Identity

TikTok Union Memes Are the Antidote to Instagram Slacktivism

Organizers who are passionate about unions are stirring workers into action, one TikTok trend at a time.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
May 7, 2021, 12:00pm
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Courtney Scott joined TikTok in March 2020 for the same reason a lot of people did—they were bored in quarantine and looking for ways to pass the time indoors. The 35-year-old professional organizer didn’t join the app intending to spend most of their time talking about unions on the platform—but when they noticed a lack of content on the subject, even under the broad umbrella of “Left TikTok,” they decided to fire off a few clips on the subject under the explains-it-all username @thatuniondyke for their 10,000 followers.

Now, they said they regularly chat with people who’ve seen their videos and want to learn more about how unions work and how to start one.  “I put out a survey that was like, ‘If anyone ever wants to get involved with opportunities to learn to become an organizer, fill out this form,’ and 80 people filled it out,” Scott told VICE. “It wasn't super long form, but it certainly made them think—they had to talk about why they wanted to become an organizer and stuff like that. When I told my employer that, they were like, Sorry, how many people?!” Scott went on to connect respondents with other union organizers in order to follow up on that initial commitment, and while they haven’t been able to track every single person’s progress, they’re still blown away at the power of the platform to translate into real-life organizing.

TikTok and unions might not feel like the most natural pairing, at least not based on the stereotypical user—say, a homebound high schooler who wears shirts made out of safety pins, rolls their eyes at skinny jeans, and knows more about eye makeup and looking photogenic on camera than anyone over the age of 25 ever will. But according to the people who devote their time to making pro-union content on the platform, there’s definitely an audience hungry for concrete change—like the kind a union can provide for its members.

“Socialist theory feels super cool to talk about, but it’s largely unattainable,” Scott said. “Whereas a union contract is like, a super attainable thing in our current society.” In the decade they’ve been working in labor, they said they’ve watched as public opinion around unions has warmed up and people have grown more curious about organizing their own workplaces—and now, they’ve seen that popularity translate into real connections forged via TikTok. 

“People want advice, and they come to me, and I'll do one on ones on Zoom with people for free,” they said. “It’s a nice way to branch out outside of my paid work which is very niche—yeah, I want to talk to nurses who want to organize, I'm not organizing nurses, but I want to talk to them, like ‘Let’s figure it out, let me help you find resources.’ I’ve talked to people like retail workers about how they can fight even when they don't have a union, how you can win things against your boss, what does collective action look like? I love organizing, I think everyone should have a union and I want to give people the advice that they're not going to get.”

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Honda Wang, who posts explainers on a variety of lefty subjects like housing justice, labor, Marxism, the Democratic Socialists of America, and mutual aid on his TikTok page for his 26,100 followers, said he sees the thirst for pro-union educational content as a reflection of the conditions young workers often find themselves in. 

“For many of these people, their first interactions with employment are in the service industry, in these places where you're being regimented into all these rules and regulations and restrictions and you don't feel like you have a voice,” Wang told VICE. “With a platform like TikTok, people want to be able to express themselves, to have a voice in their own lives, and that desire for democracy and expression extends to the workplace as well. Being able to exercise your power as a part of a union is something that is really appealing to young people, because in most of their lives—and all of our lives under a capitalist society—we just feel the dictatorship of our workplace bearing down upon us the moment we clock in.”

Wang said he thinks union-related content like the clips he posted to the platform from the Hunt’s Point Produce Market strike back in January, including footage from a speech by AOC on the importance of unions, struck a chord with TikTok users who may have stumbled upon them unintentionally because it stands out in stark contrast to the kind of activist or organizing-related content typical to other social media platforms. 

“A lot of activism [online] is just about signing petitions, retweeting something, stuff like that. There has been enough of that sort of activism over these past few years on these other platforms, especially Instagram—there's the trope of Instagram infographics being shared on stories as a form of ‘slacktivism,’” he said. “Now, there is a real desire to be told, ‘This is how you actually change things in society. This is how you build power from the bottom up.’ I think TikTok was just the right platform at the right time for these types of politics.”

While Wang and Scott are both union members, and Scott is actually employed by a union, neither of them make content that represents their organizations—but not everyone in Union TikTok is spreading the word to workers pro-bono. Traditional labor giants have also jumped on the bandwagon. “TikTok is a fantastic tool for rallying people around exciting ideas, so it's no wonder unions and activists within the labor movement are breaking through,” Kalina Newman, Eastern regional communications coordinator for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)—the biggest confederation of trade unions in the United States—told VICE. 

Though the AFL-CIO’s account is relatively new (and “small but mighty”), Newman said the 66-year-old labor federation, which represents more than 12 million,700,000 workers nationwide, is committed to the platform as a tool for getting the word out about all the good things unions can do. “America's labor movement is reaching young workers where they are, educating folks about unions and sparking a conversation about the changes we want to see in our workplaces,” she said. “We want to get the message out to as many young workers as possible that unions remain the single best tool for addressing income inequality and turning bad jobs into good ones.”

And when unions are keyed into what’s already popular on the platform, they can even find an accidental audience. Irene Kim, a video producer at the publication Insider and a part of the Insider Union’s initial drive, said the biggest asset she and her fellow Insider Union TikTokers have on the platform is fluency in TikTok’s complex meme ecosystem. “You don't have to understand every single niche and genre of TikTok and be on top of all the trends, but if you're just on the app, you will find something that you think is funny and like, so then you'll know what to translate over.” 

Kim said Insider Union initially joined TikTok in order to make memes to crosspost and better publicize its union drive, but found the content she and her fellow Insider Union TikTokers were making resonated far beyond its intended audience. Understanding how to make a video that coherently translates the definition of at-will employment onto the “$19 Fortnite Card” trend means being able to actually connect with the app’s regular user base—and winning the support of the relentlessly online TikTok community, garnering just under 5,000 followers in the process. 

“We just got a wave of supportive comments on our TikTok, but also on the official Insider TikToks, because the company has a couple of profiles,” she said. “And on the Insider ones, we saw massive amounts of comments supporting our union and telling Insider to recognize our union. That was such a heartwarming display of public support from our readers and viewers.”

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