The Virtual Walkout: Picketing in a High-Tech World

virtual walkout: picketing in a high tech world

UnionProof stays on top of union trends to help employers with early recognition of new union strategies and preparation for potential union organizing. Unions are vigorously pursuing various internet-based communication channels to incite employees into believing they are mistreated by their employers and organizing employees across geographic areas. Now there is growing utilization of websites and social media to organize strikes or picket lines.

The expectation is that you will see more virtual non-union employee walkouts and union employee picket lines, both union-backed, in the future, due to several factors. These factors include a predicted larger permanent remote workforce from this point forward and the growing number of digital-savvy millennials and Gen Z employees making up the workforce. All employers need to recognize the potential for a virtual walkout when developing strategies for a union-free workplace or engaging remote employees and in-building employees if the workforce is already unionized.

Empowering Influence of Technology

The SEIU has something called “Walkout Wednesday” and posts various videos and reports each Wednesday concerning union activity. Recently, the focus was on a virtual picket line of McDonald’s fast-food workers around the country. Employees walked off the job to demand paid sick and family leave, more access to PPE during the pandemic, and an end to sexual harassment. Inspired by concern over workplace health and safety issues, the demands quickly expanded. The video is powerful because it has real people talking about what they want. 

For example, Isaias Sapon said he is going on strike because “we need to get sick days; we need to get a vacation; we need a union for all.” Angelica Hernandez says McDonald’s does not have the capacity to help its workers work with dignity. Employees want respect, $15 per hour minimum wage, pandemic pay, more benefits, and enhanced health safety procedures and equipment. The video also includes a variety of SEIU representatives promising the union has their back now and always. Many of the employees spoke in Spanish, appealing to fellow fast-food workers across the country whose native tongue is Spanish. 

Virtual Walkouts

UnionProof has frequently discussed the value of video presentations that include employees talking about the reasons to stay union-free, how much they like their jobs, and their satisfaction with management. Videos and the union-free website are available in various languages, too, with Spanish being one of the top languages selected. Videos can also include managers discussing their pride in the workforce, the reasons union is unnecessary, and teamwork. When the SEIU is promoting virtual walkouts, their reasons are the exact opposite. They have employees discussing the value of joining a union, employee dissatisfaction with their jobs and working conditions, and how management takes advantage of its workers. The union representatives talk about their pride in union employees, the reasons unions are important, and the value of joining other workers to bring change. 

The McDonald’s virtual walkout was mostly over traditional issues like pay and benefits, with pandemic safety being the one unusual concern. However, employees are staging virtual walkouts for many non-traditional issues, taking employers by surprise. In June 2020, Facebook employees virtually walked out to socially protest the company’s lack of company response to President Trump’s posts concerning the death of George Floyd.

virtual walkout union organizing

One-Click Organizing

Whole Foods employees do not belong to a union, but a sick-out was formed from “online organizing of random employees who are concerned,” said Daniel Steinbrook, an employee at Whole Foods. This was an organic online organizing event held to demand hazard pay and improved health protections in response to the pandemic. Steinbrook went on to say that employees need to organize to protect themselves and stand up for themselves. The implication is that the strikes will extend into the future, and it won’t take a pandemic trigger. 

The virtual picket line isn’t new. In 2016, over 36,000 Verizon employees went on strike, represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). This virtual picket line demonstrated the power of using technology and social media. The unions set up a striking portal (standuptoverizon.com) that strikers and supporters could use to find picket lines, receive text and email updates, sign a solidarity petition, and complete other activities. There were embedded links to one-click sharing via Twitter and Facebook. The portal had images of the various picket lines with the intent of humanizing the strike. 

Forces at Work at Federal Level

In 2016, unions were struggling to stop further loss of members, but there are indications the trend is reversing since the number of certification elections has almost doubled each month since the COVID-19 pandemic started. There are some other events that are likely to work in favor of unions over the next four years. One is changes in laws, regulations, and even the NLRB makeup that are likely to occur under a new administration.

For example, the Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future talks about “creating millions of jobs with a choice to join a union” and environmental justice that includes “creating good, union, middle-class jobs” and developing economic recovery legislation to send to Congress that will focus on “making it easier for workers to organize a union and collectively bargain” by including the PRO Act and ending the “misclassification of workers as independent contractors.”

Federal Government Wants to Strengthen Union Organizing

Biden’s policies will strive to “strengthen union organizing, collective bargaining, and unions.” Under his Empower Unions and Workers section, he says he will “ensure federal contracts only go to employers who sign neutrality agreements committed no t to run anti-union campaigns.” He also plans on encouraging collective bargaining and hopes to ban right-to-work laws

Recognizing Biden can’t achieve all of these goals, it’s still clear that the federal government will actively encourage and support union organizing. Couple this with the fact there is likely going to be a permanent change in the composition of the workforce as a result of the pandemic. Global Workplace Analytics projects that 25-30 percent of the workforce will continue working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021. Unions actively encourage remote employees to organize virtually or work through the union to utilize technology to collaborate with in-house workers interested in organizing. 

social media union organizing

New Climate for Union Organizing 

If a prediction were to be made, it would be that virtual organizing and virtual picket lines will become increasingly common. In the emerging climate of union organizing, you must maintain open communication with employees. One of the most successful strategies for avoiding a union organizing campaign is to listen and respond to employee concerns in a timely manner. Remember to:

  • Include remote workers in all strategies to keep employees engaged (don’t let the “out of sight – out of mind” perspective develop among your leaders)
  • Proactively address continued COVID-19 safety concerns, which also includes remote workers because many will be required to come into the office periodically
  • Share the company’s perspective on unions, making truthful and legal statements concerning the drawbacks to unionizing (take your dark website live!)
  • Ensure all leaders communicating with in-house and remote workers are familiar with the dos and don’ts of communicating with employees
  • Regularly (not random one-off!) train managers and leaders in employee engagement
  • Treat the virtual employee-initiated non-union organizing effort just like it’s a union organizing campaign
  • Remember that approval of labor unions is running high, with Gallup finding 65 percent of people approving, so don’t make assumptions or fall into the trap of complacency based on the current low union membership

Staying on Top of Organizing

The ability to develop virtual walkouts is a new kind of power for employees who are experiencing low engagement or are dissatisfied with management. It’s crucial your leaders know how to engage employees, no matter where they work, and A Better Leader can make that process much easier. Couple leadership training with UnionProof tools that are designed to help employers stay union-free, and you will reduce your vulnerability to union organizing online and offline. 

About the author

Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a UnionProof culture. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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