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Can Social Media Help With Real-World Organizing?
[With all the chaos at Twitter these days, I thought it would be a good time to share with you all an article I published last year on digital tools and workplace organizing. It’ll likely be my last post for a couple of months because my very pregnant wife is due this Friday (!). Also, check out this video of a great panel on labor law and worker militancy I recently participated in with Sara Nelson, Charles Du, and Lorena Lopez.]
In the wake of the 2011 uprisings from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, pundits declared that “the revolution will be tweeted.” Very online leftists calling for a new general strike over Twitter every few months aside, this techno-utopian faith in the unprecedented movement-building powers of new information and communication technologies like social media has given way, in many corners, to pessimism. Digital activism, we are now told, leads to online echo chambers and systematically bolsters right-wing forces.
The problem with most of these arguments is that they assume that digital tools will necessarily have a certain type of impact on politics. But this technological determinism overlooks a crucial fact: what matters is not just how much social media is being used by social movements but how it is being used.
To explore these dynamics, I studied the 2018 educators’ strikes in Oklahoma and Arizona, first as an on-the-ground researcher, then by interviewing leaders and participants, and finally by systematically analyzing the contents of the viral Facebook groups educators used to build these unprecedented mobilizations. What I found surprised me about how these tools were used to build these strikes — and forced me to adjust some of my basic assumptions about what effective labor organizing looks like.
Mobilizing vs. Organizing
If you had asked me in 2017 whether it was possible to organize a statewide labor strike over social media, I would have confidently declared that it was impossible. Strikes are just too high risk and require too much proactive, personal outreach to skeptical coworkers, rooted in real relationship building that can become the basis for convincing skeptical coworkers to take risky and oftentimes scary acts, for online tools to be of much help.
But events forced me to change my mind. Spring 2018 witnessed the first US strike wave in over four decades. Confounding all expectations, these actions, beginning in West Virginia, erupted in Republican-dominated states with anti-union right-to-work laws, bans on public-sector strikes, and electorates that voted for Donald Trump.
These actions garnered widespread public support and positive headlines. What most people are less aware of is the fact that each of 2018’s largest teachers strikes — West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona — were initiated through rank-and-file educator Facebook groups. It turns out that social media can be used effectively for labor actions. But doing so depends on the strategic choices of protest leaders.
While social media in the 2018 Oklahoma strike was used just for mobilizing — activating the existing supporters of a cause — in Arizona it was also used for organizing, developing wider layers of new leaders oriented toward winning over the unpersuaded.
In all regions of what I’ve called the “Red State Revolt,” social media tools like Facebook clearly showed their potential to build mass mobilization. But why was the work stoppage in Arizona, despite unfolding in a less favorable political context, stronger than the strike in Oklahoma? In the former, 91.18 percent of educators struck, compared to 72.06 in the latter. Making sense of this divergence requires examining how leadership strategy shapes digital technologies’ impact on movement outcomes.
Figure 1. Percent of Public School Educators that Struck
Numerous scholars have shown how digital tools lower mobilization and communication costs, creating the potential for a movement to rest on weak organizational foundations. Because movements can now use digital tools to communicate and to call protests, it is now possible for them to rapidly scale up without leaning on the support of strong organizations built deliberately over time and rooted in strong interpersonal relationships between movement activists. The experience of the 2018 strikes, however, suggests that this kind of quickly built, large-but-shallow organizing is a potentiality, but not an inevitability.
From February 28 onward, in the wake of the successful action in West Virginia, both Arizona and Oklahoma witnessed a rapid, digitally enabled push to strike. A key reason why digital rank-and-file activists were so influential was that unions in both states were so weak. In Arizona and Oklahoma, neither the government nor most educators recognized the unions as the educators’ legitimate collective representative. Instead, a vast majority of insurgent school employees joined the rank-and-file Facebook groups that launched their strikes, Arizona Educators United (AEU) and Oklahoma Teacher Walkout — The Time is Now (OTW).
But whereas the Facebook administrators of AEU used social media to promote the high degree of collective organization necessary for a successful work stoppage, such an approach was lacking in Oklahoma. Mobilization without organization, as we saw in Oklahoma, was circumvented in Arizona through several key organizing factors: first, promotion of collective leadership of the organizing for a strike; second, organization beyond a Facebook group; and third, an escalated action campaign.
Scholars have examined how digital technologies enable mass-movement leadership by inexperienced individuals, since leaders no longer need to be tied deeply to movement organizations like they were in the past. This is often framed as a positive development, since a much wider range of people can now become protest leaders. Yet the digital affordance of individual leadership can undermine movement efficacy, at least for certain types of protests.
In Oklahoma, OTW’s founder, Alberto Morejon, opted to run a solo operation, personally administering the Facebook group on his own and picking settings that enabled only him to make posts to the group — other members could only comment. When asked about this decision to individually run the group, Morejon said this ensured that the information provided on the page would be “reliable and objective.” He also felt that he had neither the experience nor the free time to oversee a more collective project.
In contrast, though Arizona’s Facebook group was also initially founded by just one individual, teacher Rebecca Garelli, she did not believe that she would be able to productively manage and lead the page on her own. Through a voluntary self-selection process over Facebook on Sunday, March 4, the eight leaders of Arizona Educators United — none of whom had met before — constituted themselves as the AEU leadership team. AEU leaders from across the state coordinated with each other through a Facebook chat, as well as periodic conference calls.
Though the strikes in Arizona and Oklahoma confirm that social media drastically lowers mobilizing and communication costs, they also show that costs can remain high enough to pose difficulties for solo organizers to build collective actions like strikes — even for purely digital tasks.
With tens of thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of comments to moderate, being an admin was costly. Morejon explained that the process of accepting member requests into the Facebook group, compiling the list of which school districts were set to strike, making posts, and moderating the Facebook discussion was “like having another full-time job.” Organizers described a similar workload in Arizona.
Yet the fact that AEU had eight leaders, each providing roughly the same level of labor, gave them a significantly greater communication and organizational capacity than in Oklahoma. As seen in figure 2, Arizona’s admins had a daily post average of 16.5 — versus 8.2 in Oklahoma. And even more important than the quantity of their digital output was its content: Arizona’s leaders focused on encouraging educators to win over their coworkers and the community to support a strike, while Morejon focused primarily on agitating those who already supported the movement.
Figure 2. Number of Posts and Comments
The second mechanism of divergence was that Arizona, unlike Oklahoma, used online tools to not just promote mobilization but also to build nondigital organization. As Jane McAlevey has argued, while mobilizing — rallying an existing base of support — on its own can often be effective for calling actions like rallies or marches, it tends to fall short for actions like strikes. Unlike other common forms of protest, the success of strikes depends on winning over a majority of individuals who are brought together not by shared politics but rather by shared employment. This puts a premium on convincing people who don’t already agree with the movement — and in identifying and developing new layers of leaders whose accumulated respect at work makes them uniquely capable of winning over waverers to join a high-risk action.
Oklahoma and Arizona’s divergent digital strategies illustrate the differences between mobilizing and organizing models, as outlined in figure 3. Because Oklahoma’s group relied entirely on Facebook and didn’t create any organizational apparatus, it was unable to target and focus on winning over hesitant schools or educators.
Figure 3. Mobilizing and Organizing Models in Oklahoma and Arizona
Oklahoma’s work stoppage was built primarily through social media and was a prototypical example of mobilization without organization, with the OTW Facebook group almost overnight becoming the central forum through which the work stoppage was initiated. Yet after the April 2 walkout date was set in the first week of March, the group served mostly as a communications hub. This approach was in many ways remarkably successful at energizing educators.
Yet OTW did not function as a vehicle to consciously target and persuade skeptics. Social media, on its own, proved to be a relatively ineffective tool for targeted efforts to win over the unconvinced.
As seen in figure 4, Morejon’s efforts were largely oriented to providing information about schools and the political situation and getting OTW’s members to engage in digital activities such as filling out online surveys. In contrast, these tasks were the focus of far fewer of AEU’s admin posts. This divergence was even starker when it came to organizational and in-person protest activities.
The fact that OTW was far more internally oriented to digital activities than AEU contributed to Oklahoma educators’ total digital engagement being significantly higher, in both aggregate and proportion, than their peers’ in Arizona, as seen in figures 2 and 5.
AEU used social media to establish a network of two thousand school-site representatives, called site liaisons, charged with organizing their schools and acting as intermediaries between the top AEU leadership and the majority of educators. AEU leader Dylan Wegela underlined the pivotal role of the site liaisons for the movement’s success:
It turned out that the liaisons were the most important part of the movement. They organized their schools, got a sense of where people were at, and served as the channel of communication between the rank and file and our AEU leadership team. We couldn’t have done any of this without them.
Figure 4. Percentage of Admin Posts by Topic
The site liaisons served as the movement’s representatives and conduits at schools to convince reluctant teachers and support staff. “If you don’t have a personal relation with people who you’re asking to take a big risk, it’s real hard to convince them to join in,” Garelli said.
Finally, in marked contrast with Oklahoma — where only one preparatory action took place before the walkout — Arizona educators organized sixteen distinct preparatory actions ahead of a strike. AEU leader Noah Karvelis explains the strategic vision that undergirded AEU’s approach: “Everything we did, all those small actions, was an escalation to build power, to build mass organization, in one way or another. It started with easy asks like wearing red [to work and taking a group selfie], but eventually this built up to harder actions like voting to strike.”
AEU used digital tools to call numerous statewide initiatives and actions, including weekly group photos in red with coworkers; individual selfies of educators saying why they were part of the movement; a mass rally of over six thousand teachers and support staff in Phoenix to demand better pay and more school funding; a statewide campaign to draw pro-education messages on teachers’ and supporters’ car windows; three weeks of “walk-in” actions, which included informational mass meetings with parents, school staff, and students at school sites; and a strike vote in mid-April.
Figure 5. Total Comments Per Day
In addition to helping build up AEU’s organizational capacity, these actions strengthened educators’ willingness to engage in high-risk action. They also let organizers identify which individuals and workplaces were not yet on board. Tracking was thus a central component of AEU’s organizing approach from day one. To quote their March 5 “Red for Ed” Facebook post: “Wear red for ed. Please comment with your school and the number of people that wore red so we can track numbers.” As Karvelis later explained, “Tracking what worksites or individuals didn’t participate in our build up events let us assess where we needed to focus.”
In short: Arizona’s strike leaders were more effective than Oklahoma’s not because they avoided social media but because they avoided its pitfalls by harnessing digital powers to promote organizing, allowing the movement to reach beyond social media’s echo chambers. It was through digital tools that AEU promoted targeted, in-person outreach and therefore built a more powerful walkout. In contrast, Oklahoma’s walkout illustrated the potential for social media to substitute for nondigital organizing; it also showed the relatively limited outcomes of this approach, at least for actions like labor strikes.
Not If but How
The conclusion to be drawn from these case studies is that there’s no need to romanticize or dismiss the usefulness of online activism. What matters most is how digital tools are used.
The 2018 strike wave raises important questions about the extent to which contemporary social movements from Occupy to the Arab Spring have taken a “networked” form because they were reliant on social media or because of processes that predate the rise of social media by decades: a decline in working-class organization and a related rise in horizontalist political strategies that emphasize individual participation and decentralization instead of formal structures and organization.
Why have so many recent movements relied on a form of digital mobilizing that only speaks to, and activates, those who already agree on an issue? Is it because these dynamics are inherently baked into the technology, or because of leaders’ political choices? The experience of Arizona’s 2018 strike suggests that some of those movement’s limitations would have been at least partially avoided by leaderships that were proactively trying to organize participants to win over the unpersuaded.
Activists and organizers in the labor movement and other struggles should recognize the potential for using social media to go beyond social media. Digital tools can build more than mass protests — they can also help build up structured organizations like unions and political parties.
On the other hand, where strong unions or parties already exist, there will probably be far less of a need to rely on digital tools. That’s one reason why it would be a mistake to romanticize the 2018 Facebook-driven mobilizations or to treat them as a universal model. Different approaches are needed for contexts where unions are stronger and labor rights more robust. Unlike in the 2018 red state teacher strikes, for example, the role of social media was marginal in the powerful 2019 Los Angeles and Chicago teacher strikes led by militant and revitalized unions.
In states like California or Illinois, it is unlikely that Facebook groups and the intervention of small groups of radical rank-and-filers can have the same outsized impact through using social media. The existence of legally sanctioned collective bargaining with unions means that there’s generally far less of a political vacuum to be filled. For that same reason, building toward mass strikes frequently requires that rank and filers first organize themselves into a caucus capable of winning elected leadership and transforming their union into a vehicle for membership empowerment.
Moreover, the ease of mobilization and communication provided by social media has significant downsides. In the internet age, mass protests can scale up very quickly — sometimes too quickly for powerful organizations to develop. Yet without the political relationships and infrastructure forged through in-person organizing, strikes that rely on Facebook are relatively structurally fragile, ill-equipped to confront harsh elite opposition, and prone to dissolution after the upsurge peaks.
To build lasting workplace power, there’s no substitute for a militant and democratic trade union movement. But since labor unions remain so weak in so many parts of the United States and the world, it is likely that the years ahead will witness more volcanic social media–inflected work stoppages like the red state revolt and the massive strikes that recently swept across Brazil and China. For workers seeking to leverage digital technologies, the lesson of 2018 is clear: use those tools to organize, not just mobilize, your coworkers.
[Adapted from Politics and Society]
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