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  • Mark 4:21 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , ucu, ucu strikes, uss stries   

    Social media, #USSStrikes and Digital Sociology 

    It was perhaps inevitable that I would find myself obsessing over the role of social media in the current strikes. In my academic life, I’m a sociologist studying how social media is used within universities and how this is changing the academy. In my non-academic life, I’m a digital engagement specialist at a charity and a social media consultant. Since the start of the strike, I’ve been helping out with the social media for the Cambridge UCU branch while running the #FromThePicketLines campaign for The Sociological Review. This has left me fascinated by how the strike is being represented, co-ordinated and responded to through Twitter.

    The most enjoyable aspect of this has been an outpouring of multimedia creativity which has quickly been circulated through these channels. In part, it is easier to produce such material as barriers to production have lowered with each successive generation of smart phones and a rapidly consolidating culture of amateur multimedia production. But there has also been a mimesis effect, as initial examples have spurred other branches and campaigns to produce their own multimedia project. This also reflects the visual turn in social media, initially driven by Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat before older platforms expanded their visual capacities to avoid losing users to these newer competitors. For instance, 1,582 tweets were made with the hashtag #GIFusourpensions after the first week of the strike, using the animated GIFs now built into the Twitter platform to illustrate the evolving strike using extracts from popular culture. These 720 users produced 3,265,401 impressions between them (occasions on which a post was seen by a user). There have also been creative uses of tools which streamline the process of generating social media content, such as meme generators and caption makers, with my favourite example being a vice-chancellor themed Hitler bunker parody. As the strike has progressed, we have seen increasing numbers of videos being produced, ranging from serious attempts to explain the concept of the picket line through to comedic offerings which gently satirise the privilege of those who appear in them. While any one example is probably insignificant, the aggregate effect represents an expansion of symbolic participation in the strike, itself significant for knowledge workers without many material correlates to their labour or its withdrawal.

    What fascinates me about this is how it has arisen spontaneously, without prior coordination or any meaningful sense of what one does with social media under these circumstances. It would obviously be mistaken to imagine that branches were previously insulated from one another, acting in institutional silos while only the national organisation linked all the nodes together. To a large extent, we have seen activists around the country taking up these social media platforms as tools, perhaps informed by their past professional and/or activist experience of them, finding uses which are enjoyable but also finding receptive audiences. The fact these audiences are often made up of other activists, as well as a broader academic community which has in effect taken to activism en masse, incites them towards similar action. For all that popular debate has been concerned with ‘filter bubbles’, we see the other side of online community here, as people with converging motivations inspire each other in pursuit of common aims.

    These are just speculative thoughts, informed by helping with the social media of my local UCU branch and running a #fromthepicketline social media campaign as part of my (non-academic) day job during the strike. But there are a great many empirical questions which have been raised by the role of social media in this strike, inviting answers which would have a double significance as matters of union strategy but also as empirical social science.

  • Mark 11:46 am on February 26, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , ucu, ussstrike   

    Social media strategy and #USSStrikes 

    In the last week, I’ve found myself obsessing about the use of social media in #USSStrikes. This was probably inevitable, helping with two social media campaigns related to the strike while also being someone who studies social media. In preparation for a teach out later today and to feed into the social media strategy for my local branch, I spent a couple of hours this morning preparing some thoughts on social media strategy for #USSStrikes and reading a really helpful paper someone sent me about @UCU.

    In this 2015 paper, Andy Hodder and David Houghton offered a systematic analysis of @UCU’s twitter activity over a four month period. They frame this in terms of the uptake of the internet by trade unions, which in the earlier literature was “centred around debates on optimistic and pessimistic opinions about the possibilities for the Internet to enable union renewal” (174). The core claim of the optimists was a now familiar one: internet communications made it possible to flatten the hierarchies of trade unions, producing a more distributed and democratic discourse in the process. However the pessimists recognised that new communications technologies can be taken up by existing elites within organisations in order to extend their control over deliberation, contrary to the assumption of a binary opposition between bureucracy and the internet (174).

    Hodder and Houghton reconsider these considerations in terms of the emergence of social media, which they recognise as less a technological innovation (for these capacities existed in ‘Web 1.0’) as an extension and mainstreaming of existing opportunities, facilitated by a technical infrastructure allowing much greater opportunity to access the internet. This leads them to stress how a platform like Twitter has no intrinsic democratising effect on trade unions, simply offering another channel through which the existing leadership can formulate, communicate and manage a collective message:

    However, for example, while Twitter largely facilitates interaction and conversation between users, it still enables a union to control what message is coming from an account, and to monitor and control the content of such communication. Therefore, the way in which social media platforms are used by unions can reinforce the power and
    authority of union leadership. (175)

    The novelty is in how fast moving these platforms are rather than how organisations approach them. It is possible these communications challenges drive pluralism through making traditional message discipline difficult to sustain and incentivising engagement as a root to increasing visibility online. Their empirical study sought to clarify this through three research questions:

    1. Is the content of the message in line with mobilisation theory?
    2. What is being said by trade unions on social media?
    3. Who are the audience?

    The four month period in which they collected and categorised all @UCU tweets (original, retweet or conversational) included four instances of strike action. The original tweets were coded in terms of mobilisation theory: framing of an injustice, attribution of blame for the injustice or evidence of action. 61.79% of the original tweets could be coded in this way. They take this to mean that “although UCU is using a modern platform to communicate, the content of the majority of tweets (61.79 per cent) remains in the traditional style of unions” which I’m not sure I agree with (185). In a parallel analysis, all  tweets were subsequently categorised as recruitment, campaigning, external campaigning, strike building, strike action, solidarity, engagement, news, other. This analysis produced a range of interesting findings:

    • There was little use of Twitter for recruitment during this period: only 4 instances. I found this particularly striking given it was during a period where there was repeated industrial action, higher visibility and a greater propensity of non-members who were engaging with @UCU to join.
    • This finding on pg 181 seems particularly important: “An interesting approach UCU adopted was to tweet to those affected by industrial action—students—explaining the reason, purpose and necessity of such action”. My hunch is the capacity of social media to not only generate solidarity between staff and students but also to produce action on the basis of this has barely been tapped.
    • Another finding on pg 181 which seems interesting: “UCU frequently retweeted posts that linked current issues to wider cultural references, or current Twitter trends, often containing humour. For example, a parody of Monty Python’s The Life or Brian, ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?’ had been tweeted by users in a video entitled, ‘What Have the Unions Ever Done For Us?’, which listed union successes. Links to the profession were also made around Valentine’s Day, when a Twitter trend for academic valentine’s poems was hijacked by users writing similar style poems about the pay dispute, which UCU often retweeted.” My impression has been this has declined with time but I’ve not examined it systematically.
    • They note how useful social media is for allowing “workforce that does not have common, set hours or a physical place of work when they are not teaching or attending meetings” to signal their participation in strike action, expanding visibility beyond the picket line (182).
    • @UCU was on the whole more active during strike periods, retweeting more often but engaging in less conversation (182-183). This presumably reflects greater engagement coupled with greater demands on the time of union staff. But could carefully escalated conversational engagement prove to be a crucial strategy during strike periods? In its absence simply retweeting more could be seen as “an attempt to demonstrate some form of controlled interaction with followers” (186) without the underlying reality.
    • It was interesting to note that in spite of the decline in conversational engagement, @UCU was well engaged with publications such as Times Higher Education via Twitter: “UCU was particularly engaging with the Times Higher Education’s request via Twitter for details on those VCs earning more than £100,000 per annum. In these tweets, the language became increasingly subversive towards institutions, VCs and UCEA, especially regarding pay deductions for participation in the strike action.” 
    • Tweets were used to coordinate strike action, being “sent to indicate when strike action began, but also when members
      should return to work, coordinating the different picket lines and those working from home who had ‘downed tools’ in their own way” (183). Coupled with the aforementioned conversational strategy, I wonder if this could be used more directly in order to address some of the confusion and uncertainty which circulated online in the run up to the current extended period of strike action?
    • Unsurprisingly, sharing solidarity messages was a distinct feature of @UCU’s tweeting during the period.
    • Another interesting observation they made in the paper was the non-existent relationship between the size of a membership and the size of a Twitter following for the trade unions they analysed.

    It was particularly interesting to see who UCU was engaging with. This classification is difficult on social media and the author’s chose to interpret multiple self-identifications into which ever was most relevant to the union:

    Towards the end of the paper, the authors acknowledge the limitation of focusing only on @UCU. The question which seems urgent to me is: how are branches using social media? Can it be analysed in the terms above to understand strengths and weakness? How can @UCU maximise its engagement to harness the reach and creativity of these branches? How can branches develop their own strategies which hook in to national campaigning in an effective and sustainable way? These issues are not a million miles away from ones which Labour has dealt with in the last two years, as the run away success of their social media strategy has come from building a flexible and open relationship with a vast array of affiliated initiatives.

    Any thoughts on this are much appreciated. We are shaping the local branch’s social media strategy on the fly, as I suspect are many other branches around the country. To whatever extent time allows, it would be great to share experiences and coordinate action, particularly as the strike continues beyond this week.

    • Tony Coughlan 8:46 am on March 3, 2018 Permalink

      Thanks for this timely and interesting post Mark.

      You end by asking how union branches are using social media. I might be wrong, but I think during the current USS dispute UCU have asked local branches to emphasise that it is a national dispute, potentially limiting local branches’ autonomy.

    • Mark 10:44 am on March 9, 2018 Permalink

      Hi Tony, I’d love to read about that. Do you have any more details?

    • Tony Coughlan 11:36 am on March 9, 2018 Permalink

      Regret that I’ve not seen anything in writing Mark; I heard it during a discussion on a picket line on 27 Feb.

    • Mark 4:17 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink

      Ah I haven’t seen anything here. Would be really interested to know more.

  • Mark 4:34 pm on January 22, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , ucu   

    UCU’s recent anti-casualisation work  

    I always find it irritating when people say UCU does nothing to fight against casualisation. Here’s a round up of recent activity which was sent to the anti-casualisation mailing list:

    A quick roundup on some of UCU’s recent work for staff on casual contracts…

    Latest local progress reported on our website:

    There are two new case studies on our (newly revamped) website, where you can read about branches who have campaigned, negotiated and won improvements for hourly paid staff in both Further and Higher Education:



    Security Matters – UCU’s campaign magazine, supporting the fight against casualisation:

    Security Matters includes articles by academics, experts, reps working at the front line of the fight against casualisation. 

    Download your copy here: http://www.ucu.org.uk/securitymatter

    Support the fight against casualisation in your branch:

    UCU needs more members on casual contracts to get involved in the campaign against casualisation. Here’s what you can do: 

    *Find out if your branch has a campaign group

    *Find out if your branch has an anti-casualisation rep

    • Register for the Annual Meeting for staff on casual contracts. Find out more here:


  • Mark 9:38 am on January 23, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , striking, ucu,   

    We’re all in it together within #HigherEd 

    In an email, seen by the Guardian, one university said that going on strike was a breach of staff’s employment contracts. Although the strike is only set to last for two hours at lunch time, university bosses told academics that they should leave for a whole day, if they wanted to strike. The email said: “If you take two-hour strike action but perform your normal duties during the rest of the day, those services you do provide on the strike day whether in the university, at home or elsewhere, will be voluntary and at your discretion and you will not be paid.”

    The University and College Union (UCU) said the universities threatening to dock pay, include: Nottingham Trent University, University of Chester, University of Dundee, Oxford Brookes University, Glasgow Caledonian University, University of Leicester, De Montfort University, Staffordshire University, University of Wolverhampton, University of Surrey and Leeds College of Art.


    The two hour walk out follows strikes by academics and support staff inOctober and December over a “miserly” 1% pay increase for rank-and-file university staff. UCU says that the pay offer means academics across the UK faced a 13% pay cut in real terms since October 2008.

    Meanwhile, vice-chancellors have received wage increases averaging 8.1%, with some now on more than £400,000.


    • BeingQuest 6:32 am on January 24, 2014 Permalink

      Institutional Value trumps Personal Value. Nice.

      “Resistance is futile.” ~ Borg

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