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Marissa Oberlander/MEDILL

In Hyatt's recently released YouTube video, an actor outlines the company's position in the labor dispute with UNITE HERE Local 1 union.

An unlikely union: social media and labor relations

by Marissa Oberlander
Jan 12, 2011


Marissa Oberlander/MEDILL

The Hyatt video tells employees that the union is using them for their "national agenda."

Marissa Oberlander/MEDILL

How has social media affected the longest strike in America?

The growing use of social media such as Facebook, YouTube and viral flash mobs is changing the way employers and union members communicate in labor disputes.

Late last month, Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp. released a YouTube video directed at employees, entitled “Just The Facts: Hyatt Hotels in Chicago & Unite-Here,” about the company’s almost 17-month labor dispute with UNITE HERE Local 1 union.

In the video, an actor tells employees that the union is “using you as bargaining chips in a national agenda that has nothing to do with you or us or Chicago.  Enough is enough.”

According to national labor laws, employers cannot bargain directly with unionized employees.  To circumvent this prohibition, some managements are using the Internet to broadcast their positions.  Employers can use the web to bolster their image throughout a conflict and make general statements.  Organized labor can use the same media to advance its point of view. Though some find this an impersonal means of negotiation, others believe low-cost, viral publicity can bring global support from other unions or consumers connected to the company.

Hyatt has played the video repeatedly in Chicago hotel cafeterias and staff meetings where it has a “captive audience,” complained Annemarie Strassel, a representative of UNITE HERE Local 1.  She said that the video signals the hotel’s vulnerable position in the negotiations.

“It is pretty embarrassing that the company has to use a paid actor to communicate their message to their employees,” Strassel said, “The way that we communicate with workers is about building relationships and talking to one another directly.”

Patrick Donnelly, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Chicago, said the hotel used social media “to communicate the truth to our employees” and because “that’s where the union chooses to do their communication as well.”

“Employees, as expected, some are very tired of seeing the same message,” Donnelly said of the video’s frequent play within the hotel.

YouTube videos like Hyatt’s remain within the realm of labor law as long as they are not “directly appealing to employees to accept a certain proposal or proposition,” said Seth Borden, partner in the employer services group at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

Joseph Barker, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office in Chicago, said the board has not received any complaints about employers communicating with unionized employees through social media.

In May 2010, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 220 went on strike against applesauce and fruit juice maker Mott’s LLP, a subsidiary of Dr. Pepper Snapple Group Inc.  The conflict caught the attention of the entire company when the union posted its position along with negative brand images on the Mott’s corporate Facebook page.

The union also asked its supporters to download strike-themed labels from its website to place on Mott’s products in grocery stores, with the instructions not to cover the real Mott’s logo or text on the products.  One label included the words, “In 2009, Mott’s parent company made $555 million in profits.  Now they propose wage cuts of $1.50/hr.”

Mott’s executives eventually sued the union for trademark infringement and a federal judge prohibited further strike-related labels in August.  The UFCW ended the strike in September.

In San Francisco, members of the AFL-CIO group Pride at Work, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender economic and social justice organization, came together in a flash mob to protest an ongoing labor dispute regarding employee healthcare and contracts at the Westin St. Francis hotel.  The flash mob, defined as a group of people who meet to perform a planned activity and then disperse, performed a song and dance spoof of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” entitled “Don’t Get Caught in a Bad Hotel,” in the Westin lobby.

Filmed and then posted on YouTube, the flash event was planned to inform people flying in for San Francisco Gay Pride that the hotel was under boycott.  The performers sang, “Boycott!  Boycott!  Workers’ rights are hot!” and broadcasted workers’ demands throughout the hotel lobby through a bullhorn.

At the time of publishing, the video had nearly 300,000 views on YouTube and had been featured on news shows and numerous Facebook pages.

Labor attorney Borden sees social media technologies as an effective means of organizing labor and disseminating a message.

“On a very basic level, labor organizing consists of building a network around certain ideas or goals,” Borden said.  “Social networking sites allow a union organizer to short circuit what in the past may have taken months or years of legwork.”

Borden said he used to hear about union organizers who spent months in their cars visiting plants, finding out where employees gather and what was on their minds.  Today this information is readily available on union members’ Facebook pages, blogs or other created online communities.

“The management community on the whole has been very late to the phenomenon,” Borden said.

Scott Klososky, author of “Enterprise Social Technology,” said that social technologies in general provide “a few dynamics we’ve never seen before in humanity.”

Social media provide a new arsenal of methods for a company, organization or individual to communicate in ways that are free, fast, linkable and downloadable.  In the case of labor disputes, the volume of information available to the public is much greater, and can be used for good and bad, Klososky said.   

“There are times in labor disputes where people who have bad motives will sway the public with disinformation,” Klososky said, but “Social media can also provide a level of clarity on what’s going on in the world, industry, labor dispute, in a way that’s extremely positive.”

Looking forward, Klososky said the ability to rate, vote or comment on labor disputes across free social media platforms could increase the general public’s influence on the way disputes are mediated.

“Social media will change the nature of disputes, hopefully for the better and help them get solved faster,” Klososky said.