2016, Vol. 23(5) 639â€“656
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Striking with social media: The
contested (online) terrain of
Middlesex University London, UK
Uppsala University, Sweden
In this article, we review the workplace battleground and explore the potential of social media
for mobilizing social movements in labour conflicts and beyond. By conducting a case study
with empirical accounts obtained from the 2010â€“2011 British Airways cabin crew dispute in
the United Kingdom, along with secondary sources, we discern social media in the workplace
as a contested field. Inquiring into the unfolding dynamic of social media and workplace conflict,
we investigate the mobilizing prospects of theoretical concepts like â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ and
â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ through the analytical prism of our interviews. Our analysis of these
empirical accounts will tease out certain empowering potentials in the use of social media to
shape discourse and mobilise movement. However, we also note that these same communicative
actions may challenge internal union authority, generate counter-mobilising efforts and constitute
an integral part in exposing both our private and working lives to the processes of marketisation
Social media, social movements, trade unions, workplace conflict
The advent of social media has enhanced debates on the effects of information and communication
technology (ICT) in the workplace. New forms of web-based communication (WBC) such as those
Rickard Grassman, Industrial Technology, Uppsala University, LÃ¤gerhyddsv. 4, 751 50 Uppsala, Sweden.
Email: [email protected]
598248 ORG0010.1177/1350508415598248OrganizationUpchurch and Grassman
640 Organization 23(5)
associated with Internet-based email discussion forum (Web 1.0) or with interactive social media,
blogs and Wikis (Web 2.0), undoubtedly demand empirical recalibration to inform social theory
and better account for these emergent â€˜virtualâ€™ spaces.
The history of such technologies is very recent, and experience of evaluating effects more tenuous as a consequence. The first text message was sent and received just over 20 years ago. Hypertext
first enabled WBC, and was created in 1989, the Google search engine appeared on the scene in
1998, Facebook in 2004 and YouTube in 2005. Twitter was launched in 2006, but now records over
500million daily tweets, while Facebook recorded its one-billionth user in October 2012. In the
light of such proliferation, the usefulness of social media in facilitating or even inspiring social
movements from below becomes all the more imperative, in and beyond the workplace. Indeed,
recent geo-political developments have generated a wide array of voices that now place emphasis
on the significant role that social media played in unleashing the viral spread of popular dissent in
the Arab Spring (e.g. Mason, 2012; Rane and Salem, 2012), and in other arenas of struggle around
This is not to say that one can draw any simple analogies from these events to the potential that
these technologies may serve in mobilizing power within workplace conflicts. One needs to tread
carefully and not let the impact of the technologies eclipse the way they are embedded with, and
dependent on the social actors and agendas that they communicate and help mobilise. In other
words, the revolutionising effect that these technologies appear to have on revolution itself may
displace the perception of political causality from content to medium. Paraphrasing Marshall
McLuhanâ€™s famous dictum, Bimber (1998) makes this point crystal clear, â€˜the medium is not the
whole messageâ€™ (p. 136). In other words, an exaggerated emphasis on technology as the driving
force behind social movements might accentuate a reluctance to appreciate content, as in the actual
issues and grievances under dispute. Posed against such â€˜techno-centrismâ€™, Fuchs (2012a) derides
explanations of riots and rebellions in which social media is perceived as the engine, claiming it to
represent a â€˜fetishism of things â€¦ a deterministic instrumental ideology that substitutes thinking
about society with a focus on technologyâ€™ (p. 386).
Of particular interest within these debates is the role and potential of social media to transform
and even revitalise workersâ€™ collective action and organisation against the employer. Much has
been written on trade union use of the web, either as a tool for organising or as a vehicle by which
existing power relations (such as employer and union leaderships) can be challenged (Cockfield,
2005; Hogan and Greene, 2002; Martinez Lucio and Walker, 2005; Mosco, 2014).
In our review of the workplace battleground through the lens of social media impact, we observe
concepts such as â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ and â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ (Bimber, 1998; Greene et al.,
2003). Distributed discourse essentially captures the way in which social media, with its wide
accessibility and facility to interact, may distribute power by means of democratising the tools of
discourse framing (Greene et al., 2003). According to Greene et al. (2003), these developments
may have an impact within union decision-making, as much as against the dispute adversary in the
workplace conflict. In a similar vein, accelerated pluralism draws on the radical increase in access
and interactivity provided by social media, but rather points towards the lowering of barriers this
may entail, not just in ordering discourse but in mobilizing a plurality of grievances into separate
and/or consolidated social movements (Bimber, 1998). In this article, we explore these concepts
through relevant empirical findings derived from a case study of workplace relations at British
Airways (BA) during the 2010â€“2011 cabin crew dispute.
Before we turn to this dispute, let us sum up the introduction by outlining the way we situate
these accounts theoretically in the article. First, we introduce the theoretical backdrop of the workplace as contested terrain in association with social media by focussing on the following points. We
suggest there is some evidence from our case that social media can act to enhance collective
Upchurch and Grassman 641
workplace action by aiding processes of both distributed discourse and accelerated pluralism.
However, the possibilities of challenging hierarchies and power-based structures within unions are
constrained within the democratic decision-making processes of the unions. Moreover, in the section on â€˜counter-mobilisationâ€™, we consider how employers may undermine mobilizing efforts
using social media as an instrument of surveillance against trade unions and individual employees.
Second, in a brief methodology section describing the research process, we unpack the practical
and contextual aspects associated with our empirical inquiry. Most importantly, our case study and
its empirical analysis provide an important contribution to the understanding of social media and
social movements in relation to trade unions.
A promised land for worker collectivisation?
The usefulness of ICT to aid and enhance prospects for collectivisation of worker action through
trade unions has generated considerable debate (Hogan and Greene, 2002; Mosco, 2014). The
earlier debates on Web 1.0 Internet networking generally offered an optimistic view for worker
collective action. The tendency to inflate the value of Internet technology as the engine of movements possibly reflected a body of thought emphasising the autonomous and voluntarist processes
by which transformative change takes place. In particular, Castells, both in his monumental trilogy,
The Information Age ( 2000), and his more recent Networks of Outrage and Hope (2012),
places ICT as the root of modern social change, whereby the â€˜netâ€™ replaces hierarchies as the dominant form of social organisation, and the individual constructs her self-identity within the same
technologically based process.
For Hardt and Negri (2000), industrial production has been â€˜informationalisedâ€™ and incorporated into â€˜communication technologiesâ€™ (p. 285), â€˜ â€¦ in a way that transforms the production
process itselfâ€™. We might argue that Hardt and Negri sidestep not only the material basis for change,
but also the importance of the agents of change, historically rooted in class formation and contestation. Kevin Doogan, in New Capitalism, thus describes such side-stepping as an academic expression of dematerialisation, whereby the â€˜deathâ€™ of distance and time lends to the concept of a
weightless world, in which there is a separation of motion and matter. In such a vision, we appear
to move beyond techno-centrism into a world where the transmission of knowledge becomes a
fetish in itself. This is despite, as Doogan (2009) argues, the salient fact that â€˜the production and
consumption of knowledge remains materialist even if its circulation is immaterialâ€™ (p. 50).
We suggest that notwithstanding the pessimism of the efficacy of the promised land of a
â€˜weightless worldâ€™, the continued optimism for the reinvigoration of collective action has been
based on two key propositionsâ€”that of â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ and the associated possibility of
mobilisation effects achieved through processes of â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™. We deal with each of
these aspects below.
Distributed discourseâ€”a weapon for or against the union?
Optimists in the debate have focussed on the alleged benefits of e-collectivism (Hogan and
Greene, 2002) or cyber-unionism (Freeman and Rogers, 2002; Hogan et al., 2010; Shostak, 1999).
This is because of the open access to the web that is (seemingly) outside the control of the
employer and the state. This open access is enhanced by its speed of application, and its increasing user-friendliness combined with ever-increasing computer literacy in developed and, increasingly in, developing economies. East Africa, for example, received its first broadband connection
in 2009. By 2011, 74% of the population in Europe had access to the Internet compared to 27%
in Asia and the Pacific, and only 13% in Africa (International Telecommunications Union, 2013).
642 Organization 23(5)
The speed and growing universality allows a compression of time and space which could counter
the advantage of employers in distributing information from a particular workplace to possibly
even a global dimension, and thus open a new public sphere for more horizontal communicative
action (cf. Habermas, 1989).
For trade unions, from an optimistic perspective, Shostak (1999) presented a scenario whereby
they are encouraged to â€˜get on boardâ€™ the new information super highway, promising a future
which â€˜enables unions to improve their image and vision of a successful 21st century union,
including long-term goals, strategic options and priorities needed to come closer to matching their
profileâ€™ (p. 125). This nirvana of trade union Internet professionalism would be achieved through
regular surveys of membersâ€™ opinions â€˜to learn in depth their needs and wants, their dreams and
nightmaresâ€™ and to learn from the rank-and-file by regular email correspondence with union officers that â€˜promises personal responses within 72 hoursâ€™ (Shostak, 1999: 113). Cyber-unionism was
also the promised vehicle not only for enhancing the unionâ€™s communications approach and
sharpening debate about industrial strategy, but also a link to a new wave global internationalism
and a reinvigoration of the rank-and-file. A foremost advocate of Internet internationalism is Eric
Lee, who established LabourStart in 1997 and had 500 subscribers a year later. The purpose of the
site was to provide a source of information and campaigning for global labour concerns and disputes. By 2010, the site had over 60,000 subscribers and was offered in 23 language editions with
an average of 250 stories per day. PayPal is now used for solidarity fund raising. Alongside
LabourStart, similar sites have emerged across the world such as Radio Labour, Labor Notes and
UnionBook, some endorsed officially by trade union federations, and some independent initiatives from labour activists.
The open nature allows for possibilities of â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ both within and beyond the
workplace (Greene et al., 2003). This perspective presents opportunities for collective action from
below to be enhanced by the networked effect of providing counter-information and campaigning
against the hegemony wielded by global capital:
Global organization and coordination need no longer be solely the province of large companies,
governments and international agencies. Global communication is now a routine everyday practice and it
provides for a new speed or velocity in campaigning and bargaining â€¦ (Hogan et al., 2010: 29)
It is claimed that such distributed discourse has the power to upset power relations within the
trade unions as rank-and-file networks can utilise the web to challenge the bureaucratic conservatism of trade union leaderships. An oft-quoted example is the case of the Liverpool dockers, and their use of the Internet to create solidarity networks beyond the shores of the United
Kingdom. Carter et al. (2003: 295) followed earlier work by Hazen (1993) in utilising the discourse of language and power embraced in the concept of polyphony, â€˜â€¦ the discourses of the
oppressed and the excluded will automatically be â€œsources of change, since they are different
from the discourses of powerâ€â€™ (p. 21). In doing so, they were adopting Foucauldian theory
(1972) linking language, discourse and power in an â€˜order of discourseâ€™. This perspective argues
that discourse is constructed and contained through existing power structures. Thus, upsetting
the pattern and mode of discourse â€˜from belowâ€™ may act to challenge power and authority transmitted â€˜from aboveâ€™.
The way in which distributed discourse in terms of social media accessibility and its concomitant wide global reach may be used as a weapon by the union against the dispute adversary is
perhaps rather clear in light of the above. But let us also consider how it may be a challenge to the
very leadership within the union itself. If one agrees that the order of discourse in trade unions is
in large part constructed by union leaders and expressed through channels of communication that
Upchurch and Grassman 643
reinforce hierarchical authority and the centralisation of power, it would follow that alternative
voices and discourses of struggle conveyed through social media may be equally challenging and
subversive of union leadership and its formalised structures of communication (see also Ward and
In terms of collective workplace action and solidarity, we must assess the ability of WBC to
transcend not just the content but more importantly the form of power and authority in trade unions
(Martinez Lucio, 2003; Martinez Lucio and Walker, 2005). In a recent review of trade union use of
the Internet more generally, Richards (2010) concludes that trade union members are â€˜more intense
users of ICTs than their non-unionised counterpartsâ€™ (p. 10). However, the open and unmediated
nature of social media is likely to be at odds with the principle of internal union bureaucratised
democracy. In other words, the â€˜horizontalistâ€™ forms of distributing the means of expression and the
framing of discourse endemic to social media may clash directly with the particularly â€˜verticalistâ€™
committee-level based conventions of union decision-making (see also Saundry et al., 2007).
Accelerated pluralismâ€”from discourse to movement
In addition to distributing the means of discourse, it has been argued that the Internet may enhance
revitalisation of trade unions through â€˜mobilisationâ€™ effects theorised by commentators on social
movements. In adapting mobilisation theory to unions, new frames of reference might be constructed which attribute blame to management for deteriorating working conditions and accumulated grievances, before acting to mobilise the discontent (Kelly, 1998; McAdam, 1988).
The trade union, as the collective representative of workers, has a central role in engendering
this process of mobilisation through its own leadership and the way it presents an alternative set of
beliefs to that given by management and the employer more generally. Such mobilisation can take
place at the micro-level of the individual workplace (for an example of a workplace â€˜culture of
solidarityâ€™, see Fantasia, 1988). It may also occur at the national level of a union (Upchurch et al.,
2012), and embrace activity â€˜beyond the workplaceâ€™ by encouraging engagement with more diverse
groups and new social movements (Greene and Kirton, 2003). In such cases, engagement with the
unionâ€™s goals engendered through union-inspired activity, and the inverse phenomenon of disengagement with those of the employer, acts to alter the consciousness of workers at both the individual and collective levels.
For Kelly and Kelly (1994), in addressing these processes together with the psychology of collective action in the workplace, the most significant correlates of union participation was the
strength of group identification, followed by collectivist orientation and the degree to which the
out-group (management) were perceived in stereotypical fashion. Indeed, the sense of â€˜them and
usâ€™ is a key determinant of willingness to take collective workplace action (Benford and Snow,
2000; Soule and Olzak, 2004).
In this respect, Bimber (1998) claims that WBC can act to create a process of â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ whereby the obstacles to activism in the form of bureaucratic and structural constraints will
be lowered. The implication is that if trade unions utilise social media to identify and isolate the
employer as the source of grievance, than the prospects of collective mobilisation and identification with the union are enhanced. For example, we can consider the impact that the web has had on
the ability of employees to â€˜turn the tableâ€™ on employers by monitoring and exposing employersâ€™
own (mis-)behaviour and corporate negligence (Mathieson, 1997). In this respect, the Internet may
act to boost the â€˜shadow sideâ€™ of organisations, acting as an informal conduit of information, gossip
and calls to action as an â€˜inverted panopticonâ€™ (cf Lim, 2007). However, we should never underestimate the way these same social media that tend to distribute discourse and accelerate pluralism
may at the same time bring forth a certain sense of vulnerability.
644 Organization 23(5)
Counter-mobilisation: surveillance, self-monitoring and virtualising
Within the contested workplace terrain we discern some necessary caveats to the potential power
of the web to upset traditional hierarchical relationships in the workplace, and to consider its limitations in transforming collective worker action. Faced with the threat from below of potential
exposure of corporate unethical misbehaviour as well as new forms of communication technology
outside their control, employers have sought to not only regain control but also to suppress those
opportunities for dissent which may have been enhanced by WBC. Employers have also shifted
their gaze and efforts at control from within the workplace outwards to encompass both the public
and private spheres of employees, in an effort to close down dissent.
The use of ICT technologies to monitor, record and survey employeeâ€™s workload contribution
has been well-rehearsed. Employeesâ€™ individual work outputs can be quickly assessed and converted into performance schemes, even for more abstract measurement of softer competencies or
service-related work. In such a way monitoring through computerisation not only fills in the porosity of the working day by restricting opportunities for personal â€˜down timeâ€™ (rest, relaxation etc.)
but also reduces discretion of the individual worker by removing context from the decision-making
process. Reducing porosity in the working day can even be taken to include time allowed, or rather
time not allowed, for normal bodily functions such as going to the toilet. Warehouse workers and
fork lift drivers at Tesco, for example, have now been issued with radio-linked (RFID) arm band
tags to monitor work rates and identify those staff spending too long in the toilet (The Independent,
2013). In Ohio, a security firm has gone one step further and implanted RFID chips in two of its
employees (Financial Times, 2006). This is not to say that employees do not find the ways and
means to resist such enhanced control mechanisms, as Bain and Taylor (2000) have strikingly
demonstrated in view of call centres.
The processes of electronic monitoring and control by human resource management (HRM)
departments through appraisal, performance objectives and competencies may simply add to
the (in)human panoptic effects of workplace compliance and control. Notwithstanding the
rather â€˜softâ€™ nature of (human) resource management markers such as job evaluation, appraisal
records and selection procedures, the subjugating power may be even more severe than harder
output indicators constructed and enforced through the strict regulation of financial and production outputs (e.g. Townley, 1993, 1999), by way of instilling a greater degree of identification and self-monitoring. Indeed, pure coercion and Taylorisation as forms of control are not the
only ways in which compliance and consent may be manufactured in an organisation. As
Burawoy (1979) suggested, employers may offer the â€˜illusion of choiceâ€™ to employees as a
subtle form of co-optation and might legitimise the more insidious side of the same technology
that extends the forms for control and compliance. More probingly, Johnsen and GudmandHÃ¸yer (2010), from a Lacanian psychoanalytical perspective, have turned conventional â€˜control
and complianceâ€™ arguments somewhat on their head. They suggest that instead of coercive and
alienative forms of constructing subjectivity, such processes of target setting and organisational
moulding of the employee hold out the promise to fulfil a sense of â€˜lackâ€™ in the individual. Here,
we see â€˜the role of fantasy in character formationâ€™ and how the discourse of the Other gives way
to desire, â€˜as it shields the subject from the terror of living with a relentless sense of incompletenessâ€™ (Johnsen and Gudmand-HÃ¸yer, 2010: 336). Even though soft HRM tools of control
linked to ICT may lack â€˜humanityâ€™, and engender alienation through processes of quantifying
abstract labour, it might be the very process of observation, target setting and feedback which
can create a consciousness of human worth and pleasure by reward in fulfilling the very objectives which oppress us.
Upchurch and Grassman 645
However, for Web 2.0 technologies enabling social media such as Facebook and Twitter, we
enter a new arena of struggle in which the insights expressed above become even more apparent.
Some employers, rather than fear the internal uncertainties of and threats from Web 2.0 technologies, have embraced the technology and sought to utilise it to create an organisational atmosphere
where the related sense of lack is converted for the benefit of the organisation. Intranet-based social
media (closed to the outside world) and cloud computing make possible a world of work-life communication, evermore enclosed within the organisationâ€™s own bubble. In such fashion, the temptations of finding self-satisfaction by recording and distributing data about your own work progress
are safely contained. Indeed, the fascination and self-satisfaction associated with recording personal information through data technology has now extended further with the development of the
Quantified Self movement. This movement, also known as self-tracking or body-hacking, embraces
limitless self-monitoring with the help of technologies that enable us to measure each and every
aspect of our lives, be it sleep, health, sex, emotion, productivity, well-being or any other calculable activity. Such personal data are then recorded and shared with like-minded individuals on
social networks often measured and mediated through smartphone applications.2 The implications
for such self-tracking with its extended degree of personal data is potentially enormous, not least
for employers who wish to monitor employeeâ€™s attributes, misdemeanours and (in)efficiencies
(Finley, 2013). IBM, for example, now has a tool to identify â€˜unhappyâ€™ employees.3 A recent report
by the New Scientist magazine reveals that â€˜Many companiesâ€”including BP, eBay and Bufferâ€”
already encourage employees to wear activity trackers like the Fitbit, often in exchange for discounts on health insuranceâ€™ (Rutkin, 2014).
The imminent danger is that the virtual â€˜imagesâ€™ associated with social media are bought and
sold as opposed to the â€˜physical embodiment of what they representâ€™ in terms of value and labour,
signalling a more radical phase of abstraction in the evolving dynamic of capital, which we may
construe as the â€˜commodification of cultureâ€™ (cf. Grassman and Case, 2009). It is not just the time
and place of work that is eroding through the fleeting and flexible logic of networks, but labour
itself is controllable by the further de-subjectification of competence and, in a Marxist interpretive
sense, by subjugation through abstract standards (Marx, 1844). Thus, employers may use individual tweets, self-tracking data and Facebook profiles as pre-screening before calling to an interview.
However, we may wish to construct our online identities, this enables employersâ€™ surveillance of
employee indiscretions, recording the types and number of friends and scanning photographs and
â€˜likesâ€™ to build up a picture of social and political habits, gender, age, health and skin colour. A
survey conducted in 2011 by the US Society for Human Resource Management found that 56% of
companies surveyed used social media scan before engaging in recruitment trawls, up from 34% in
2008. A quarter of organisations explore social media profiles before offering jobs (Journalists
Resource, 2013). The perniciousness and subjectivity of this process is plain to see. A further study
in the United States found, for example, that social media profiles which exhibited that an individual had a liking for alcohol consumption made them less likely to be offered a job than those
whose profiles emphasised family orientations (Bohnert and Ross, 2010).
Of course, while employers use social media to their own advantage, they are also aware of
the threats it may pose to their authority and ability to control work-time. As an attack on the
so-called â€˜cyberloafingâ€™, employers have now moved en masse to ban social media on workplace
computers. A survey conducted in the United Kingdom by the Chartered Institute of Personnel
and Development in 2010 reported that 79% of the 1765 employer respondents have now banned
social network sites on their computers (CIPD, 2011). In 2009, Portsmouth City banned its 4500
employees from using social network sites such as Facebook after finding that the staff logged
on to the sites up to 270,000 times a month between them (on average equivalent to three times
a day!). The council says that staff can apply to have their accounts unblocked if they use them
646 Organization 23(5)
for work purposes. Such an exemption might include a fraud officer carrying out checks on
claimants to ascertain that their lifestyles are what they claim they are (Mail Online, 2009). Most
trenchantly, the issue of employees engaged in service provision of both the private and public
kind has focussed attention on the narrowing gap between the corporateâ€“state and publicâ€“private
spheres. Bloggers now abound who work in the public service and blog regularly about the difficulties of their working life. The risks of them being found out and â€˜doocedâ€™ (sacked for alleged
indiscretions on social media) by their employer have correspondingly increased (see Ellis and
Richards, 2009, for a review).
Teachers and lecturers, for example, engaging with social media such as Facebook and Twitter
face imminent disciplinary action. Argyll and Bute Council in Scotland has already banned its
employed teachers from blogging about work after an incident when one head of department in a
school blogged about three boys with Aspergerâ€™s in her class. The case sits alongside other more
high profile dismissals of bloggers or Internet-based social networkers that have already occurred
in the United Kingdom, with employees of Waterstoneâ€™s bookstore, Argos retailers, the Prison
Service and Virgin Airways, to name a few. Such â€˜inappropriateâ€™ use has usually involved alleged
abusive remarks by employees directed at clients, customers or service users. For teachers and
lecturers, the problem of separating the public from the private is particularly severe. A US-based
Sociology Professor, for example, perhaps naively, allowed â€˜friends of friendsâ€™ to see her Facebook
musings about students, leading to complaints from students. The Professor was suspended, and,
as her University policy document correctly if not sympathetically stated, social media sites â€˜blur
the lines between personal voice and institutional voice â€¦ Privacy does not exist in the world of
social mediaâ€™ (USA Today, 2012).
Apart from the risks of invoking self-monitoring and counter-mobilisation, an additional limitation
to the power of social media to enfranchise people may actually inhere in the â€˜virtualâ€™ nature of the
medium itself. Rather than create â€˜hardâ€™ networks, fed by face-to-face trust and reciprocity, the
virtual world relies on softer, more distanced communication. Indeed, a study of the Occupy and
Tahrir Square movements would claim that social media is just one aspect of their underlying networking efforts rather than its core aspect, and perhaps less important in developing actual protest
activity than instigating interpersonal contact (Fuchs, 2012b: 788â€“790). There is also a potential
limit on the amount of information activists can digest and process, and Internet fatigue is apparent
in a range of ways as identified by Lee (2006: 16).
The dangers of slacktivism and clicktivism are cited as examples whereby a false impression of
activism is constructed in an optimistic portrayal of the power of social media to alter the course of
history. In this critique, real time, real space activity is substituted by passive, virtual and physically isolating activity to the extent it is enacted through screen and keyboard interaction alone.
Slacktivism is cited by Morozov (2009) as â€˜feel-good online activism that has zero political or
social impact. It gives those who participate in â€œslacktivistâ€ campaigns an illusion of having a
meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook groupâ€™.
Clicktivism, in parallel, is defined by White (2010) as:
a model of activism which uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of
advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests
itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists
do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into
clicktivism. (White, 2010)
Upchurch and Grassman 647
This is where Mcluhanâ€™s abovementioned dictum â€˜the medium is the messageâ€™ still has some
purchase as slacktivism could be described as a self-fulfilling prophecy of an actually technocentric tendency (cf. Bimber, 1998; Fuchs, 2012), where indeed the medium and its inherent logic
becomes the message itself and thereby occluding the actual content.
In sum, this journey through the literary landscapes of social media and workplace conflict has
helped to crystallise the theoretical meaning associated with concepts like â€˜distributed discourseâ€™
and â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™. It has also prompted us to consider the possible limitations facing such
empowering potentials for trade union activism, be it in terms of slacktivist and clicktivist tendencies or in challenging internal union decision-making, to what extent counter-mobilisation undermines such potentials, or by way of such technologies nurturing and co-opting self-monitoring
proclivities. Shortly, we will let these theoretical nuances fall upon the empirical accounts to better
see how â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ and â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ may surface in a real-life dispute and
what this may say about the empowering potential of social media in workplace conflicts, but first
a few practical words on the research process itself.
As we are readying ourselves to touch ground with the 2010â€“2011 BA cabin crew dispute in the
following section, let us commence landing by unpacking the more practical and methodological
aspects of the research process here. In so doing, we move from the theoretical consideration of
possibilities and limitations associated with social media and workplace conflict, to explore how
concepts like â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ and â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ actually come through at the
empirical level. We thus aim to assess the workplace battleground by exploring significant ways in
which social media use helped shape the discourses around the BA case study, as well as from
The individual narratives that frame such discourse and the counter-measures against the individuals themselves illustrate how online social media has become a central strategic instrument
through which the dispute adversary may be targeted, whether from the top or from below. In
conducting our case study, we analyse primary data drawn from disciplinary cases within BA
where social media as well as other interactive technologies of communication formed part of the
We also conducted interviews with six leading union representatives (The British Airlines
Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA)), selected on account of having their central
representative positions at BASSA/Unite and consequently being well-placed to appreciate the
evolving dynamic of the conflict from the inside. Previous social media activity and engagement
that had been surveyed were, however, not an election criteria. Although each of interviewee turned
out to have extensive insight and experience of the various social media forums in which an
increasingly important dimension of the conflict played itself out. All interviews were undertaken
during the dispute itself as part of the research for a report written by one of the authors of this
article (Upchurch, 2010).
The interviews were all semi-structured so as to enable a good balance of flexibility and foresight
in terms of adapting to the particularities of each interviewee but yet keeping fairly well within an
overarching line of inquiry. The significance of the text here, as in the data we obtained and transcribed through such process, is not simply taken at face value. However, by analysing what the
most likely interpretations of its significance would be for the subject that announces it as well as
appreciating its impact in light of wider documentary evidence, we have endeavoured to strengthen
the validity of our content analysis (cf. Krippendorff, 1980). While there is no absolute guarantee in
accurately representing the subjective truth behind each statement, the more achievable task of
648 Organization 23(5)
reading them as the subjective estimations they are provides a testimony as to the significance of
social media in the conflict.
Our documentary evidence was assembled from 80 individual disciplinary cases. These individual cases were gathered together from records provided to us by the trade union representing the
employees in grievance, and from discipline cases conducted by management. They represent
individual vignettes that together, we feel, present an accurate picture of the employer response to
the use of WBC by union members during the dispute. We have also reviewed a wide range of
relevant media use, in association with the conflict, to better examine the way the union and the
employer used both traditional and new social media to pursue the dispute. This review took the
form of content analysis of the key social media forums used by both supporters and opponents of
the dispute (cf. Krippendorff, 1980).
We thus track a range of social media forums and record evidence from both â€˜sidesâ€™ of the dispute. We draw conclusions from our analysis by appreciating the form and content of this communication as well as its impact on the dispute as it plays out, which hopefully add value to extant
debates on power, â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ and â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ associated with the use of
both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 technologies.
We now turn to an examination of case study evidence. We focus on the contested nature of
social media, ITC and WBC and refer to the examples of the 2010â€“2011 BA cabin crew dispute.
The British Airways cabin crew dispute 2010â€“2011
The BA conflict essentially represented an attempt by BA management to break up union organisation and reclaim control over pay and working conditions. The control of work procedures and
organisation of duties on the airplane has traditionally been undertaken by cabin service directors, many of whom were closely allied with the relatively autonomous cabin crewsâ€™ union, the
BASSA, which is affiliated with Unite. When reporting for duty at the hub airport, it is most
often the case that individual cabin crews do not know each other. It is important, therefore to
build a team that can work with and trust each other. Traditionally, the various duties and roles
were allocated on a seniority basis by the cabin service director. In such fashion, the â€˜way of
doing thingsâ€™ was very much in the collective control of the staff. This practice co-existed with
a system of relatively good pay and other conditions of service related to length of service, which
was fiercely protected over the years by the union. BAâ€™s long-term tinkering with â€˜organisational
cultureâ€™ had never really challenged this â€˜full service high qualityâ€™ model of customer service
(see Grugulis and Wilkinson, 2002, for a history up to year 2000; see Upchurch, 2010, for a more
Cabin crew appeared rightly proud of this model and willing to defend the â€˜Worldâ€™s Favourite
Airlineâ€™. The attack came from Chief Executive Willy Walsh, appointed from Aer Lingus in 2005
after having introduced his â€˜low costâ€™ model in competition with Ryanair. In order to refocus BA
on a lower cost model, Walsh had not only to reduce pay and conditions and reduce staff on each
flight but also challenge, and if necessary, break the workplace power of the BASSA. His way
forward was to attempt to introduce a â€˜new fleetâ€™ of employees, recruiting new young staff on
lower pay and conditions as cabin crew with full management control over work duties. The system of long haul flight coverage, whereby cabin crew took the whole journey before rest and
recovery in overseas hotels, was to be abandoned in favour of short haul shifts with staff changeovers along route. Newly recruited staff could thus live near their work on an â€˜away and back homeâ€™
basis. The seniority based home-to-work flight concessions for existing cabin crew recruited under
the old system could consequently be abandoned. Such immense changes led to fierce resistance
from the BASSA, and a series of 22 strike days followed.
Upchurch and Grassman 649
â€˜Distributed discourseâ€™ and the union campaign?
Public opinion was courted by both sides as a major strategy. For management, the severity of the
attack on the cabin crew meant that the unionâ€™s authority had to be broken if the solidarity of the
cabin crew was to be fractured. Courting the media would help that process. For the union, emphasising quality service on the flagship airline appeared an important lever to get public opinion and
BA shareholders on their side to defend jobs, pay and conditions. In order to counter Willy Walshâ€™s
charm offensive to the media, the full range of WBC was utilised by the union, at both official and
unofficial levels. This may have been a particularly important initiative for two reasons.
First, cabin crew staff tended to be dispersed, not based on one particular workplace, often
residing at some distance but residing within â€˜flying distanceâ€™ of major airport hubs. It is worth
noting that approximately 90% of cabin crew staff at BA (as often elsewhere) are women, many of
whom are married to pilots living distant from the airport hub. Indeed, social media proved instrumental in keeping up the tradition of trade union organising at BA, which meant that in spite of
such dispersed conditions this group of women was nevertheless one of the most highly organised
groups in the UK labour market. Social media networks and web-based information were used to
overcome distance and structural constraints in order to maintain rank-and-file accessibility in the
continuous framing of the dispute discourse. In this sense, we can see a clear indication of â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ at work in facilitating the formation of the necessary bonds and social capital associated with continuously framing discourse through interactive communication (albeit online),
given the extra difficulties of such conditions in organising on a more direct face-to-face level (see
Greene and Kirton, 2003, for a comparison).
Second, the social media networks established during the dispute enabled the union to maintain
mobilising effects against â€˜the otherâ€™, as highlighting the managerial practices at BA maintained
the focus on the source of grievances on the dispute adversary, thereby in resonance with â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ overshadowing the barriers of internal differences. Let us thus take a closer look at
how this emerging dynamic manifests itself in various ways over the course of the dispute.
Accelerated pluralism against BA management?
Unite HQ campaigns department established a spoof website â€˜Brutish Airwaysâ€™ to highlight the
bullying and harassment against its trade union activists as well as the media connections between
BA management and Murdochâ€™s newspapers.4 The BASSA union officials deliberately reconstructed the corporate images and management discourse of BA management. For example, staff
rosters for those on strike had been filled in by management as staff: â€˜XXXXâ€™ in the various columns, and the Four X symbol was used by the BASSA in a conscious effort to create feelings of
solidarity against management, one BASSA/Unite official said. Particular venom was directed at
BAâ€™s in-house security operation, Asset Protection, whose activities according to another union
representative, was described as essentially about â€˜surveillance of our representatives and crew,
so reminiscent of the Stasi in East Germanyâ€™ (most of the staff at Asset Protection are ex-police
YouTube videos were posted on the site featuring cabin crew staff arguing their case, and resulting in extensive interaction on the related discussion forums. An academic was invited to produce
a report on the deteriorating industrial relations culture within the company.5 Many cabin crew
participated in the BASSA forum, a closed email discussion list, and some gained access to the
parallel, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) forum, which had been the source of a
series of attacks against striking cabin crew often with class-based, gendered and homophobic
650 Organization 23(5)
At a more unofficial level, a Facebook page was established in March 2010 called â€˜Support BA
cabin crewâ€™s Democratic right to strike!â€™ which drew in more than 3500 â€˜likes/joinâ€™.6 The vast
majority of posts on the site were supportive of the strikes, and the site regularly linked to press
reports and most importantly, during strike days, fed full information of flight cancellations in an
effort to counter the more customer â€˜appropriateâ€™ tone and content communicated by BA management. A small minority of postings were hostile to the strikes, and went alongside a separate
Facebook group for BA anti-strike â€˜volunteersâ€™ established in May 2010. However, this particular
site did not manage to â€˜take-offâ€™ and soon fell dormant with just 10 â€˜likesâ€™. What all these endeavours emphasise is the increased potential for â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ that inhere in social media,
making visible the source of grievances and the discourses generated thereby.
BA management moved decisively against both the BASSA and individual supporters of the strike
in a series of disciplinary moves aimed at the use of Facebook, email networks and text messages.
The strikes had begun to have a significant impact on BAâ€™s ability to operate, so much so that BA
was forced to ask pilots to volunteer for cabin crew training to act as strike-breakers. As pilots were
being recruited, BA counter-mobilised against the BASSA over one weekend. More than 40 cabin
crew staff was disciplined as a result of their support for the strikes and 15 were dismissed. 18 of
the disciplinary cases were connected to Facebook postings, text messages, emails and postings on
the BASSA or the BALPA forum, with three of the 18 specifically concerned with private Facebook
postings to â€˜friendsâ€™.
The union suspected that Asset Protection had been involved in preparing these cases by gaining
access to private postings in email, Facebook or text messaging records. The suspicions of the
union were confirmed much later after the dispute when the national press reported on a payment
from BA to Unite of Â£1m allegedly to â€˜hush upâ€™ details of the spying operation. (The Independent,
27 February 2015). The payment by BA to the union was made as part of a process of compensation to the â€˜victimsâ€™ on the basis that any individual settlements remained â€˜out of courtâ€™. Despite
the bitterness of the strikes, and what could have been said in the â€˜heat of the momentâ€™, the majority
of postings chosen for disciplinary action were mild in content. An example is a female cabin crew
staff who asked on Facebook for a list of the pilots who had volunteered for training as strikebreakers. She was charged with bullying and harassment and breach of data protection policy and
given a 3-year final warning, demoted one grade, and barred from promotion. Another male cabin
crew said he had a list of â€˜volunteerâ€™ pilots but did not know what to do with the list as â€˜he knew
one of them personallyâ€™. He was dismissed.
A second male staff was dismissed after he used the word â€˜scabâ€™ in a text message sent in error
to someone he thought was a friend. Pilots posting much more derogatory material against the
strikers received no disciplinary action, or at maximum, mild rebuke. Much of the derogatory
nature of the comments by pilots was highly gendered. An example is a male pilot and BALPA
representative who posted on the BALPA forum, â€˜F**k off BASSA you lying malevolent bunch of
hypocritical self-serving c**tsâ€™. He received an informal verbal warning. Of most concern was that
the disciplinary cases against cabin crew all involved charges of bullying and harassment. BA has
a set procedure for dealing with such cases agreed with the trade unions which includes a process
by which a third party is first involved to encourage mediation. Failing in bringing the case to a
satisfactory conclusion, a grievance procedure is then enacted which includes processes of investigation by managers (up to two).
However, in all the cabin crew cases, the BA procedure was ignored by management, who
moved straight to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal. Nevertheless, it was clear that
Upchurch and Grassman 651
all of those dismissed were known to be active strikers and these included a female cabin crew
member and BASSA representative who was sacked for â€˜gross misconductâ€™ for the â€˜way she representedâ€™ each of those members disciplined. In particular, the union representative had questioned
the fact that the BA disciplinary and grievance procedures previously agreed with the union
appeared to have been by-passed and ignored. Instead, the representative claimed, an alternative
set of procedures (known as the â€˜Leidenâ€™ procedures) had been unilaterally constructed and applied
by management to the detriment of the union and its members.
Reflecting on the impact of WBC during the strikes, a BASSA/Unite official valued the use of
social media and stressed the importance of the â€˜Brutish Airwaysâ€™ website, as means of building
solidarity. The content of the material placed on the web was aimed specifically to construct
â€˜counter-symbolsâ€™ to the prevailing BA management discourse imbued with ideological attacks
against the union.
As far as â€˜slacktivismâ€™ and â€˜clicktivismâ€™ are concerned, there is little in terms of direct evidence
for such tendencies in our empirical accounts. It is clear that a lot of union members were much
more vocal and outspoken in the online discussion forums, as most representatives testify, than was
the case in the traditional face-to-face meetings and campaigns. This may of course support the
general tendency of â€˜distributed discourseâ€™, discussed above, and the potential slacktivist and/or
clicktivist propensity arguably to some extent intrinsic to asserting that the medium itself brings
out actions that would not otherwise surface. However, the fact that we could see these separate
arenas of struggle in the BA dispute converging and complimenting rather than occluding one
another should suggest that the BASSA/Unite campaign managed to mitigate the risk of slacktivism and clicktivism by integrating online discourse generation with face-to-face encounters.
Indeed, solidarity was maintained throughout the dispute in a series of mass meetings close to
Heathrow, and in the five separate strike ballots the vote for strike action was always greater than
80%. The dispute ran its course and as might be expected towards the end of the dispute, some
dissent was shown by rank-and-file members at Uniteâ€™s reluctance to engage solidarity from other
airport workers and the leadershipâ€™s eventual willingness to reach a deal with BA management.
BA management succeeded in introducing a New Fleet on lower pay and conditions within the
airline, but the union campaign was also successful in isolating the New Fleet from the rest of the
cabin crew (now renamed by BA as the â€˜legacy fleetâ€™), by blocking the two sets of fleet staff working on the same flight and preserving full basic and variable pay for staff recruited under the old
contract. Most importantly, the organisation of BASSA held together, and the union still has 9500
members. New Fleet staff is now being recruited directly into Unite (rather than the BASSA), and
of the 1200 new staff, 740 have joined the union. They have no recognition rights, but the aim of
the union is to build up their organisation and make positive links with the BASSA.
Our case study highlights some of the most salient contradictions, tensions and complexities
around social media and workplace conflict. In this view, we discern a powerful linkage between
social media networking and mobilisation theory, whereby feelings of togetherness against the
employer may be consolidated. For the striking cabin crew, the use of social media had a binding
effect as a virtual social network in consolidating collective identity, and as a powerful additional
tool in disseminating information to evoke social cohesion in contradistinction to the employer. At
the same time, we have seen evidence of how this very same transparency and distribution of
access conveyed by social media may serve to counter-act and pre-empt these developments in the
shaping of workplace discourse, by equally enabling employers to utilise it as a sophisticated tool
of compliance and control. We even go as far as to articulate some of these dangers as pertaining
652 Organization 23(5)
to a developing commodification of culture that seems to transpire through new and elaborate ways
of measuring abstract labour, albeit in part facilitated by self-monitoring. The social relationships
that we set out to investigate in light of these emerging technologies and their impacts are therefore
increasingly complex, and becomes even more so with each new technological advance.
Most importantly, and despite the optimistic prospects that the Internet afforded for union
renewal (e.g. Freeman and Rogers, 2002; Shostak, 1999), we must be aware of employersâ€™ ability
to both constrain union use of the Internet and ICT in all its forms by legislative or coercive means.
In such fashion, the threat â€˜from belowâ€™ is de-activated and prospects for â€˜distributed discourseâ€™
(Greene et al., 2003) or accelerated pluralismâ€™ (Bimber, 1998) are dimmed. Indeed employers have
the wherewithal and the motivation both to enhance their own efforts to bind and commit employees to the goals and objectives of the organisation through the use of both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0
technologies, and to counter-mobilise against the potential liberating effects that social media in
particular may have on discourse and power within the organisation.
In our case study, we saw BA management counter-mobilising in full offensive against its
employeesâ€™ use of Facebook, Twitter and text messaging as it sought to break the union stranglehold on staff loyalty. This was indeed an intense operation by BA, using its full power to dismiss
without recourse to agreed procedures. Nevertheless, social media, WBC and the use of collective
text messaging (SMS), clearly made a contribution in disseminating information about the dispute
and putting out calls for real-time meetings to a dispersed workforce that was relatively isolated
from each other. It also highlighted the potential of a synoptic effect, whereby the panoptic power
of top-down surveillance of the multitude could be at least partially reversed (cf. Bentham, 2008;
Foucault, 1995). This enabled employees to shine the focus of discontent on alleged management
bullying and harassment in pursuit of â€˜theirâ€™ side of the dispute. In this respect, the use of the available technologies appears to confirm both the distributive power of social media in the Foucauldian
sense, as much as the mobilising effects whereby the source of grievance can be isolated to encourage action, by stimulating the imperative sense of â€˜them and usâ€™ (as in Kelly and Kelly, 1994). As
such the prospects for â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ could be enhanced albeit through the creation of
collective identity and subsequent mobilisation against the â€˜otherâ€™.
As far as collective action is concerned, we must also remember that trade unions as agents of
collective workplace power, depend on traditional and sometimes bureaucratised structures of
decision-making that may be at odds with the more dispersed and open dynamic of social media.
In other words, meetings, voting and power hierarchies in their modus operandi, may by their very
nature conflict with and/or restrain the potential of social media to distribute discourse (cf. Greene
et al., 2003; Greene and Kirton, 2003). This is not to say that the use of social media within unions
is anti-democratic, but rather to suggest that to achieve its full liberating potential for rank-and-file
union members, social media may need to be used as a complement rather than as a substitute for
more traditional forms of communication and decision-making. For example, in view of our case
study there appeared to be a salient congruence between the union leadership and rank-and-file
during the bulk passage of the dispute, with the BASSA preserving its close-knit independence
until the tail end of the dispute, when the Unite union leadership held sway against further militancy. As such, the case for â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ as a rank-and-file tool to challenge the power
and authority within the trade union itself remains contestable.
We have sought to assess the realities of the contested nature of social media and other forms of
WBC in the workplace. Our theoretical overview highlights an optimistic view of the prospects
for trade union revitalisation through the use of Internet and in particular social media. Most
Upchurch and Grassman 653
prevalent is a Foucauldian reliance on â€˜distributed discourseâ€™ and the associated phenomenon of
â€˜accelerated pluralismâ€™ (cf. Bimber, 1998; Greene et al., 2003), which has given rise to some
cause for â€˜optimismâ€™ around the potential of social media in empowering trade unions. In particular, we have seen evidence of social media use overcoming dispersed conditions to mobilise
employees collectively against the employer by rendering more enduring and interactive, the
distinct sense of â€˜them and usâ€™.
Moreover, if we are to avoid the mentioned simulacra of clicktivism and slacktivism, where
everything seems to happen except the event itself, we need to reaffirm the importance of not letting social media eclipse more outright and conventional forms of mobilizing social movements.
In the BA dispute, traditional mass meetings were an important part of the campaign, as was the
long-developed sense of solidarity and subsequent grievance among the cabin crew, and without
the latter, the effects of social media would have been close to none. Social media and collective
text messaging oiled the machine of union mobilisation, rather than built the machine.
In summary, we discern social media in the workplace as a highly contested field in which
managerial counter-mobilisation may overcome potentially liberating powers on part of the
employees using the very same technologies as instruments of control and surveillance. This is
not to say that social media and other forms of WBC might not possess such potential, but to suggest that its potential remains largely grounded in the everyday struggle of workplace power
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discontinued â€“the event is accounted for in the BBC news article: http://www.bbc.com/news/10122038).
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Upchurch, M. (2010) Creating a Sustainable Work Environment in British Airways: Implications of 2010
Cabin Crew Dispute. London: Global, Work and Employment Project, Middlesex University/UNITE.
Upchurch, M., Croucher, R. and M. Flynn (2012) â€˜Political Congruence and Trade Union Renewalâ€™, Work,
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Martin Upchurch works in the Department of Leadership, Work and Organization at Middlesex University.
His primary research interests include workplace conflicts, labour process theory, social movements and
increasingly, the technological dimension of such fields.
Rickard Grassman is a research fellow at the Department of Engineering Sciences and Management in
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social media, innovation, ideology and social movements.
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