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A new generation of young workers is engaging with trade unions and strike action through social media, says a new study

Ongoing research led by Wil Chivers and colleagues from Cardiff University has investigated the prevalence and patterns of social media use by the labour movement. Twitter has become a vital tool to attract support for issues including fair pay and better working conditions, their study suggests. 

The findings will be shared as part of an event entitled ‘Trade Union Organising Through Social Media’ on 9 November for trade union members, activists and officials. The event is part of the ESRC’s flagship annual Festival of Social Science and is supported by the Wales TUC.

Professor Jennifer Rubin, ESRC Executive Chair, said: "The Festival of Social Science is one of the largest coordinated endeavours undertaken by a science community and demonstrates ESRC's commitment to public engagement. We know social scientists and economists value the opportunity to talk with the public to make an impact with their work. These events should inspire young people to pursue a career in social sciences and raise awareness about the impact made to wider society."

The research analysed the ‘McStrike’ campaign targeting McDonald’s in London and Cambridge, and the countrywide dispute at TGI Fridays both earlier this year. 

It found that social media networks played a key role in a strategy to raise awareness about the action against McDonald’s backed by the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU), and at TGI Fridays supported by Unite. 

“These strikes are hoping to draw in a new generation of trade union members,” said Dr Chivers, who is based at the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD). 

“Social media has been a crucial component of a strategy attempting to raise awareness of these disputes involving low paid workers, and the issues they’re challenging employers about. 

“This fledgling movement differs to those before partly because most young people in the workforce have experienced low pay. Their thirst for change has been recognised by trade unions who are capitalising on it. They realise the potential for astute social media users to increase the influence of their campaigns, and to reach a wider audience.” 

The rise of the gig economy and zero hours contracts have been blamed in part for the decline in people joining trade unions. The latest figures available show membership stood at just over six million in the UK in 2017- a fall of 275,000 in a year. Trade unions are therefore eager to find new ways of attracting recruits.

The aim of the research was to identify the main groups driving the industrial action, and those with the most influential role in promoting the flow of information via social media. 

For the McStrike campaign, the researchers collected more than 90,000 tweets including retweets with the #Mcstrike hashtag. This was for the week before and after the strike. The figure for TGI Fridays is 17,700 tweets to date with hashtags including #AllEyesOnTGIs.

The study highlights how unions are using social media in an attempt to revitalise themselves and build a broader movement including the service sector, according to Dr Chivers. 

Content for the McStrike campaign came from more than 46,000 (46,247) different users whose preference was for images and personal stories of workers involved in the action. A similar pattern has so far been observed for the TGI Fridays strike, with images or videos of workers on the picket line dominating.

This focus was part of a deliberate strategy, said Dr Chivers, to encourage other workers in insecure jobs to act against their own employers. The mutual support between the McDonald’s and TGI Fridays’ strikes, as well as those in other sectors, suggests they are starting to build on the success of cross-sector campaigns.

He added: “Protestor’s tweets were shared (retweeted) thousands of times creating a dense online network. This network spread far beyond those directly involved in the protests on the ground. The model behind this type of campaign is one that can be replicated across different industries and countries.” 

Notes for editors

  • ESRC research: Trade unions and social media
  • Event details: Trade union organising through social media / Defnyddio'r cyfryngau cymdeithasol mewn undeb llafur

    Location: Cardiff. Date: 9 November 2018. Time: 09:30 - 12:00

    In September 2017 workers from two McDonald’s restaurants went on strike – the first industrial action since the restaurant chain opened in the UK in the 1970s. Staff from the restaurant chain TGI Friday’s have also recently gone on strike, in the UK's first dispute over tipping. What are the causes of these strikes, and how have they been organised?

    At this event, academics from Cardiff University will discuss the findings of their current research into the recent strikes by McDonald’s and TGI Friday’s employees in the UK. The researchers have been following the progress of these strikes as they have developed over the last nine months, online and at the picket lines. Their findings indicate that these strikes are drawing in a new generation of trade union members, and that social media have played a crucial role in raising awareness of the strikes and the issues they are challenging.

    The workshop is designed for trade union officials and activists who want to develop their understanding of the strategic use of social media in trade union organising. 
  • The sixteenth annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 3—10 November 2018 with over 300 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the festival provides an opportunity for the public to meet some of the country’s leading social scientists to discover, discuss and debate how research affects their lives. With a range of creative and engaging events going on across the UK, there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. The full programme is available at: Catch up and join in on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  • The Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD) is a national, interdisciplinary, social science research institute. They have been designated by the Welsh Government as a national research centre and are an ESRC investment. Using innovative approaches, their research spans the fields of economics, sociology, geography and political science. They are a collaborative venture between the universities of Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, South Wales and Swansea – working together to improve the quality and quantity of social science research in Wales and beyond.


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