Union organizing has shifted from the factory floor to TikTok and YouTube, where a new generation of workers in coffee shops and fast food restaurants are harnessing the power of social media to fight for better working conditions and higher pay.
The nation’s union membership continued its decades-long decline in 2021, falling half of a percent, to 10.3% of the workforce. The largest federation of labor unions, the AFL-CIO, which once boasted nearly 20 million members, has shrunk to 12.3 million members.
Baristas, warehouse workers and fast-food clerks are bucking the decline by organizing smaller unions without much initial help from big labor groups. Instead, these union start-ups are relying on social media to gain traction and grow membership.
To find out where America’s labor movement is headed, check your Twitter, Instagram or TikTok account, where short video clips show a labor movement in full swing.
In Kansas City, minute-long video clips on TikTok captured Taco Bell workers walking off the job, and employees at a pizza shop in South Carolina on strike in demand of higher pay. Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts, has become the first store in the company to unionize. A video clip informed viewers in August of the union breakthrough in Massachusetts, while another brief video captures Trader Joe’s workers in Boulder, Colorado, handing flyers in their bid to unionize.
Many of the videos are posted by Faiz Shakir, who ran the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernard Sanders, a socialist and pro-union independent. Mr. Shakir now runs the nonprofit More Perfect Union, which he describes as a video journalism and advocacy platform focused on issues facing American workers and their efforts to unionize.
It’s funded by liberal philanthropists, including George Soros.
“We built this with a thesis of giving the stories of the working class, by the working class, and for the working class,” Mr. Shakir, 42, told The Washington Times. “We basically let people tell their stories. We don’t script anybody. Or we find the stories of workers who are trying to build power for themselves in their own workplaces.”
Mr. Shakir started the platform in February 2021. Since the launch, videos of workers he’s posted on TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram got more than 108 million views and 736 million impressions and have helped to reignite the labor movement in America.
“In a year and a half since we started, it has grown like wildfire in a way that I could never really have anticipated, where people are taking inspiration from each other,” Mr. Shakir said.
He said his media platform helped spread the union effort within Starbucks by emboldening workers in other stores to organize through the power of social media.
The first Starbucks union was formed in Buffalo in December 2021. Mr. Shakir was invited by the workers there to cover the effort, and he posted frequent video content on TikTok and other platforms throughout the process.
As of early September, 233 Starbucks shops have voted to unionize and 214 have been certified.
“We’ve been on the ground floor of Starbucks organizing, and have been ever since,” Mr. Shakir said. His platform publicized the efforts to unionize at the Apple store in Towson, Maryland, Trader Joe’s, REI and other retail outlets.
Workers are turning to him, rather than help from big unions, Mr. Shakir said, “because they feel like we are trying to tell their story, rather than a national union story.”
National unions have no intention of fading away. AFL-CIO President Liz Schuler on Thursday told reporters in Washington that she aims to expand the nation’s largest union by one million members through a new program called the Center for Transformational Organizing.
“Our baseline goal is to organize a million new workers,” Ms. Schuler told reporters at the Christian Science Monitor newsmaker breakfast. “It’s where we’ll get out of our silos and build a movement that is taking on very specific goals together, and particularly in nonunion areas of the economy, like gig work, like Amazon, like the clean energy economy.”
Mr. Shakir, however, has already been working with pro-union Amazon workers for more than a year to help expand the effort to organize warehouse labor.
The first videos and tweets posted by Shakir outlined the working conditions at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and the attempts by Amazon executives to stop workers there from unionizing.
“These workers organizing for better job conditions, mostly Black, are in Bessemer, AL.,” Mr. Skakir tweeted in February 2021.
Workers at the warehouse have twice narrowly voted against unionizing. Amazon has since been accused of illegally interfering in the elections but denies it.
Shakir tweeted screenshots of anti-union signs posted in warehouse toilet stalls and posted a video charging Amazon with forcing workers into anti-union meetings. He tweeted that Amazon management was “texting them up to 5x daily, putting messages in bathrooms, even changing traffic light patterns to harm union organizing.”
Starbucks’ unions, meanwhile, have yet to employ their bargaining muscle with company executives.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said in June he will never negotiate with Starbucks Workers United and has denied new benefits and raises to union workers that the company has provided to non-union stores.
“Federal law prohibits us from promising new wages and benefits at stores involved in union organizing,” Mr. Schultz said during an earnings call “By law, we cannot implement unilateral changes at stores that have a union.”
Casey Moore, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo, New York, and a member of Starbucks Workers United, told The Times that TikTok and Twitter are helping workers in the fight to win a contract.
“Social media has kind of changed the game,” Ms. Moore said.
Starbucks union workers frequently post pro-union content and used it to advertise “sip ins” scheduled for Labor Day, and other events to boost their cause.
They have been quick to report the company’s union-busting efforts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, which has hurt the progressive image Starbucks has cultivated and angered some customers.
“I don’t think Starbucks knows what to do with us,” Ms. Moore said. “We just blast it on social media. And it’s not only informing workers about what’s going on, it’s also exposing it to the public.”