The labor movement, digital media, and tools for resistance

The labor movement, digital media, and tools for resistance

Dencik, Lina and Peter Wilkin. Worker Resistance and Media: Challenging Global Corporate Power in the 21st Century. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2015. Paperback, 260 pages, $40.95.

Reviewed by Diane Krauthamer

What is that role that emerging digital media should play in building effective worker resistance to a global capitalist system? How should the labor movement utilize digital and social media, and to what end? These are some of the questions that authors Lina Dencik and Peter Wilkin raise in “Worker Resistance and Media: Challenging Global Corporate Power in the 21st Century.”
While new media technologies bring about new opportunities for labor, these are merely tools and will never be a substitute for shop-floor grassroots organizing. Dencik and Wilkin argue just that: the developing digital media technologies are, and should continue to be, used by organized labor as tools in fighting against the dominant paradigm of capitalist exploitation. But they are merely tools, and have limitations.

The book begins with the premise that the labor movement is in decline and global corporate power is on the rise, and goes on to explain the sometimes-contradictory relationship that the media has had with labor throughout the 20th century—as a “space for visibility and resistance” but also as “an instrument for repression and social control.” More specifically, the modern media landscape defined here includes the public relations, marketing and advertising industry that emerged in the early 20th century “when both capitalism and the nation-state system faced tremendous challenges from socialists and the labor movement.” Dencik and Wilkin continue by offering concise histories of trade unionism, corporate globalization and developing digital media technologies. Of specific importance in this context was that, over the course of the 20th century, “it became increasingly common for unions to seek to align themselves with political parties, the state and even business, in effect to align themselves with the very institutions that would threaten and end their independence.” The book highlights this general pattern over the next 100 years or so, and how it effectively has weakened the labor movement as a whole, primarily in the Western world.

The authors go on to explore the evolution of labor’s relationship with big business as corporate globalization began to rise. This is what the authors term as the “second wave of globalization,” defined by “a political ideology that would require the support of the state to enforce it, a form of capitalism that freed markets from social regulation and that would prioritize corporate profits over social concerns or the common good.” Here, the authors point to Keith D. Ewing’s observation in his 2005 article, “The Function of Trade Unions,” how “increasingly unions have become subordinate partners, at best, to corporations, with many instances of unions accepting recognition agreements in return for helping corporations with their restructuring of the workforce.” According to Dencik and Wilkin, this growing business unionism illustrates “how far many unions have fallen in their role as defenders of their own membership, never mind the working class in general.”

Building on these observations, Dencik and Wilkin note that the labor movement is in “parlous condition” but “has many tools that it needs in order to revive rebuild”—and this is where social media and digital activism enter the picture.

Here, the authors look at how emerging digital media tools play a role in new (or revisited) forms of worker organization. In particular, they look at how “different repertoires of digital activism that are emerging as forms of resistance” are becoming increasingly integrated into union activities. While the benefits of having our own forms of media to counter the corporate-owned mainstream media are numerous, the authors are concerned about putting too much emphasis on these tools, which have limitations:

“Rather than using digital media to mobilise industrial power in new ways, therefore, the focus has been on building symbolic power by enhancing pressure through public image campaigns…Often the emphasis on media in this regard is seen at the expense of actual organizing as resources and energies within the union are finite.”

This is where Dencik and Wilkin get to the impetus of why they analyzed digital media’s relationship to worker resistance: “Of course advocacy has its place in labour activism, and social media has an important part to play here, but there needs to be broader overhaul of the union structures for these potentials to be as effective as they could be.”

The bulk of this book analyzes three major labor campaigns over the past two decades: Service Employees International Union (SEIU)’s Justice for Janitors and UNITE and Unison’s Justice for Cleaners movements; SEIU’s Fast Food Forward (or #FightFor15) campaign; and the domestic workers movements in Hong Kong and Singapore. The overarching theme of these three cases were that, while digital activism and social media have brought and continue to bring much visibility and even some wins for these struggles, the aforementioned limitations of focusing on these tools brings about larger questions of where the labor movement is going and how we effectively utilize the tools of digital media to help strengthen our work.

In addition to the possibility that over-reliance on digital/social media may impede organizing, one major aspect that union activists need to understand is the larger context in which social/digital media exists: namely, corporate/state control of media. The authors describe the current media landscape as “thoroughly corporate spaces.” It is here that they call for unions to define themselves as “independent bodies” in order to present themselves as “a genuine challenge to state-corporate control.”

This brings us to the conclusion—a redefinition of the labor movement and an overhaul the predominant model of business unionism. Dencik and Wilkin call for the labor movement to “rebuild its activities as an independent movement that is not subordinate to political parties or the state.” They envision this as a concept defined as “utopian realism,” which as “a conception of a better world that can be built through cooperation and mutual aid in alliance with progressive social movements, in the workplace and in communities.” This idea is influenced by the authors’ observation of the successes and failures of the modern-day labor movement’s use of coalition-building and sometimes successful, yet also limiting, use of social media and digital activism.
Overall, “Worker Resistance and Media” can help modern-day labor activists gain a broader and more critical understanding of how to utilize the tools at our disposal in the context of a larger, socialist-oriented vision. It is with this that we can continue fighting for a better world.