As three unions within the University of California led the largest labor strike in United States higher-education history during November and December 2022, the topic of the strike occupied many social media platforms, namely Discord, Reddit and Twitter.
The Daily Nexus data team used DiscordChatExporter, PRAW and SNScrape to scrape 196 Discord posts from the UC Santa Barbara Discord, 876 Reddit posts and replies from r/UCSantaBarbara and 759 Twitter posts that discuss the strike at UCSB between Nov. 7 and Dec. 25, 2022. The data team used the NLTK Vader tool to analyze whether the social media sentiment about the strike was negative, positive or neutral. For the purposes of this article, “posts” refers to both the original postings, comments and replies.
Teaching assistants, postdoctoral scholars and academic and graduate student researchers across the 10 University of California (UC) campuses voted between Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 to strike over alleged unfair labor practices committed by the UC. The three unions that represent the graduate student workers — Student Researchers United, United Auto Workers (UAW) 5810 and UAW 2865 — officially started striking on Nov. 14.
Postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers ratified their new contracts on Dec. 9, and after six weeks of striking, graduate student researchers and teaching assistants approved their new contracts on Dec. 23.
During the strike, social media was widely used by graduate students, undergraduates, faculty, administration and the general public to disseminate information and discourse on the historic event.
Due to the nature of strikes requiring private discussion and negotiation among union members and the University of California, the sampled social media discourse may not be representative of UCSB students at large.
Liam Loberg, a second-year economics and accounting major who occasionally uses social media such as Reddit but rarely posts about hot-topic issues such as the strike, explained in a statement to the Nexus that, “I would like to support, but the energy needed to stay active with activism and post is not for me; it’s a lot of social energy.
“As a student, I have one main focus: my academics. Everything else is secondary,” he said.
While many UCSB students may refrain from posting, during the first week of the strike, there was significant discussion on all three social media platforms. The number of conversations was lower, but all platforms were still moderately active in all other weeks except for the week of Dec. 5.
On Dec. 6, strikers at UCSB blocked parking lots in the morning as undergraduates were attempting to get to their finals. The blocked parking lots contributed to a spike in debate on Reddit.
Loberg first heard about the parking lot blockage on Reddit, which operated as a source of information about the strike for some UCSB students. Despite claiming to be in support of the strike the entire time regardless, he said he became very disappointed by striker activities.
“I heard that students were blocked from parking during finals; that wasn’t the point of the strike at all. The strike was meant to cause disruption and bring light to a situation. It certainly was not meant to harm student activities,” Loberg said.
Daniel Naylor, a second-year mathematics major in the College of Creative Studies who goes by “Dan Le Man 2” on many of the UCSB-affiliated Discord servers, also had shifting sentiments on the strike, but in the opposite direction.
Naylor said in a statement to the Nexus that he first had an unfavorable view toward the strike, since he believed “public sector unions are organizations designed to secure better compensations from the public.”
However, according to Naylor, his outlook on the strike shifted when he realized “how terribly the school was allocating its funds,” pointing to Chancellor Henry T. Yang’s salary, which is currently $451,362 and will rise to $579,750 by March, as an example.
Joel Pion, a graduate teaching assistant at UCSB studying mathematics, described in an email statement the importance of unity amid a strike.
“The strike wouldn’t have happened if all the sentiment had been either positive or negative,” he said. “Strikes only can work if a critical mass of people participates. It is a collective action, and I don’t think there can be truly neutral bystanders.”
Tanzil Chowdhury, a third-year doctoral candidate and a head steward and bargaining team member representing UC Berkeley for UAW 2865, used Twitter as one method of communication to convey information about the strike to other graduate students and members of the greater community.
Chowdhury said his job as a head steward is to help his fellow graduate students organize and fight for their rights. “I understand that folks look to me for direction and that, for some people, my words holds some extra weight,” he said in a statement to the Nexus.
As such, Chowdhury said he posted information on Twitter, along with other social media platforms, with the goal of reaching as many people as possible. Some of his tweets gained thousands of views, and as the strike went on, he said he slightly cleared up his method of communication because it was crucial to the strike efforts.
However, Chowdhury says that the conversations that he believed were most productive and impactful were those that did not occur publicly over social media.
“I think social media has a way of bringing out some of the least productive elements of communication and raising the temperature more than is justified, so I kept that in mind while interacting on here,” he said. “The most fruitful communications were those done in person, one on one or in small groups. Those conversations had a lot more weight to me.”
Conversations on the UCSB Discord server — taking place primarily between UCSB students — about the strike consisted mostly of short messages on a variety of areas, including striker actions, personal opinions, shared experiences and information sharing.
Discussions about the strike would often be interwoven into other conversations, and users would frequently type multiple short messages in a row to convey their idea.
Several users who frequently discussed the strike over multiple weeks on the UCSB Discord server did not respond to requests for comment.
John Caldwell, a fourth-year film and media studies major, made a Reddit post asking, “What happened to the strike not effecting the undergrads lmao? Kinda beginning to lose my sympathy when all of this is coming direct conflict w the continuation of my academic and degree.” Caldwell expressed frustration at canceled class sections and potentially not receiving grades in time for graduation while still paying full tuition.
Caldwell explained in a statement to the Nexus that he, like many other UCSB students, only sees Reddit as a go-to medium for whenever he needs a quick laugh. However, once his frustration had reached a breaking point, he turned to Reddit — relying on its accessibility — to publicly display his exasperation.
While Caldwell states that he has always been on the side of the strikers because they are severely underpaid for their work, “My rage at the time of the strike to what was happening to me and my peers as a result of the strike is what led me to make the post in the first place,” he said.
In response, many Reddit users tried deconstructing his post and offered him a different perspective: the strike was a crucial step for strikers to fight against unfair labor practices and receive a living wage.
“People often tried breaking down to me why the strike was happening and I had to repeat myself time after time because I knew why the strike was happening and was honestly shocked to see how many people were okay with being walked over,” Caldwell said.
Reddit was used as a mass communication link between undergraduate and graduate students, according to Kristen Thomas-McGill, a doctoral candidate in history and teaching assistant who frequently posted about the strike on Reddit to actively inform students about strike updates and to answer general questions.
“[Reddit] allows for both long-form posts with links and bullet points and direct responses to Redditor comments. This allowed us to provide general information to large numbers of Redditors in the text of posts while also addressing specific Redditors’ concerns in the comments,” Thomas-McGill said in an email statement to the Nexus.
Aside from the content of the posts, Thomas-McGill also explained that another informative method strikers used to determine general feedback on the strike was the upvote-downvote system.
“Upvotes can indicate enthusiasm about a particular topic, so when Redditors gave our informational posts, upvotes well into the three digits. It not only ensured that our information reached the top of the subreddit, but also indicated to users that there was a community of people interested in the strike,” she said. “Frankly, Reddit raised hype about the strike. Downvotes, too, are important indicators because they’re an unambiguous expression of displeasure.”
Discord, Reddit and Twitter are populated by different audiences and thus all receive different inputs. When asked about the differences between social media platforms, Thomas-McGill explained that Twitter was a more public platform than Reddit or Discord, since users across the globe could access strike-related tweets through hashtags and retweets easily.
“I suspect that the responses from Twitter users will include proportionally more feedback from non-UC people than Reddit or Discord,” she said.
Even still, Thomas-McGill explained that engagement with the topic of the strike across social media platforms, regardless of what affiliation it may come from, was a massive morale boost.
“The strike and our labor conditions are not just UC issues but community issues,” she said.
A version of this article appeared on p. 6 and p. 7 of the Feb. 16, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.