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United Auto Workers leaders knew from the beginning that social media would play a bigger role than it ever has in labor negotiations with Detroit automakers.

Early on, union leadership cautioned bargainers and others involved in the talks to say nothing to anybody, for fear that a discarded proposal would be re-Tweeted throughout the union membership. The union, under President Dennis Williams, managed to lock down most leaks.

But the leadership couldn’t control the rank and file at Fiat Chrysler.

Workers vented their frustration online about the lack of information before the tentative contract even was announced. The rancor grew as details of the deal began to come out. “Vote no” campaigns were waged on the Internet. Rumors and half-truths were shared widely. Facebook pages were the medium for personal attacks on union leaders like Williams and Vice President Norwood Jewell.

“I’m not sure the pope could have managed this effectively,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research.

Social media experts say the union could have done a better job controlling the message and reassuring members, but said it’s hard to turn the tide of public opinion once workers discover an online voice.

Gene Grabowski is a partner at Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm Kglobal who specializes in crisis communications and social media. He said that in recent years, Facebook and Twitter have been assets to organizations like labor unions because they can help rally, motivate and inform workers quickly.

“It’s probably backfired in this case,” Grabowski said. “Union leadership did not fully connect with their membership … they’ve been damaged by the very vehicle that has been useful for them the past few years.”

A lack of information from the union created a vacuum that was quickly filled online.

Workers were upset about product commitments leaked to the news media that the union and automaker have yet to confirm. Those commitments include a $5.3 billion investment in North America that would include moving most car production to Mexico.

They also were frustrated over a lack of details about a proposed health insurance pool that would include hourly workers — and possibly salaried workers — from all three Detroit automakers.

“I think the Whole IUAW has realized they may have bitten off more than they can chew,” Andy Carlton, an FCA worker, posted Wednesday on Facebook. “And realized they greatly underestimated us as whole. Try again ...”

In some cases, local leadership has tried to turn down the volume on the dissonance.

“Please don’t listen to the rumors on the shop floor or especially on social media,” Dan Morgan, shop chairman for UAW Local 1112, wrote in a recent update on local contract negotiations with General Motors Co.

“We would also appreciate our members refraining from making any negative remarks about this agreement until you have been updated by your leadership. These comments give the public an opportunity to bash this union and is a negative reflection on our membership.”

Don Tanner, a partner at Farmington Hills-based Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications, said the union needs to focus on pushing its message and responding to workers who have questions.

But he said social media can help create a “mob mentality” that can be hard to overcome.

“It’s so easy to pseudo-protest and electronically picket now whether it’s anonymously or otherwise; it’s the world we live in,” Tanner said. “I don’t know if there’s anything (union leadership) could have done differently.”

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2401

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