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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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Social media is giving UAW an edge in auto strike, experts say, but can it last?


When United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain recently teased an announcement about the union’s ongoing strike with the Detroit automakers, he did it in a way that reflects just how much the union has come to rely on social media to make its arguments and keep its members in the loop.

On X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, he used an image from ABC’s “The Bachelorette.” Superimposed on the contestants’ heads was a logo of each Detroit automaker: General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV.

“Tune into the UAW’s Facebook page at 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6 to see who gets the rose!” the post teased.

“He’s got jokes,” Ford spokesman Mark Truby responded on X.

For a labor leader who pledged to be more transparent when he was elected president earlier this year, Fain is leaning into that strategy and relying heavily on social media platforms to rally members, pressure the automakers and shape public perception about the union’s fight for better pay, benefits and other contract improvements.

Contract negotiations that once only happened behind closed doors are playing out in real-time on platforms such as Facebook, X and Instagram, giving the public an unprecedented, bird’s eye view of what the union and the companies have proposed. That could have good or bad consequences, some experts said, including possibly extending the length of the strike because the public nature of negotiations might make it harder for the union to compromise.

Some analysts said if the UAW does make significant gains in a new contract, using social media during talks could be a sign of things to come in future negotiations. But “the jury is still out,” one expert said.

The UAW posts on average 55 times daily on Facebook, X and Instagram. Posts, including “The Bachelor”-themed one, largely publicize upcoming announcements across social media platforms. Combined with YouTube, the UAW has 354,000 followers. It’s unclear how many followers the union has gained in the last year.

Even before the strike, social media played a critical role in communicating the next steps for the UAW’s members.

It’s “changed the dynamics of negotiations,” said Marick Masters, business professor at Wayne State University.

But being so public with proposals could potentially backfire, some argued.

“It’s always a question of give, take and compromise. Shawn Fain is going for a much stronger contract. If he gains that, social media will be a vital part of it, and it is something that will likely be more widely adopted,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert and professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.

Previous strikes revolved around reporters talking to workers on the picket lines, the occasional press release from the UAW’s Solidarity House headquarters and statements from the automakers to the media. That’s not the case anymore, as Fain regularly posts on social media and shares updates on Facebook Live.

Now, “we find out about updates the same time ya’ll do,” said Latrice Dukes, a Ypsilanti, Michigan, processing technician, as she picketed outside GM’s processing plant on Tyler Road.

On Friday, more than 61,000 people tuned in to listen to Fain’s latest Facebook Live update, when he announced GM had agreed to place workers at its battery plants under the union’s national contract, averting a walkout at the automaker’s full-size SUV plant in Arlington, Texas.

And during an update on Sept. 29, 60,000 people tuned in; the same video now has more than 204,000 views.

Impact on negotiations

The UAW – which has 400,000 active members, 145,000 of whom work for the Detroit automakers – has been using social media to communicate updates since Fain took office in late March and pledged to create a more transparent, democratic process.

As the strike began in mid-September, the union threw public insults, made the negotiations public for online debate and experienced having its messages about a “chaos” strategy leaked through X group chats.

Experts such as Masters said the UAW took the lead early with bargaining and “dominated the narrative,” even as early as August. But he predicted the UAW’s social strategy could extend the duration of the strike because the union is sharing negotiations so publicly, making it harder to compromise. The last strike, a nationwide walkout against GM in 2019, lasted 40 days.

“This is an insurgent group that took over the UAW through a historic direct election, and they ran on a campaign to make the union more transparent,” Masters said. “They took the lead in early August making their own bargaining positions, way ahead of the companies, reiterated and dominated the narrative they wanted to get out – which was that record profits mean record contracts, they wanted a fair and just transition and they wanted to share some of the profits rather than have greedy executives.

“They echo this theme over and over. The companies were very late to get back, and they’ve done so in a harsh manner that I don’t think does them any good.”

The union swung public opinion behind it, he said, “and got the president to join the picket with them.”

“That’s the power of social media,” Masters said.

In a request for an interview, the UAW declined to elaborate on its social media strategy, saying “the metrics speak for themselves.” It did not disclose what its metrics are.

Masters predicted the automakers and the union could reach a deal if they compromise at a higher point on wages. The auto companies’ last known wage offers called for raises of about or slightly above 20% over four years, while the union is said to have proposed 36% noncompounded.

Historical bargaining

Shaiken said the notion of a more transparent process wasn’t invented by Fain, “but he linked it to social media.”

“In 1946, when Walter Reuther was UAW president in charge of GM, he led a 113-day, bitter strike. He wanted to have a stenographer in the room to record everything that was said on both sides during collective bargaining and publish it. GM vetoed it,” Shaiken said.

The media were often viewed as a pivotal tool, the UC Berkeley expert said. Initially, it was newspapers and radio, followed by television and then cable television. In-person rallies were always “extraordinary to add another dimension,” he said.

Shaiken recalled Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which had a strong labor focus, with King spending months organizing with union leader A. Philip Randolph and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Two months before the march, then-Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and Reuther spoke during the Walk to Freedom on Woodward, where King delivered a precursor to his historic “I Have A Dream” speech.

“Back then, you had allies of labor, like churches, particularly Black churches in Detroit, mobilizing their members in support of the union’s demands,” Shaiken said. “The way Reuther brought social movements into what the UAW was doing was path-breaking and extraordinary. We’re witnessing that today, just differently.”

Striking workers such as Malak Jomaa appreciate the emphasis on transparency, enthusiasm and feeling like they have a fighter for them. Jomaa started on the line at Ford a week before the strike but spoke with passion in support of her new coworkers. She showed off videos of herself in a Sept. 22 carpool parade of Ford Broncos supporting strikers from the Stellantis Toledo Jeep plant.

“The union doesn’t care if you’re new or not; it’s one big family. We have our own private Facebook groups where we communicate, and that’s where we relate,” said Jomaa, a member of Local 900, which represents workers at the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne who have been on strike since Sept. 15.

Workers are also sharing their own messages on social media during the strike with online videos. Some have created private Facebook groups for their local chapters.

Tool, weapon or both?

Fain and automotive executives aren’t acting like previous leaders.

“Shawn Fain has provoked the companies to have more of a social media presence, but at this point, it’s more subdued,” Shaiken said. “My instincts are telling me it’s far more beneficial than negative, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t downsides.”

Shaiken said Fain’s proclamations on social media can raise expectations, and the union will be challenged to meet them. Participation seems to be building with each Facebook Live update.

“What I just watched (a recent Facebook announcement) is much greater than the early efforts when he first started doing this,” Shaiken said. “And he’s only been in office five and a half months, and now there’s more than 2,000 people actively commenting on this telecast.”

But social media doesn’t lend itself to all debates, experts said. It may be making the union more transparent, but it’s not a format that gives members a direct voice or allows them to hear debate as they did in March at the three-day special bargaining convention in Detroit.

“Social media is not suited for that,” Shaiken said. “It’s more immediate, more intimate as people are watching it in their homes. This has been a key tool for the union, and they’ve been building on it. You can tell with some of the high-quality videos they put out and improving material with compelling footage about plant closures. They’re investing.”

The UAW would not comment on how much it is spending or who is running its social media accounts. The UAW’s strike fund totaled $825 million before the first set of union workers walked off their jobs. Members who are on strike or who have been laid off because of the walkouts are receiving $500 a week in strike pay from the union.

Neither the UAW nor the Detroit Three automakers can control the narratives that develop organically online. Examples include videos of workers arguing with Biden during his Sept. 26 picket line visit, a photoshopped Spirit Halloween banner covering auto plant signage, Detroit’s GMAC Cash rapping “We goin’ on strike” and videos of physical fights on the picket lines, which have gained traction on Reddit.

“Advocators, there’s always a danger that when you negotiate in public, you get locked into your position and then becomes harder for you to back away from them. Even though you know, in your mind, that you’ve got to make concessions,” Masters said. “Living in social media means we have to take everything with a grain of salt. It’s so easy to Photoshop things. There’s a lot of just pure outright fiction out there that the UAW has to parse.”

‘They learned the hard way’

The UAW learned from the mistakes it made in 2015 with social media, Masters said.

“They lost a contract ratification vote at Chrysler in 2015 because before they even started talking about the tentative agreement, the workers had gotten on social media and started trashing it,” the Wayne State expert said.

About 65% of Chrysler’s UAW members rejected the offer accepted by union leaders for a vote.

“The union could never catch up,” Masters said. “They had to go back to the table and renegotiate the contract. So they learned the hard way.”

Mike Horning, an associate professor of multimedia journalism at the Virginia Tech School of Communication, said all social platforms can now play a disruptive role and can even influence how negotiations play out.

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He was referring to a series of text messages obtained by The Detroit News from a private group chat on X. In the messages, a close aide to Fain wrote that union negotiators were using bargaining sessions to inflict “recurring reputations damage and operational chaos” on the Detroit automakers.

“(I)f we can keep them wounded for months they don’t know what to do,” said one of the messages. “The beauty is we’ve laid it all out in the public and they’re still helpless to stop it.”

Horning said it’s difficult to know whether the leaks were intentional or not.

“The UAW has said publicly that it would make its negotiations public, which isn’t typically how such things are done,” he said. “That indicates that they would use new strategies in their bargaining. So in that sense, using social media to leak messages that could influence public opinion, especially those of union workers, may be part of that process.”

Shaiken said social media has been a valuable tool, but “the jury is still out on how this is all working and what role that will play when we look back on this.”

“Stay tuned because there’s likely a lot more here to see,” he said.