Labor disputes are as old as capitalism itself, but the battlefields on which they are fought are constantly evolving.
That’s a lesson Ralphs learned this week when — after food workers across Southern California voted for it authorize a strike – A digital activist threw a TikTok-shaped wrench at the chain’s efforts to prevent work stoppages by hiring temporary “scab” workers.
“Let’s say you’ve always wanted to work at Ralphs,” said activist Sean Wiggs, who posts under the stage name Sean Black viral video he uploaded to TikTok on Tuesday. “Let’s say you’ve always had a dream of submitting one – or more – applications to that particular Ralphs store.”
Wiggs then directed viewers to a computer script that he said would flood a Ralphs recruitment portal with fake job apps in just a few clicks. The script has enabled more than 25,000 such submissions, he told the Times.
“It’s a way of fulfilling your dream of always working at Ralphs while also punishing an anti-union company,” Wiggs cheekily remarked in the video, which has since been viewed more than 35,000 times first reported about it by VICE. “Best of both worlds!”
The job page in question no longer appears to be active; a QR code directing Applicant leads to a gray page and the message: “This position cannot be viewed at the moment. It’s either been deleted or is no longer available.” Wiggs said in his TikTok video that the site lacked basic protections against automated spam attacks, such as email verification or anti-bot captchas.
“It is disappointing that these failed attempts were aimed at disruption [a community’s] Access to fresh groceries and essential items,” said John Votava, a Ralphs representative, in an emailed statement. “To be clear, we are focused on coming [an] agreement with [the United Food and Commercial Workers union] that would eliminate the need for temporary workers.”
Votava didn’t say why the site was down or if it would resume operations at some point in the future, but said the company had “successfully hired temporary workers for all sites.”
Tens of thousands of union members have voted to strike if their wage demands are not met in forthcoming contract negotiations. Besides Ralphs, a subsidiary of Kroger, other chains that could be the subject of the strike could also include Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions.
“Technology gives the community another way to show solidarity with us, and we appreciate the support,” said Ashley Manning, a cashier at a San Pedro Ralphs store and a member of the tariff committee, in a statement released by a union spokesman . “We hope Ralphs gets the message to end its anti-union behavior and negotiate a fair contract.”
This isn’t the first time social media has been used as a tool for work activism. Warnings about which picket lines not to cross quickly spread to Twitter, and digital communication tools can prove invaluable when it comes to unionizing workplaces — particularly those that don’t exist in a single, centralized office. Social media has also helped gig economy workers on platforms like DoorDash organize strikes.
In the summer of 2020, TikTokers the app uses to Coordinate ticket reservation en masse for a rally that then-President Donald Trump was planning, hoping that unless they showed up to claim their seats, the venue would remain mostly empty. Turnout at the event was lower than expected, although it is difficult to attribute this result to individual activist activities.
Some trolls too Use bot scripts to get their enemies suspended or banned from TikTok by flooding the platform’s complaints system with reports of content violations.
Wiggs is a veteran of this type of computer code activism; his anti-ralphs tool is one of several such scripts he has developed.
He said he programmed similar programs to support organized labor actions at Kellogg, where workers walked off the ground at some of the company’s grain plants in late 2021, and Starbucks, where workers went on strike this year in cities like Kansas City and Denver amid a chain-wide union crackdown advance. He also programmed a script to flood a website with fake reports of violations of Texas’ new anti-abortion law; The law promises rewards for those who report others for performing or assisting in abortions.
This type of “digital labor activism” is on the rise and will continue to grow in popularity, Wiggs added. “It allows people like me who are not in the strike area and not directly involved to support from anywhere. That’s the power the internet offers to people who want to make a difference.”
Although Ralphs’ original job posting is now offline, Wiggs’ work continues. Using QR codes he found on Reddit famous “anti-work” forumit has added two more Ralphs business-specific application portals to its codebase, he told The Times.
As of Wednesday afternoon, one of those two portals appeared to have failed. The other stays up for now.