Why you should care
Because a sagging union movement might be saved by getting smart on social media.
Jeremy Poxon was underemployed, confounded by bureaucracy and losing hope. Like many young Australians struggling to find a way into the job market after graduating, Poxon turned to the country’s welfare provider, Centrelink, to access paltry benefits to help pay the bills. It didn’t feel great.
He had no expectations from the current conservative Liberal government, accused of demonizing the unemployed and underemployed through controversial policies including refusals to raise unemployment and disability benefits and a plan to enforce drug tests on welfare recipients. Where Poxon soon found sympathy — and solidarity — was in left-wing communities online that are challenging the notion that welfare beneficiaries are a dysfunctional drain on the country.
Those online conversations led Poxon to the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU), an organization established in 2014 but with deep roots in labor history dating back to mass unemployment in Depression-era Australia. He now volunteers there — and is an example of the way Australia’s sagging union movement is increasingly trying to reinvent itself. Once a powerhouse of Australian political life with a legacy so vital to the country it is part of history curricula, unions in Australia have been unable to buck the global trend of declining memberships. Each successive generation is less and less inclined to join a union, but for millennial activists it has never been more important for young people to be involved — and they know just how to get them, riding on online discussions, debates and platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Finding that sort of narrative and being part of that community is really empowering.
Jeremy Paxon, underemplowed worker and labor unionist
The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) is leading the charge. With a history dating back to the 1850s, the union looks after workers in the manufacturing sector, from food production to car manufacturing, and has built a reputation for leading some of the most effective campaigns in the contemporary labor movement. Handing over the reins of the official Twitter account to millennial activist Georgia Kriz may have been the organization’s savviest move yet. With Kriz at the helm, the account reached bona fide cult status in early 2016 when it began utilizing memes and the endemic language of the internet to discuss workplace relations. While many an organization has tried and failed — often going viral for the wrong reasons — the authenticity saw the account find engagement rarely reached in Australian digital campaigning.
The Young Workers Centre, based in Victoria, uses social media to draw millennial Australians to its battle against casualization of the workforce and several high-profile cases of wage theft over the last 18 months. And Poxon may never have joined the labor movement had he not found like-minded individuals online.
“Finding that sort of narrative and being part of that community is really empowering,” he says. “It’s not an opinion you see often. I was living in country Australia and didn’t have many outwardly leftie activist friends, so I wasn’t seeing much of an opinion which doesn’t put all the pressure on the job-seeker.”
For sure, social media is no replacement for traditional campaign tactics, say union leaders. But it is already proving impactful.
Heading into the Australian summer, 140 AMWU members working at the Streets ice cream factory in Minto, New South Wales, faced a 46 percent pay cut. Negotiations between the company, owned by multinational giant Unilever, and the union broke down in late October. AMWU urged its 10,000 Twitter followers and 20,000 Facebook fans to boycott Streets products, including the iconic Paddle Pops and Golden Gaytimes, which melt down the wrist of every Australian over summer. “We were locking in for a really long campaign and then there was this huge online response we didn’t quite expect,” George Simon, also a campaigner with AMWU, says. “This really tapped into a broader sense of inequality and corporate greed.”
The Young Workers Centre uses photos of its activists hitting the streets in protest to galvanize attention to issues that affect young workers — whether wage theft or safety issues. It’s more important than ever for young workers to know their rights, media officer Amy Fitzgerald says. The Centre also monitors discussions online at Reddit and popular local forum Whirlpool to direct users experiencing workplace problems to its legal team.
And the AUWU helps decode the “labyrinthine language used on government websites” to assist those underemployed or unemployed, says Poxon.
Fundamental challenges persist. Union membership continues to decline in Australia, with the latest figures reflecting an overall drop in blue-collar jobs as they head overseas. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found an almost 5 percent drop in public sector workers who are members of a union between 2013 and 2016, with an all-time low of 38.5 percent. Political opposition remains strong too. The current minister for jobs in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government, Michaelia Cash, has accused the AUWU of actively keeping members out of employment.
But converting the supporters into members is not necessarily the goal of social media–based campaigning, says AMWU’s Simon — or necessary to be effective. Look no further than the campaign to boycott an iconic ice cream brand. “For most young people it was likely their first ever participation in a union campaign, and you can’t buy that,” he adds.
The AMWU was surprised by the response, Kriz says. Facing a long summer of muted sales, Streets announced a wage offer in late November, getting the Minto plant back to work and Paddle Pops into the hands of thousands of holidaying Australians. “Now,” says Kriz, “people can see what the Australian union movement can do.”