Complaining about your boss and pay is a favorite pastime of everyone from assembly-line workers to corporate cubicle neighbors. But what if you work from home? Or drive an Uber? If you don’t even know who your fellow employees are, how can you commiserate with them?
If you’re not an employee, you can’t join a union. But you can join a Facebook group.
A new kind of corporate culture is being created by independent contractors who yearn for the camaraderie of marching to a communal beat. Rural doctors, property appraisers, freelance writers, and ride-share drivers are forging their own water-cooler communities by connecting online with their “colleagues” they’ve never met.
Freelance employees are searching for a digital platform to give them a collective voice. Joining a union includes sharing information and bringing common interests together, which are endeavors perfectly suited for social media. On a digital platform, the longstanding union membership barriers of cost, venue, and visibility are also minimized.
In the US, traditional American union membership is declining. Employees have historically joined labor unions for all kinds of protection, from low wages to threats to professional dignity. These reasons are especially relevant to independent contractors in the new economy. Facebook groups can replicate the efforts of unions with private posts that are only visible to group members, far from the intrusive eyes of company management. In this way, membership in Facebook groups is “mirroring social groups in the physical world like churches, governments, and unions.”
And they’re working. To strike for higher pay, delivery employees at Instacart organized a “no-delivery day” through their Facebook group. And even where employees already have a union, a Facebook group can fill the gaps: “USPS Non-Career Employees” has a mission statement that reads “Do you feel that management is taking advantage of you? Do you feel your union could intervene more?…We are not an official union, but there are strength in numbers…[we] need to stick together so we can protect our careers.”
Facebook’s 2 billion users include groups that have amassed over 100 million members. Work-focused groups have proven to be compelling in their ability to blend elements of labor unions, company-sponsored employee-resources groups, internal communication platforms, and gossipy anonymous messaging sites like Blind. The groups run the gamut from social to professional, and many aim for the holy grail of traditional unions at the industry level. For example, flight attendants in “Airline FA Contract Compare & Share” “discuss the details of each airlines’ contracts between flight attendants and their companies,” and “I am a Real Estate Appraiser” strives to “take control of our industry.”
Any Facebook user can create a group on any theme and serve as its administrator, and membership usually must be approved before another user can join and view the group posts. Facebook group administrators hold the power to delete posts that do not comply with the group guidelines, and block members. Some are stricter than others.
One of the rules that some groups follow is that the first rule of Fight Club is not talking about Fight Club. The Facebook group “Magicians Only” asks “Please DO NOT discuss methods;” while the 21,000 members of “Real Estate Rockstar Agents” stipulate “no commercial postings, listings, property ads,” and 23,000 “Yoga Teachers” preach no “self-promotion.”
Wannabees creeping for industry insight are also discouraged. “Worldwide Working Freelance Makeup Artists” is specifically for those already working in the industry, describing that “this playground is only for the big kids”; the 6,800-people-strong air-conditioner group “HVAC Technician” warns “if you do not work in this trade and we find out, you will be deleted from the group. No homeowner DIYs”; the “Uber and Lyft Drivers Breakroom” tells participants to “be prepared to show proof that you are a driver”; and the even larger “Speech Pathologists at Large” forum stipulates that “your public (Facebook) profile **must** indicate your professional or student status.”
Digital union efforts also come in the form of hashtags. For example, Zara employees came together to demand better pay, more hours, and equal opportunity for growth—not in the lunchroom or at happy hour, but by tagging their social media posts #ChangeZara. Fashion photographers use #NoFreePhotos to assign credit, and #NameTheTranslator calls out book reviews that leave the translator invisible. #ChangeZara was a success: By sharing campaign graphics and “solidarity selfies” on social media, Zara employees in New York amassed 1,400 signatures on a petition to management using the digital platform coworker.org. They ultimately received pay raises and increased advancement opportunities in response.
Employers often discourage unionizing, largely to preserve their ability to hire and fire “at-will.” As a result, it can be just as risky for workers to unionize today as it was on the heels of the industrial revolution, when workers were locked out of factories, replaced, and threated with violence. For example, a leading New York-based news site recently closed down after the staff voted to join the Writers Guild, and WalMart discouraged workers from joining unions by closing the meat counter and outsourcing packaged products after its butchers at a Texas store unionized. Some of the largest industries are actually the hardest to unionize. For example, the franchise business model splinters employees of large corporations into small groups, which has allowed McDonald’s to operate free of union pressure.
You also can’t assume that your Facebook group is a safe haven for griping about the boss. Just like in real life on and off the factory floor, if a Facebook post does not fall under what the National Labor Relations Board classifies as “protected concerted activity,” it can be grounds for lawful termination. Protected activity includes discussing work conditions and taking action for mutual benefit on employment terms and conditions, but excludes personal attacks on colleagues or posts that disrupt work. But privacy rights in the internet era are universally valued enough to have earned bipartisan support at the state level, and many states now restrict employer access to employees’ social-media accounts.
Protecting the common interest of workers has long been the domain of labor unions—but they are notorious as “latecomers to digital organizing.” Now that workers are competing for jobs in this new gig-based economy, workers are turning online to vent, collaborate, and survive. Where traditional unions have failed to deliver, social media has stepped up.
Union membership may not be declining at all—just losing territory to the competition.