solidarity within these labor networks?  In what ways has new forms of social media superseded more traditional forms of labor communications such as newsletters, flyers, posters, radio and union meetings?

In addressing these research questions, the goal of this working group is not simply to discuss these issues, but to build a node that brings together distinct networks of both labor organizers and academics, contributing both to research and practice.

While our research considers this broader set of questions, our focus will be on two specific sectors—the transportation/distribution sector, and the food production chain—that have been characterized by insecure work and where innovative labor organizing efforts have emerged with complex patterns of solidarity.  These two industries have particular relevance to California’s labor movement, both contemporarily and historically.  The Golden State is the largest producer of food in the United States and its distribution network is vital to the global economy and shipment of goods due to its port facilities and proximity to Asia.  Historically, it is both the ILWU, with its rich history of organizing West Coast Dock workers and the UFW with its precedent-breaking organization of farmworkers that contribute to our interest in examining the port and the food chain.  Both of these historic labor movements relied upon creative forms of communication to win their battles, be it street corner speeches or innovative use of radio, posters and street theatre.

History is rich with such communications strategies. Jan Reiff’s work looks at the relationship of other technics of communication in labor organizing. One example from her research is the Pullman Boycott of 1894, in which the social networking enabled by men working on the trains transformed a Chicago-based strike about local issues into a nationwide boycott. Another example involves the close links between porters, newspapers like the Chicago Defender that advocated migration north for jobs and freedom, and the movement of Southern African Americans north in the “Great Migration”.  Tobias Higbie’s research on the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is also directly relevant.  In the early 20th century, the IWW was organizing a vast mobile workforce that moved seasonally between agriculture, construction, and resource extraction industries in western North America.  Based in hub cities where they lived in the off-season, migrants traveled to jobs in remote areas by train.  To organize these workers, the union relied on overlapping networks of activists who communicated through print media, public forums, and personal contact. IWW halls were community centers that provided services for migrants including mail forwarding, message boards, job information, and education through lectures and well-stocked libraries, much like contemporary Worker Centers.

The contemporary initiatives that will form an important basis of our discussions include the following, which both Geotz Wolff and Chris Benner have been involved with and written about:

Trucking, Port Transportation, and Goods Movements: Working conditions in port-related trucking have eroded in recent decades, with drivers now working as ‘independent’ owner-operators with sub-living wage compensation levels.  Workers in the rapidly expanding warehouse sector in inland portions of the state are mostly employed as temporary workers, with no job security. The organizing in response has been innovative.  The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports in Los Angeles, which includes a broad array of environmental, health and labor organizations—from the American Lung Association to the Teamsters—was successful in passing a precedent setting “Clean Trucks Policy” to simultaneous improve environmental and labor conditions.  In the Inland Empire, unions have come together with community organizations and faith-based groups to challenge working conditions amongst contingent warehouse workers across the region.   Community organizations, environmental justice groups and labor organizers throughout the state have been meeting together to develop strategies for promoting strategies to simultaneously address air pollution, labor conditions, and broader health impacts.

Food Chain: In the U.S., more than 20 million people work in the food chain—including farm workers, food processors, distributors, and restaurant and other food service workers—with the industry relying heavily on low-wage, part-time employees throughout.   Since we all have to eat, everyone is connected to the food chain, creating powerful opportunities for linking labor struggles with broader constituencies.  The prominent grape boycott of the United Farmworkers is one famous example, but more recent initiatives point to a burgeoning potential for using social media in food chain organizing.  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, for example, has been successful in mobilizing broad public support to get large institutional food buyers to sign onto a Fair Food Agreement that includes increased payments direct to tomato farmworkers and pressure on growers to improve other work conditions.  The Restaurant Opportunities Center, begun in New York as a cooperative of former workers of the Windows on the World Restaurant in the World Trade Center, has expanded to at least seven sites across the country and developed national campaigns to improve wages and working conditions across the restaurant sector.  The Food Chain Workers Alliance brings these organizations and others together, linking warehouse workers, meat processing workers, farmworkers and retail food sector workers across the food chain.

The work of Jesse Drew and Glenda Drew provides import insights into these contemporary struggles. Jesse has particularly focused on alternative and community impact, including low-power FM radio, cable/satellite television and community videos, but also on-line activism and social computer networking.  Glenda’s work includes creates visual media projects  that include layers of oral history, image and text, including recent work with truck drivers in the Center Valley.

Specific activities and products of the work group

The working groups activities during the year are conceptualized as falling into four phases.

The first phase will begin with organizing an initial day-long meeting of the full working group along with labor communicators and organizers involved specifically in the ports/goods movement campaigns and the food-chain workers alliance and other social media labor communicators from other prominent initiatives. This meeting will be held early in the fall quarter with two purposes: First, to share in more depth our perspectives on the relationship between social media, insecure work, and new conceptions of labor solidarity; Second, to develop priorities and a detailed agenda for subsequent phases.

The second phase will stretch throughout most of the fall and winter quarters.  The focus will be on developing an on-line, media-rich web-site that is intended to be an on-going resource for University researchers, labor organizers, and social media experts.  The goal is for this web-site to be a source of new original information and insights.  This would include blog entries, submissions of innovative visual images and videos, and oral histories and interviews, submitted by multiple participants, including both members of the working group and affiliated labor organizers and social media experts.  We also envision creating a detailed annotated bibliography on the topics of labor communication, social media, and labor solidarity.

The third phase would involve organizing for a full one-day conference to be held in the spring quarter that will be webcast for public viewing and open to public participation.  Our goal would be to bring together roughly 25-30 people, who would be a mix of academics, social media experts, and labor communicators and organizers.   While the specific format will be worked out in detail through the working group, we envision a mixture of presentations from prominent experts, panel discussions, and small group break-out sessions.

Finally, in the fourth phase of our work, the six members of the working group will take responsibility for co-writing an article discussing key insights from the year-long process.  Our goal would be to submit the article, along with appropriate related photos/visual images, for hopeful publication in Boom:  A Journal of California.

 Thus the final products of the working group will include an on-going web-site and a journal article, as well as the recordings of the web-cast conference.

One thought on “Proposal

  1. Pingback: On Work: Changing Relations of Value and Labor | UC Humanities Forum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s