For the second time in seven years, John, a Kellogg’s employee in Memphis, is on strike. He’s once again protesting the company’s two-tiered wage system, which means low-paid “transitional” workers get fewer benefits than “legacy” workers, no matter how long they work there. This time around, though, he can’t help but feel that “change, real change” is coming.
Heading into month two of this year’s strike, John says that, unlike in 2014, the groundswell of support on platforms like TikTok and Reddit have provided much-needed momentum.
Call it “The Great Resignation” or “Striketober,” but for the last several months, stories and videos of American workers striking, organizing and outright quitting have flooded social media. If a contemporary labor movement is brewing — one that experts believe could be a significant social realignment in the way Americans value work — then TikTok and Reddit have become the perfect tools for spreading awareness, educating the public and dismantling Corporate America as we know it.
The frequency at which executives are scrambling to react to viral videos has made it increasingly clear how much power an employee potentially wields with TikTok loaded on their phone. In the past year alone, Chick-fil-A, Sherwin-Williams and Panera, among others, have fired employees who posted viral videos that gave a realistic portrayal of their experience at work.
At Amazon, a warehouse employee uploaded videos describing how isolating, dangerous and inhumane it is to work in one of the company’s warehouses. It’s videos like these that draw attention to the company’s employee injury rate — which is three times that of the national average — or the timed bathroom breaks to increase productivity or the drivers forced to pee in bottles while trying to deliver packages on time. Such videos can garner many millions of views on TikTok, get picked up by media outlets and force a company to publicly respond to their employees’ criticisms. For example, after the viral TikTok videos on employees peeing in bottles led to public outcry, Amazon first denied the allegations, only to reverse course and apologize and vow to fix the problem when followed by a larger investigation by The Intercept.
At the same time, companies like Walmart, Target, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks — all of which have had workplace-revealing viral videos of their own — are scrambling to update their employee social media guidelines or enlist corporate-approved “TikTok Ambassadors” to flood the platform with less-damaging videos, thus controlling what gets posted about the company. Even Hooters was forced to respond to its employees after servers took to TikTok in October to criticize the much smaller, skimpier shorts the corporate office wanted them to wear. The company ultimately altered its uniform policy, allowing servers the choice between the old and new shorts.
According to Peter Bamberger, research director for Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, while the internet has historically fallen short of providing leverage to workplace organizers, recent trends where employees are “using TikTok [and] Reddit for recent strike support may indicate a potential departure” from the traditional top-down communication.
Courtney Scott, among the most popular pro-union creators on TikTok, is a prime example. “We’ve been watching social media reshape the public narrative and culture of organizing,” Scott tells me. “Social media allows people to circumvent the press, which has been so lackluster in covering labor, with their own stories, their own live feeds, their own pictures.” At the same time, having “good, high-profile strikes that the press did cover and were all over social media” has a lot to do with the current uptick of strikes, says Scott. “Union members and leadership saw others going on strike and winning and believed they, too, could win,” they explain. “I’m hoping that TikTok can do that for Millennials and Gen Z.”
In 2014, when John and his co-workers went on strike for 10 months, he recalls feeling hopeless and alone. “Going without a check for 10 months is hard,” he tells me. “It’s even more miserable when you feel like you’re isolated and fighting an uphill battle.” This year, though, John has connected with other Kellogg’s employees on Reddit, where his fellow union members post pictures and videos of strikes in their respective cities. “Being able to do that in  could’ve been extra motivation to keep my head up, because this year it’s given me that second wind to keep fighting,” he says. “Not only do I have my union brothers and sisters fighting alongside me, but I can safely connect with all other types of workers on Reddit who are tired of watching the rich fatten themselves with our blood, sweat and tears. That makes it seem possible that we can all win.”
Reddit’s “front page,” which averages over 1.5 billion visitors a month, has experienced a flood of posts in support of strikes at John Deere and Kellogg’s, including pictures of strikers in the rain, videos of employees pleading their case and calls-to-action urging civilians to demand company executives provide health care for their employees. Better yet, posts from smaller subreddits focused on labor relations that reach the front page often lead to exponential growth for those communities. This is especially apparent in r/Antiwork, a forum that describes itself as a place for “those who want to end work.”
The r/Antiwork community was mostly inactive for its first eight years on Reddit, but in the last few months, it’s grown 450 percent to just under one million subscribers and now regularly gives lift to videos of striking employees and firsthand accounts of people who quit their jobs (many of whom cite the subreddit as their motivation).
But how much viral content translates into long-term, real-world change?
While Bamberger argues that engagement on social media doesn’t equate to organizing, Scott believes it’s a key component of the overall effort: Social media leads to awareness, awareness leads to education and education leads to action. “Most unions aren’t even on Tiktok, but I bet you almost every one of them has a younger comms person waiting to start one,” they explain, pointing out how Twitter has helped enable organizing in the last few years. “Some of the best new organizing in the last few years has been all of the writers joining unions, and they all have Twitter accounts. Each well-publicized win showed another group of writers that it’s possible to fight even the biggest names in the media and come out on top.”
Hamilton Nolan, a council member for Writers Guild of America East who helped his Gawker Media co-workers unionize in 2015, can attest to how the highly visible campaigns to organize workplaces in the media industry has influenced the movement overall. “I definitely think one meaningful side effect of the union wave among media outlets since 2015 has been A) all those campaigns have been unusually visible because journalists love to talk about themselves; and B) going through the process has turned on a lot of journalists to the importance of the labor movement,” he explains. “And that has manifested in more coverage of unions and labor issues in general.”
When combined with the power of Reddit and TikTok, such media interest can’t help but lead to exponential exposure. And for Hooters waitresses, Kellogg’s workers, John Deere employees and beyond, more coverage posted to the platforms that can disseminate that coverage to the masses means more power. Or as Scott succinctly puts it, “More public fights, more public wins.”