Kellogg’s is pushing to replace striking workers. A Reddit ‘antiwork’ mob is fighting back. Driven by anti-capitalist “anger and resentment,” one of the Internet’s biggest “Great Resignation” discussion boards has focused its power into a real-world labor rights campaign. Rodney Conyers Sr. holds a sign outside the Kellogg’s plant in Omaha this month. Workers at four of the company’s U.S. cereal plants have been on strike since October. (Lily Smith/AP) By Drew Harwell December 17 at 5:47 am Taiwan Time Sean Wiggs, a junior at North Carolina A&T State University, was sitting in his apartment last week after class when he decided to join a union battle 1,000 miles away and humiliate a giant corporation. The cereal maker Kellogg’s was hiring scabs to replace striking workers, and on Reddit’s wildly popular r/Antiwork board, it seemed like everyone was as outraged as he was and looking for some way to fight back. So Wiggs, a self-taught coder, wrote a program to hammer the company’s hiring site with fake job applications. The code helped supercharge Antiwork’s organized spam campaign — he estimates it’s already sent off thousands of bogus filings — which went viral across the Web. A TikTok video of him coding it has been liked more than 75,000 times. “A year ago, I had no idea I was able to get involved in something like this,” Wiggs, 21, said. “Now there are ways to help even if you can’t go march for labor rights.” Antiwork launched as a philosophical board devoted to the not-so-modest goal of abolishing the concept of work. But during the pandemic, it has exploded into what Reddit last week called “the Poster Child for The Great Resignation,” an angry town square bristling with the daily indignities of bad bosses, inhumane workplaces and dead-end jobs.
The Kellogg’s strike marked the board’s most aggressive step yet toward real-world labor activism, as its followers, or “idlers,” mobilized as an anonymous force that the $20 billion company couldn’t avoid. It also highlighted the unrestrained power of mass organizing in the Internet age; some argued it could lead to even more commanding movements in the years ahead. A Kellogg’s spokesperson said the company’s hiring site is “fully operational” but declined to answer other questions. Corrina Christensen, a spokeswoman with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, said Redditors had moved in a “creative way” to support the strike, and that “all support is helpful when workers on the picket line can benefit.” The push, she added, “seemed to come from a younger demographic of creative online social activists bent on creating a lot of online thunder.” [Kellogg's facing political pressure to resume contract talks] The Washington Post interviewed half a dozen Redditors on r/Antiwork, which has grown from 100,000 “idlers” at the start of the pandemic to nearly 1.5 million today. (Slogan: “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”) Some said they joined Reddit to laugh at memes or talk about video games but ended up getting swept into a mass movement that felt important, approachable and fierce. Most requested to speak anonymously for fear their comments could be used against them at their real-world jobs. They had little to no experience on the front lines of union fights. But they felt empowered by the Internet tools at their disposal, from the simple organizing systems of Reddit and Google Docs to the mass-promotional outlets of TikTok, Twitter and Twitch. “I saw these movements rising and wanted to be a part of them,” said one user, “nahnothankyousorry,” a 20-year-old restaurant host in Charlottesville.
“Antiwork gave people a space to channel feelings of anger and resentment … into excitement and hope,” he added. “When we realized we can do something, we collectively started working to get it done.” Gabriella Coleman, a Harvard University anthropology professor who studies online activism, said the Antiwork blitz shows how it has transformed in the years since hacking collectives such as Anonymous first started promoting social causes and rattling business executives. The early “hacktivist”-driven efforts were run by “technological elites who were always online,” she said. But today, they’re for anyone willing to take “advantage of social and technical vulnerabilities and the distributed nature of social media in this very populist way.” The rise of this labor rights movement, she said, shows how online tools can be used by energized people across the political spectrum to challenge power and push for change. But without rules or moderators who function “like the conductors of an orchestra,” she said, they can descend into a “total mass of chaos,” with dangerous or damaging results. [From QAnon to WallStreetBets: The rise of the online mob] Reddit, one of the world’s most popular websites, is built on hundreds of thousands of issue-related discussion boards, called “subreddits,” with their own subcultures, rules and dialects. Anyone can post there, but each thread and comment gets voted on by other users; “upvoted” comments get attention and discussion, while “downvoted” ones get ignored. Reddit, which launched in 2005, said Wednesday it had told the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in a confidential filing that it intended to go public. In August, the company said it made more than $100 million in advertising revenue in the second quarter of the year and that investors had valued it at more than $10 billion. The site has become famous for the surprising vim of its online mobs, many of which have been organized by anonymous strangers who’ve never met.
Earlier this year, the first-time traders and investor junkies of the audacious r/WallStreetBets subreddit tilted the stock market by voting in lockstep on a strange mix of “meme stocks,” winning and losing tons of cash along the way. Antiwork’s loose affiliation of anarchists, communists, angry workers and everyday liberals says they aren’t in it for the money, and they push back vigorously against anything capitalist on the argument that most businesses have become too destructive to tolerate. During the pandemic, the subreddit has become widely celebrated for its glimmers of workday catharsis: One of Reddit’s most popular posts of the year, with 275,000 upvotes, was a single image of user “hestolemysmile” quitting their job over a text message. WallStreetBets is “trying to beat the billionaires at their own system,” said one Antiwork moderator, “tobotic,” who describes himself as a 41-year-old self-employed programmer in the U.K. “We’re trying to take down the system — in, you know, a peaceful transition way.” [The worker revolt comes to a Dollar General in Connecticut] In October, when union members rejected Kellogg’s contract offer and called for a multi-plant strike, the news became a major topic of discussion as subscribers closely followed the negotiations from afar. Then last week, the company announced that it would hire new workers to replace the 1,400 strikers, saying it had “an obligation to our … consumers to continue to provide the cereals that they know and love.” Idlers fumed.
The user “BloominFunions” kicked Antiwork into action, posting links to the Kellogg’s plants’ job-posting sites — in Battle Creek, Mich.; Omaha; Lancaster, Pa.; and Memphis — and urging readers to “clog their toilet of an application pipeline.” Sharing the plants’ nearest phone area codes and Zip codes and links to sample résumés, he wrote, “This is your chance to apply for your dream job. … I submitted four applications. How many did you submit?” The thread exploded, gaining more than 65,000 upvotes, and was reposted onto other subreddits, including r/LateStageCapitalism (“Evidence of our Social, Moral and Ideological Rot,” 694,000 followers) and r/LostGeneration (“For those who did everything our parents told us to do … now what?” 285,000 followers). “A passive boycott won’t effect near-term change. We needed a plan for direct action,” said “BloominFunions,” a 42-year-old tech-company worker in California. “Usually hiring managers are ghosting us, misleading us with phony starting wages or working hours, then ignoring us. It felt good to do the opposite.” He said he had found Antiwork through Reddit’s “front page” of most popular posts a few months ago and has been angered and motivated by all the stories of “a silent majority of Americans, especially millennials and zoomers, who feel that they can’t succeed in the current economic system, no matter how hard they try.” [GameStop stock plunge leaves newbie traders to reckon with heavy losses] His post also fueled a wave of new innovation. People shared links to Wiggs’s fake-application program. User “GGCrono” shared a résumé template on Google Docs with suggested language (“Detail-oriented professional”; “communication skills.”) And user “HeyHoLetsGo615” created another program that did nothing but submit sham applications, the Kellogg Time Waster 3000. “As an employee of Kellogg’s who is striking, I THANK YOU for your service,” one user wrote. More upvotes led to more posts. Users posted printable anti-Kellogg’s graphics. They shared news stories of President Biden last week saying he was “deeply troubled” by the “existential attack on the union and its members’ jobs and livelihoods.” And they compiled “megathreads” outlining everything from corporate outrages (“CEO’s salary is over $11M”) to which brands to boycott (Eggo, Froot Loops).
The subreddit’s sudden growth has pushed the moderators to review more posts for violations of the community’s rules, including advocating for violence, targeted harassment or personal attacks — which can be a challenge, since so many in the audience are anarchists, who chafe at leaders’ decrees, the moderator “topotic” said. The growth has also fueled debates among the subreddit faithful around how to best focus their power. In a survey he conducted earlier this month, 75 percent said they were younger than 35, 30 percent said they were socialist or anti-capitalist, and 65 percent said they work full time. “As the community’s growing, there’s an influx of less radical members, and that in some ways dilutes what the community’s talking about,” he said. “But it also gives the radical part a bigger audience.” [Up all night with a Twitch millionaire: The loneliness and rage of the Internet’s new rock stars] Wiggs, who wrote the program to fill out job applications with gibberish, said he watched as Kellogg’s began adding email verification, anti-spam RECAPTCHA systems and other hurdles in an attempt to block bogus filings. But because he posted the code to the open-source site GitHub, contributors raced to help him update the program, adding in new features to get around those hurdles, sometimes within a few hours. On Monday, when he broadcast himself working on the program on the streaming site Twitch, anonymous viewers started suggesting little improvements he could fold into the code. Someone on GitHub wrote Wednesday that they were adapting the code for a spinoff program, “autoscab,” that other unions could use in future strikes. Wiggs based his “KelloggBot” off a similar program he’d built in September with the goal of overwhelming a website run by a Texas antiabortion group seeking to expose abortion providers. A similarly crowdsourced campaign happened last year when TikTok users flooded a site grabbing tickets to a Tulsa rally for President Donald Trump, then didn’t show up. (The rally’s turnout was low, but Trump’s team said they weeded out phony requests.) Wiggs said he’s not doing anything illegal — the programs don’t block legitimate filings, though they’re custom-built to monopolize a recruiter’s time — but his supportive family members have offered to hire a lawyer, just in case. “There will never not be a place for physical organizing, door-knocking, marching, standing on the picket line,” he said. “But there’s a rise of people learning about and wanting to get involved in this kind of activism from their home. And it doesn’t have to be as extravagant as creating a bot.”