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Leftist memes are everywhere on Instagram. Now their creators are unionizing.

It’s a reflection of a broader shift in who unionizes, and why.

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

It started with a Shrek meme, but of course the origins go back much further. The IG Meme Union Local 69-420 — what other number could it possibly have used? — went public on April 10 as the project of just a single memer under the name @possumkratom69, but within a week had gone fully viral.

Memers make up a large and influential swath of Instagram, where they post amalgams of images and text that are often strange, funny, and in conversation with whatever else is happening in the meme ecosystem. They range from ultra-popular creators with millions of followers, many of whom simply steal the most popular content from elsewhere on the internet, to niche accounts with only a few thousand followers who create their own, often highly surreal or absurd images.

The union, the first major organizing effort for professional meme creators on Instagram, is made up of that latter group, and now has thousands of followers on its official account and an open application process for new members. As Taylor Lorenz notes in the Atlantic, it will probably never be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that governs unions, but the organizing drive is still very real: Not only does it use traditional union organizing tactics, but the memers have concrete demands they want Instagram to agree to. And with growing membership, they’ll likely have a bit of leverage.

That a bunch of weird internet artists who create posts that look like total gibberish to a vast majority of the population are forming a union is a lot less bizarre than it sounds. In fact, it makes total sense that creators on a platform where leftist and anti-capitalist discourse is increasingly common would decide to put those ideologies in practice.

What do the memers want? Adryn Alvarez, a representative of the organizing committee who runs the meme page @rezuler, told me that right now the union is focused on holding Instagram accountable to its ever-changing algorithms and practices that it deems shady: limiting the audience of individual accounts, censoring posts without reason or disabling accounts entirely, and the rampant practice of large accounts stealing content from smaller accounts and then monetizing it. That last demand in particular has received recent attention thanks to the #FuckFuckJerry campaign, in which comedians launched a boycott of the popular meme account Fuck Jerry for stealing jokes without permission or credit.

“There’s a huge disconnect between the individual and the corporation right now,” Alvarez says. It’s a problem faced by every virtually workforce that chooses to unionize, and it’s also one that speaks to a much broader shift in who unionizes, and why.

White collar workers are unionizing in unprecedented numbers

Though “white collar” is not necessarily a literal descriptor of the typical memer, workers in what professional and technical occupations — teachers, hospital staff, government employees, and media folks, for example — currently have higher rates of union membership than at any other point in history. In 2018, 6.18 million professional workers were in unions, capping a decade-long upward trend in professional union membership. Meanwhile, numbers of blue collar workers (think manufacturing and construction) — long the iconic image of American organized labor — have dropped rapidly.

A Slate piece from earlier this month explained this phenomenon, citing the recent organizing efforts of media brands like Fast Company, Gimlet, and Vox Media, universities like Columbia, and the Google walkout as evidence of labor’s new appeal for white collar workers. “It’s not that low-wage workers are moving up the ladder,” writes Bret Schulte, “but that the middle class is moving down and growing disillusioned with its prospects.”

Google employees protesting outside the NYC office on November 1, 2018.
Bryan R. Smith / AFP

“The people who are most likely to organize are not the ones with the worst jobs,” Karen Nussbaum of Working America told Slate. “It’s people who are most disappointed in what their jobs turned out to be, people who had expectations of their work life that have been trashed.”

Young people in general are also joining unions in larger numbers than their Gen X or Boomer peers — according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, workers under 35 are the fastest-growing demographic of new union members.

Memers — largely young and engaging in labor that’s creative — also don’t have the protections afforded to full-time staffers at corporations like Kickstarter, the staff of which also recently announced its plans to unionize. They do, however, perform valuable free labor that’s then monetized by the Facebook-owned Instagram.

It’s a system that everyone with social media account participates in; it’s just that the stakes are much higher when the social media account is your livelihood. And it is, for a growing number of people. Now, they’re attempting to demand more from the companies who profit from them.

Instagram has helped make union jargon mainstream

Though surely unintentionally, the very platform that some users say exploits them has also exposed them to pro-labor ideologies.

Though we often hear about radicalization online as it pertains to teenage boys watching a couple of YouTube videos and coming out the other side as white supremacists, there’s another, albeit much milder, example of it on the left: socialist memes.

Save for the most mainstream examples like Fuck Jerry or the Fat Jew, tons of popular meme pages regularly turn anti-capitalist, leftist, or socialist ideologies into irony-laden memes and shitposts.

According to Alvarez, part of the reason why he joined the IG Meme Union was through his introduction to leftist memes on the site. “I myself have discovered a lot of ideas I never thought about before just based on memes,” he says. “It’s not just a platform for comedy anymore: People are really discovering a lot about the world through memes, and it’s not a place that corporations should be stepping into for profit. It’s a place that we all need to organize for the greater good of the people.”

Leftist discourse on Instagram is so widespread that specific jargon has turned into its own memes. The term “late capitalism,” for example, has been inescapable on the internet for the past few years despite no one really knowing what it means; it’s instead used as shorthand for any particularly vile or absurd example of the ravages of the capitalist system. It’s through these same mechanisms that union jargon, too, has been mainstreamed.

As the labor movement continues to gain wider support among white collar workers — a demographic that includes Instagram’s own staff — the company may be forced to reckon with memers’ demands in one way or another. Though Instagram is under no legal obligation to bargain collectively with the IG Meme Union because its members are not employees of the company, if Instagram and its parent company Facebook want to appeal to public opinion, it may listen anyway.

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