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Impending Stop & Shop Strike Gathers Steam and Supporters From Facebook

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A few minutes ago, Christina Desjarlais Yates posted to Facebook:

well as a customer, through this wonderful age of technology we have plenty of notice, and I would be happy to see you all strike to get what you deserve,,hell with the suits and their great pay,what about all of you Hard workers who get the shaft... ??? You have my support... = ~ )

Stop & Shop and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union representing about 40,000 supermarket workers in southern New England continue negotiations against threats of an impending strike.

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Among the media dispatching messages, is a simple Facebook fan page, created and managed by a coalition of four local chapters with over 12k fans. The page titled, If Stop & Shop Workers' are forced to strike, Stop & Shop loses my business. This simple, free, and highly social fan page, that speaks clearly and directly to union members and to Stop & Shop consumers, has become a major tool in today's current bargaining efforts.

A Fan Page? How? Why?

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The UFCW's Strong Youth Core Already Lives on Facebook

The UFCW maintains the youngest membership of any union in the United States, and this appears to be one of the reasons why Facebook has become such an important organizing tool. This does not discount the older membership, some of whom are online and participating on the fan page wall with 40+ years of union membership.

The youth core, however, have large integrated and connected social graphs, they get their news from within Facebook, and are already there participating in conversation. It turns out Facebook provides a great ecosystem for union members and non-members to connect for change. Taking the message, the goal, and the movement to Facebook strategically makes sense and has proven to be successful and leaning towards viral.

Real-time Marketing the Message to a Sensitive Social Graph

Union voices used to have to work tremendously hard to reach out to the public-at-large, namely through public picketing. Facebook and other social networks have the ability to spread the union membership's message in personal, social, and credible ways, rapidly and in real time. Each time a "fan" posts a message to the wall, that same message goes out into her newsfeed and can reach anyone and everyone in her social graph. This means that she can garner sympathy and support from non-union supporters, who can become better informed of her state of employment and who can pledge to not shop at Stop & Shop if a reasonable agreement is not reached. This kind of social marketing can have tremendous and detrimental impact if companies like Stop & Shop ignore the online chatter.

New Level of Connectedness Across Historical Job-Related Boundaries

The page is also a time-free destination, where shift workers in this particular industry, who would never come into contact with one another, can become connected. It's also a piece of live media outside of management and likewise outside of the international governing union, which makes it incredibly authentic, somewhat lawless, and open to the public-at-large for participation. This level of connectedness creates a high level of relevance between the lives of consumers, workers, and loosens the historical stronghold of management.

Social Strike Hub

Currently, the page exists as a place for union members to post their thoughts on frustrations with management, experiences of employment, and share information around the potential strike and picketing being planned. If an agreement is not reached and a strike commences the page will become a single-stop destination for information on where to shop.

To get clarification and more insight into the ecosystem that's been created by the Fan Page, I asked Amber Sparks, senior communications specialist of the UFCW a few questions:

How can a Facebook Fan Page become a major asset during contract negotiations? (it is only useful when negotiations turn sour?)

It's a simple and easy way for members to keep up-to-date on what's happening in negotiations, what the issues are, what the company's saying, that kind of thing. It's certainly useful when members need to mobilize and to reach out to the community for support if they're forced to strike or take action to get a fair deal.

Local unions can post flyers that members can print out, people can post links, pics, info on meetings, actions, rallies, etc., which is great, but it's also useful when negotiations are going smoothly, because members and loyal shoppers, community members are going to want to know what's at stake, what's on the table, what's being discussed.

It's not the only way to reach out to members, but it's an important tool, since so many people are on Facebook everyday. It makes it easy for workers to find out what's happening and connect with other workers and community folks.

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Do you think that Facebook and other online social networks are legitimate organizing tools for unions? Is their "lawlessness" something to be concerned with? (is there a historical equivalent to self organized union coalitions?)

Facebook and other online tools are absolutely legitimate organizing tools for unions. Not only legitimate, but I think they're essential for the modern union. Workers are leading busier lives, and we need more ways for them to connect with each other and with their union, and Facebook and other online social networking sites provide that kind of venue.

We're not too concerned with "lawlessness," as you put it, because we've found that while there are a few people on any given site trying to cause trouble, most people are hanging out on our Facebook pages because they want to be there and be a part of that community in some way. So maybe there will be someone there badmouthing workers or saying hateful things, but we've been amazed how quickly workers jump to their union's defense and to their own. Our members are kind of awesome, I have to say.

It might sound crazy, but honestly, nothing makes us more excited here at the UFCW than when we see a Facebook page that a member has created for their store or for their union.

We get giddy over it because that means that member is excited about their job and is proud to be a UFCW member, and that's just so cool. Any negatives are far outweighed by the positivity of that message. When workers are positively impacted by their union, and want to spread the word, that's the best thing in the world in the struggle to improve our image so we can continue to help working people.

Can technology and social networking help the modern union become ubiquitous in American life the way that it once was, giving it new importance or revived presence?

I hope so. I mean, I don't think technology can do it alone, but it's an important tool in our belt and we'd be crazy to ignore the impact it could have. When you look at how important social networking is to people, especially younger people today, how it's a major part of their life, it seems natural that if we're online and engaging with our members, or even just providing them a forum to engage with each others, that can't help but create more familiarity with modern unions and help kill old stereotypes.

The more openness and democracy we have in our interactions with members, the better. I think being online also helps members feel that we're relevant, that we know who they are and what jobs are like today, and we're not just this thing of the past. We want members to know we're changing to meet their needs. This is just one of the ways we can do that.

Bio: Amber Sparks is a Senior Communications Specialist at the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, where she works on development of new media strategies in politics, organizing, bargaining, and outreach. She has a Master of Arts degree in Political Management from George Washington University.