A “Not So Tongue-in-Cheek” Look at the Way the Language of Labor is Changing


Who are today’s “unintended activists?”  What about “pop-up protesters,” organized by new generation “Apptivists?”  Are we seeing the emergence of “e-mocracy at work” amplifying worker voice through “clicktivism,” stretching from complaints about employment conditions to what companies make, with whom they do business, and the politics they support?  The nature of workplace employee relations is changing and requires new responses—we better make sure our language keeps up.  How we describe things, the words we use, helps define the problems we are faced with.  Get the definition wrong, and the solution will be wrong too.  Every day, we see managers trying to resolve today´s problems using yesterday´s toolbox.

In HR we love our buzzwords.  We are ever ready to “improve the employee experience” by “embracing agile principles” with a “learning mindset” as we access “MOOCs” curated for and tailored to our “personal development goals.”  But somehow the old guys in employee relations have been left behind.  No longer—during the course of this year BEERG Global Director Tom Hayes and I have been building a new language primer for the modern employee relations specialist and their 2020 playbook.  (We’ve mentioned many of them in our various writings this year.)  Here they are all in one place.  

“Out with the old”:  My father was a union leader in the steel industry in the North of England, so I was brought up on a diet of “workers of the world unite,” “the union makes us strong,” “united we bargain, divided we beg,” and “out brothers out.”  Behaviors like taking heavy objects off the negotiating table before meetings (less they be “weaponized”), not discussing contentious issues after the other side had enjoyed a (long) liquid lunch (unless you really wanted to provoke a fight), and boring people into submission through the length rather than quality of oratory were second nature in “my world” when I started work in the UK motor industry in the 1970s.

…and yes, I was a junior member of the team that fired “Red Robbo”—“The Man Behind 523 Car Factory Strikes” (BBC)—and the closest the UK ever got to Jimmy Hoffa Sr.

Interestingly, another old-fashioned word for the trade union movement in general is “organized labor.”  What happens to organized labor when people en mass change the way that they live, communicate, and work?

Times change:  The world moved on.  So-called “good union manufacturing jobs” went to China, administration jobs went to India, fashion and sports goods production slipped through China (where apparel manufacture wages trippled between 2000 and 2014) and on to Bangladesh, Vietnam and Mexico, and pretty well everything not locked down moved from Western to Eastern Europe.  From the mid 1990’s to today, trade unions lost members in the legacy economies and never gained them in the new world.  Membership and collective bargaining coverage are down—and the terms of Europe’s industry agreements diluted through massive concessions given in order to keep the structures in place.  For a time, it looked like individuals and groups of employees with a demand or a grievance had a simple choice: “stay or go”—what some of my more blunt-minded colleagues termed FIFO. 

A blast from the past?  Take a look at this quote:

“I think what you do is you build enough power among the workers—among the people who are at risk from these practices—so they can consistently and persistently push back when this behavior emerges.”

Sounds like my father’s brand of labor relations.  But this was said this year by Meredith Whittaker, an AI expert and one of the organizers of #Googlewalkout.  But when she spoke about power she didn’t mean long—and ultimately failed—negotiations leading to threats, mass meetings, and strikes, but the rapid amplification of individual concerns into public debate and impulsive collective action through social media to achieve a result.  Indeed, it was more about mobilizing “likes” than “votes.” 

Far from life getting easier—it has got much more complicated.  Back in the day, union militancy was limited to countries and locations where there were unions.  Today, activism is everywhere.  #MeToo exploded in 58 countries in the first 24 hours after the Weinstein expose.  High on the top country hit list was India.  The first walkout in 50 cities across the world in #Googlewalkout was not in a hotbed of militancy, but in Tokyo.  

Think about your organization, I suspect your bench strength in ER is strongest where you have the most unions.  In the countries where you are growing fastest, how much employee relations experience do your HR partners and line managers have?

Today you are probably more at risk where there are no unions, no written or understood rules or protocols, and no early warning systems.

Bringing your employee relations vocabulary up to date:  As I said, Tom Hayes and I have been developing a new primer for understanding and managing employee relations in this new world.
“E-mocracy at work,” the “unintended activist,” “objectionism,” and “pop up protests” are in.  “Out brothers out” has been replaced by “#walkout.” Individual “clicktivism” has morphed into collective “Apptivism.”  Votes have been replaced by “clicks and likes”—and support is defined by digital amplification. 

New language to describe new employee behaviors:

e-mocracy at work
Niall Ferguson coined the term more broadly in the Sunday Times:

“… we no longer live in a democracy.  We live in an “e-mocracy”, where emotions rather than majorities rule and feelings matter more than reason. The stronger your feelings — the better you are at working yourself into a fit of indignation — the more influence you have … and never use words where emojis will do.” 

We are all used to complaining via social media that amplifies the issue and puts pressure on the target through viral escalation—why would work be any different?  New ways of exercising voice, individually and collectively, are spreading from the High Street and the social networking habits of individuals and into the workplace.  And they seem to work!

E-mocracy = emotions made public and amplified by an App or social networking site. 

The unintended activist
Some people identify a target for action and develop a comprehensive plan to have an issue go viral—or to support a traditional campaign with a social media element.  “Fight for 15” is a great example of shaming service providers over their wage levels by putting stories into the public domain and organizing “pop up protests” around the world.  We will get to that one.  

But some of the highest impact issues were not well planned, or even planned at all.  Think about Susan Fowler and her blog piece, “It’s been a strange year at Uber.”  She had a point to make about the leadership style of Travis Kalanick—but do you think she planned to get him fired?  Do you think the individual who videoed and posted the meeting at Carrier in Indianapolis announcing the production move to Mexico really thought she was about to have a huge influence on the U.S. presidential election?  These are today’s unintended activists.  They arise simply because when managers and companies behave badly or have to make difficult decisions there is a world audience ready to lap up the resulting blogs, posts, and videos.  Surely, one might counter,  people don’t believe everything they read on Facebook!  Well, 55% of U.S. adults this year said they got their current affairs news from social media!!

Social media gives individual workers the (unintended) ability to take the “inside outside,” to make public what would once have stayed within company walls.  Building walls is so yesterday.

In most parts of the world, there are provisions that protect the rights of workers who raise issues relating to their terms and conditions of employment.  Rules on Protected Concerted Activity are the U.S. version, and include protection for concerted activity through social media.  But what happens when workers resort to public social media campaigns about the products they make, who they sell them to, or the uses to which they are put?  Who even knew that major U.S. companies were selling facial recognition software to China?  We all do now.  How did an online retailer end out with a strike (sorry, my bad—#walkout—see below) because their products were sold to the government for use in immigration processing facilities on the Mexican border?   “Objectionism” has also moved what people expect from an employment relationship into politics, with employees demanding “their” companies take a stand on laws (immigration, for example) or financial support for particular politicians or their parties. 

“Objectionism” = employee voice moving beyond expressing grievances about “employment conditions” to demanding a say on the business, political, and social orientation of the companies they work for.

Pop up protests
Pop up stores are an essential feature of our shopping streets today.  A budding entrepreneur finds a stock of goods at a fantastic price, takes a short lease on a vacant retail store (there are plenty of them), and opens up for a day or a week offering bargain basement deals and then closes down.  Want a piece of the action?  Just find a bargain, visit “appearhere.us” to find fantastic locations around the world, open up, sell out, close down—why would anyone bother with fixed locations, rents, maintenance, infrastructure, or HR departments?  People love them: they are cheap, accessible, and fun.

Why go to all the trouble of following grievance procedures at work when you can have just as much fun and be more successful with a more modern approach?  Think about this in employee relations terms—a “pop-up” protest is one that arises out of an immediate event that gets traction with employees, uses no formal or ongoing organization, is cheap to organize, and fun and fulfilling to participate in.  As in pop-up stores, there is no need for infrastructure, members, fees, buildings, rents—you’ve got it—no need for unions.

Now this is not new.  When WalMart acquired (then sold) a German retailer, protesting students organized flash mobs of young people who would go to a store, fill their carts, get cashed out at multiple pay stations—and then claim they couldn’t pay.  The learning guys have their MOOCs (massive online open courses).  The #walkout is the employee relations equivalent.

The MSM (mainstream media) love pop-up protests and such coverage helps the organizers define the issue and get the target company in the crosshairs

“Strike” is such a nasty and aggressive term.  Who but a class warrior would want to use it these days?  All those meetings, ballots, pickets, and loss of pay.  #Walkouts are the generic term for “pop-up protests” that involve work stoppages by people who would never dream of going on “strike.”  Strikes are about me seeking to gain personally through an act of aggression: “walkouts are about collective actions involving like-minded friends who aim to produce a better and fairer society through minor acts of disruption.  They are “almost” spontaneous, organized fast whilst emotions are high, are not about pay and conditions but about unacceptable behaviors, are short and punishing, attract attention, are fun or emotionally satisfying to participate in, and involve little or no loss of salary.

Pop-up protests meet the emotional needs of the “existential activists,” more concerned with personal values that an extra $ on their pay check.

Clicktivism  to App-tivism
“Clicktivism” is where it all started.  Employees post comments, pictures or videos, “friends” or “followers” like them, they amplify exponentially with every “like”—and some go viral.  Trending issues are trawled by mainstream and web-based media and the feeding frenzy goes on.  Clicktivism is what drove the Carrier video to more than 4 million views in 48 hours.  Viral exposure comes through the acts of individuals behaving alone simply clicking and moving on.  Clicktivism allow you to “participate” without getting off your computer chair.

“Apptivism” is where collective actions are built.  Like-minded individuals gather together to support (or oppose) an issue using one of the many applications like “ WhatsApp” in the west and “Weibo” in China and engage in continuous dialogue and organize actions.  It might be a group of football supporters deciding what bar to meet in or a group of employees organizing collective voice.  Who needs to meet up in a works car park, spread leaflets around cafeterias, or go to cold union halls anyway?

Unlike “clicktivism,” “Apptivism” asks you to get off your chair—but not for long!—and at a time convenient to yourself.

So, you now no longer need to wear jeans at work or brown shoes with a dark suit—or for women, that fitted leather jacket—to be trendy in the corridors of power.  Brandish your new language with pride in the company of your learning, talent, and analytics colleagues in HR.  

You might also take a moment and think how you respond to these very different developments.