TikTok army goes after union fighters

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Eliza Joshi was browsing the standard Twitter bait, one night in February when she saw tweet it annoyed her enough to take action. starbucks, supposedly progressive chain of coffee houses, just dismissed seven employees who tried to consolidate a store in Memphis, Tennessee. (Starbucks reported CNN the layoffs were not retaliatory, but the workers claimed otherwise.) 19-year-old Joshi immediately started a group chat with two fellow union sympathizers. “We could find Starbucks apps there and ask people to blow them up with fakes,” she wrote.

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“That’s something we can do,” replied Sean Wiggs, a college student studying computer engineering. He knew because he had done it before. Within two hours, Wiggs wrote a script that allowed users to automatically submit a bunch of fake job applications to replace Starbucks workers, using a temporary email service to generate disposable email addresses. Twenty-one-year-old coder Sofia Ongele created a website called Change is brewing, and populated it with simple script instructions that users could leave running in a browser tab. (In January, she coded a similar website to spam Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s critical race theory. tip of the line with Bee Movie lyrics.) The trio began promoting the site on tik tak and reposts in their social networks.

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“It would be a real shame if people used the website and told Starbucks that unionization is good and they shouldn’t fire workers for trying to unionize,” Ongele told 285,000 tik tak followers. “The link may or may not be in my bio.”

Ongele’s cheeky tone reflects the style of many posts by Gen-Z for Change, a coalition of progressive digital activists. Joshi is the organization’s chief operating officer, Ongele is the digital strategy coordinator, and Wiggs is the digital strategy assistant. Called “progressive movement” tiktok army“, the group amassed 540 million social media followers, garnering “more views than CNN, MSNBC and Fox News” as they like to point out. Like-minded groups demand airtime on their megaphone, grounding Gen-Z for change Briefing at the White House about the war in Ukraine and a parody of the specified briefing Saturday night life.

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Launched in 2020, the group changed its original TikTok name to Biden after the presidential inauguration. The transformation also meant a broader scope, with content creators trumpeting issues from climate change to international relations. Over the past couple of months, members have begun to pay attention to the labor movement. After Starbucks, they spammed Kroger-owned Ralph’s, which posted temporary jobs after unionized workers sanctioned a strike. Then they target Amazon.

Since they launched Change Is Brewing, the trio say 140,000 people have filled the app pool for a Starbucks store in Memphis and another location in Buffalo where unions have also been fired. Last week, when Starbucks posted a job opening for a corporate labor consultant director with “emergency strike planning” experience, the organizers rallied their followers, who filed 40,000 false claims. The company removed the post shortly after. Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Activists aren’t content with making noise from time to time; they want to start a movement. Joshi notes that they could have the apps themselves running in the background and likely had a similar effect. “But when people participate and feel like they have contributed to the labor movement, maybe we have created a new generation of organisers. Maybe they [saying to] to herself: “Hey, I also work in a restaurant. Maybe I will try to organize my workplace and mobilize the people I work with.” (She also notes that they always ask organizers for permission before launching a campaign.)

Although none of the three activists were union members, the labor movement’s recent successes are reflected in their desire for tangible progress when so many of the issues they care about seem to be deadlocked, especially in the federal government. “Unions are taking over the country,” Joshi says. “And people want to be a part of it because it’s one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen. And it’s one of the most promising and optimistic things we’ve seen. We have needed optimism for so long. We didn’t have enough of that.”

Joshi recognizes the temptation to wallow in pessimism, and she says she fell victim to it when she first started posting horrific videos about climate change on TikTok. The algorithm likes videos like this, some of which are about “climate doomism.” They get a lot of views, but do not encourage action. “Inspiring and Mobilizing [Gen Z] is the goal, even if it gets you 10 percent fewer views,” she says. “Because it’s important to get people off the app and do something about it.”

Ongele says the reckoning that came with the pandemic has shed light on inequality in the workplace. “And I think unions are a really great way to level the playing field as far as the big guns at corporation and headquarters are concerned, as well as the people doing the work in the field.”

The public approval of the unions was on the rise over the past decade, thanks in part to social media, says Tyler Quick, a graduate student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism who studies social media and political economy and has worked as a labor activist. He traces it back to wave of campaigns to unionize graduate students which began in the mid-2010s. “Graduates are young people. They are online. Some of the most prolific influencers are graduate students or recent graduate students. And a lot of their rhetoric and ideas have been able to seep through the public realm of social media, so that by the time we get to 2020, when people are really tired of neoliberal capitalism, the intellectual seeds have already been sown.”

While Gen Z activists knew little about unions at school, news of a resurgent labor movement reached them through the news and social media and caused them to question some of their early work experiences.

Wiggs says he was “unfairly” fired from his school job at a fast food restaurant despite doing everything he was asked to do, showing up early for shifts and constantly replacing co-workers. When he had to attend an event at his high school, he was told that since no one could replace him, he would be fired if he did not show up for work. “I thought it was pretty crazy how you can do things right in this country as it relates to being a good worker and being a productive member of society. And these companies don’t have to respect you or your time,” says Wiggs.

Wiggs first saw an opportunity to combine his coding prowess with activism when anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life launched a tip line to report violations of SB8, a state law passed last year criminalizing abortion after six weeks. Wiggs programmed a bot that automatically filled out a questionnaire with fake tips and memes. A few months later, he wrote a similar script that sent out fake job applications when Kellogg’s advertised replacements for striking workers. Gen-Z for Change got wind of this work and asked him to join us. When Joshi wrote to him about posting at Starbucks, he was able to adapt the code he used for Kellogg. None of the employers used captcha or email verification in their job postings, which made their job much easier.

Now the group is strategizing how to target Amazon, which they see as a much more formidable adversary. “It’s so massive that there’s very few things you can do that will really hurt Amazon,” says Wiggs. While the damage was part of their Starbucks strategy, Joshi doesn’t think it will work with Amazon. “Starbucks is known for being innovative. But Amazon is known for workers pee in bottles,” she said. “I don’t think it will be as easy as our past cases. But we’re going after them.”

Gen-Z for Change’s half-billion audience makes it an attractive partner for traditional organizations looking to reach younger audiences. Earlier this month, the AFL-CIO, the largest trade union federation in the US, contacted activists after spotting Ralph’s campaign. Federation with its tik tak the page, with a much more modest following, invited participants to an informal meeting it called between allies and researchers, using advanced data tools to organize campaigns. While the meeting was an introductory meeting and no formal partnership was signed, an AFL-CIO spokesperson says “the door is open.”

“I hope we have created a new generation of organizers who understand digital tactics and social media algorithms better than most organizers of the past,” says Joshi. “Now we have the knowledge of how to run campaigns successfully, how to get people to vote, how to go beyond views and actually get tangible results. And now we are all real organizers. A digital organization is a legitimate organization.”

Updated April 20, 2022 2:30 pm ET: This part has been updated to correct Eliza Joshi’s age as 19 instead of 20.

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