S02E09 - Social Networks and New Forms of Collective Action

S02E09 - Social Networks and New Forms of Collective Action

This is the second of the Wild Side podcasts’ addressing the impact of social networks on employee relations. In this episode, Host Alan Wild looks at non-traditional forms of collective action such as protests and disputes organized not through trade unions, but by employees orchestrating collective voice by leveraging social media tools. It also explores cases where employees have joined together to overturn agreements reached by untrusted trade unions. Are union-free companies immune to protests or strikes? This episode challenges outdated assumptions that haven't stood the test of time.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Examples of successful socially-driven protests that affected tech giants Google and Amazon. [1:34]

  • Why is socially driven collective action significant? [4:08]

  • Employee voice now has multiple channels. [7:07]

  • How companies can adapt to the new world of employee voice and employee listening. [11:18]


Hello. I’m Alan Wild and welcome to the Wild side podcast Managing employee relations in global and millennial times … 10 minutes at a time. Today is the second of two episodes dealing with the impact of social networks on employee relations today.  It deals with non-traditional forms of collective action … protest and strikes organized on social networks. 


Let’s start with an interesting quote;


 “I think what you do is you build enough power among the workers – among the people who are at risk from these practices – so they can consistently and persistently push back when this behaviour emerges.”


Sound like a trade union leader’s speech? No … this is Google worker Meredith Whittaker talking about the #Googlewalkout. 


Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union responded by saying


 “It is inspiring to see Google employees organizing their global workplace for equality and transparency.”


She doesn’t mention that a small group of motivated Googlers had achieved something that none of the world’s unions would have been able to organize.


More of that in a moment …  … as you know, I’m Alan Wild, senior adviser on global employee relations for the HR Policy Association … the leading voice of CHRO’s today. 


Maybe the # google walk out story is a good place to start.  


In January 2017 Google employees arranged a walkout on social networks to protest the President of the United States Executive Order on Immigration. The management of Google praised the action of their workforce in caring for the 150 or so Google “dreamers” … undocumented Google workers in the US. After this event – and in November 2018 - more than 20,000 Google workers staged a synchronized walkout that travelled in across the planet from Hong Kong and Tokyo, through Europe and into the United States, ending on the  West coast under the banner #GoogleWalkout. The protest was over the payment of a $90 million exit package to former executive Andy Rubin after a colleague accused him of sexual coercion … and Google found had her claim credible. It also contained several additional workers’ demands … some of which the company accepted. In January 2019 another social protest emerged building on one of the prior and unfulfilled demands. Google had already accepted not to use arbitration to deal with harassment claims. Now the demand was to eliminate arbitration altogether. It didn’t end there, and in February 2023 Googlers stopped work in Mountain View and New York City over working conditions and pay for subcontractors; and against layoffs of regular staff. In April 2023 stoppages took place over layoffs in London and Zurich. Employee activists in Germany started a series of requests to set up works councils. Whilst trade unions have welcomed and encouraged the actions, there is no evidence that they have played any actual role in the actions.


In the summer of 2022, the UK mainstream media reported a large number of stoppages in Amazon by employees disappointed by the announced pay increase in a context of high inflation. The strike activity quickly took on viral proportions via what’s app networks.  Whilst the trade unions were quick to claim an association with the strikes, none of them were organized or led by the unions. The union’s only organized strike in the Coventry area was poorly supported and ballots for action in two other sites were rejected.


Why is socially driven collective action significant? In the old world of labour relations …  when employees had problems they couldn’t fix with their boss, they raised them through their trade union representative.  It was assumed that if employees had real problems they could not readily fix then they would join trade unions … hence if there were no trade unions, there were no real employee issues.  Today … the way we increasingly live our lives outside of work on social networks means that employees now have another way to raise individual and collective issues … and to organize protests that damage not just the delivery of products and services but company reputation and employee engagement.


Many believe that #googlewalkout or similar events started in the high-tech sector were protests organized by privileged and tech savvy   workers uninterested in the regular trade union pay, benefits and representation offerings.  It is true that we have seen protests in companies like Microsoft, Google and IBM,  but this is not the entire story.


Strikes organized on social networks have been business as usual in China for more than ten years… ask Motorola, Honda, Nokia, Pepsi and IBM. In Brazil employees have used social networks to get the vote out in ballots on collective agreements struck by unions and reject them. Think also about the social network organized strike in Matamoros, Mexico in the Spring of 2019. A single lawyer – Susana Prieto – got 90,000 people on strike in 90 companies, against the advice of the trade unions and secured the famous or infamous 20/32 settlement … a 20% pay rise and 32,000 pesos bonus (about six months’ pay).  Prieto remains very active in Mexico with her own new trade union seeking to take advantage of the country’s new labour code. 


The thing these disputes have in common are that they either involve groups that are not organized in the traditional way … or are in companies where employees don’t trust the trade unions that claim to represent them.  The assumption that if employees had problems, they would join trade unions … is an out if date assumption. In fact, it is in companies where employees have not chosen organized labor or have no form of trusted “voice” in the workplace are most at risk … my tech example illustrates the point.  


Today there is no single channel for employee voice … and this is at a time when employee voice has never been more important.  The employee relations specialists meets the employee engagement specialist.  Tom Hayes and I came up with new language to describe these employee behaviours.


E-mocracy describes a world or workplace where emotions rather than majorities rule and feelings matter more than reason … high street habits have moved into the workplace;


I talked about the unintended activist last time out … people whose social commentary is amplified out of control and beyond their expectations.  Not only Susan Fowler at Uber, but also the member of admin staff at United Technologies who influenced the direction of the US Presidential election by posting video of a company town hall meeting where it was explained to employees that their jobs would move from the US Mid-West to Mexico.   


Objectionism  … in most parts of the world there are rules around the issues employees can raise either individually or collectively … normally restricted to employment conditions.   What has happened is that social protests have morphed into other areas … pressuring CEOs to oppose US government immigration regulations; or to change the products they make or the clients they sell them to. Employee pressure on environmental issues are fertile ground. We see the Make Amazon pay initiative blending environment, fiscal issues, global competition and labour rights. 


Pop up stores are a central part of today’s retail experience.  Like the pop up store, the Pop up protest arises out of an immediate event that gets traction with employees, uses no formal on ongoing organization, is cheap to organize and is fun and fulfilling to participate in.


The #walkout is the new version of “out brothers out”.  I wonder how successful these walkouts would have been if they were advertised as strikes?  After all a #walkout is not an act of aggression but a collective action involving like-minded friends seeking to produce a better and fairer society. It still damages the company though ….


If Clicktivism was where this started … supportive “likes” … then “Apptivism” is where collective actions are built on Apps like Wiebo in China and What’s App in the West.  The App is what moves people from their seat to the car park … … but only for a short time … and if it’s fun and convenient.


So what have we learned?


  • Some socially driven actions are well planned and orchestrated … and these you can often see coming and plan for; BUT
  • Not all viral social media posts are deliberate attempts to disrupt and can take on a life of their own and this is where listening is so important;
  • Innocent posts can be hi-jacked by activists and the media … and used to amplify traditional trade union campaigns.  In the US the trade union campaign “#fightfor15” minimum wage claim for service workers captured public and political interest not through regular strikes but through socially networked promotions. 
  • Lawyers trawl social media sites for clients … … and “e-mocracy” is played out in the public domain.  We have seen the use of social monitoring to identify and mobilize potential class action suits in the US ….  “Fired because you are too old? Has your employer behaved badly? … we are looking for cases to represent you jointly”.  

So where is this going?


First … Companies need to be particularly careful in places where they have no employee representative bodies or where employees don’t trust the ones they have.

They also need to be careful where existing systems to raise and resolve issues are not trusted, or simply unattractive … all of the advice on that is on my earlier podcast. Net the listening and trust deficit needs to be addressed. 

Second …  protest actions have not been limited to actions on pay and benefits … the evidence is that they have moved from employment related complaints to complaints about what the company makes, where it makes it, who it sells it to … and what it is used for.  In most countries, laws permit people to organize for better terms and conditions … but what about actions that damage the company reputation or bring it into disrepute. Employees have a right to be listened to … but they are not an exclusive voice.  But they are not the only stakeholder … communities, shareholders and national interests all play a role here.  You probably can’t shut the noise down … but employees need to be made aware how they can raise these issues and how the company will take account of their views.

Finally, employees are increasingly exercising their influence on political issues … in the US abortion, black lives matter, immigration and most recently the Arab Israeli conflict. We should expect the wave of non-wage protests will grow on environment issues and activity in the company value chain.

Trade unions are the vehicle of employee voice that we have become used to responding to … and we’ve worked for years building a strong ecosystem to respond to this.  It’s no surprise that we have seen very little social unrest in countries and companies with well-established and trusted representative systems. That said … trade unions no longer have monopoly of voice … and they may not even be the preferred or trusted vehicle today and many places.  We need a new set of rules for a new world.  

I hope you enjoyed my attempt to introduce you to the new world of employee voice and employer listening.  If you want to learn more about what we do or participate in one of our formal programs you can get me on [email protected] or on Linked In.


I’m Alan Wild and you have been listening to “a walk on the wild side”.