With digital journalists planning to gather in Louisville, Ky. to discuss unionizing (and attend bluegrass concerts) in October, the Century Foundation is seizing what seems to be a heated moment of virtual labor activism. The liberal think tank released a report today on new opportunities for online union-building — and called on app developers to get in on the action.
Gathering support among colleagues has long been the basic building block of labor organizers, and seems ideally suited to be done over social networks and mobile devices. One organizing platform, Coworker.org, has already seen success in mobilizing workers via mobile, and is raising funds to build a dedicated app for the task.
"If you can plan a party with an app, you should be able to organize a union," wrote Moshe Marvit, a fellow at The Century Foundation and one of the report's authors, in an email to BuzzFeed News.
Given the methods some employers have used to delay union drives — harassment, threats, increased scrutiny, delaying tactics and retaliatory firings — the study's authors argue an app could make the process considerably smoother. Union organizers wouldn't have to come directly to a workplace, and an app would help counter what the report calls "the standard anti-union message that unions are 'interlopers' or 'outsiders.'"
Online communication gives workers privacy, so that they can get started quickly, Mark Zuckerman, president of The Century Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. That would be of particular advantage in signing up the critical mass of workers needed for the formal unionization process to begin.
"With an app, workers could get 30% of the cards signed before the employers know what's happening," he said.
Jess Kutch, co-founder of Coworker.org, an online tool for workplace organizing, told BuzzFeed News that workers — both union and non-union — use the site to petition for changes in workplace conditions that aren't included in contracts. So far, Zara workers have won wage and scheduling improvements, and others have called attention to everything from dress code rules against tattoos and beards to being required to work in the dark during a power outage at Walmart.
Right now, 70% of Coworker.org's traffic comes from mobile phones and 10% from tablets, according to Michelle Miller, the site's other co-founder. When workers in Australia organized sit-ins at their factory, she said they passed around cellphones to collect petition signatures in two campaigns — which ultimately led to back pay for temporary workers, a meeting with the boss, personal leave protections, and wage increases.
"We started to think about how to better transition our relationship with workers from a website to mobile," said Miller, which led to the idea of an app for labor campaigns. Coworker.org is currently fundraising to build the app, which could be used for union-building or other forms of collective action.
The idea, Miller said, is workers would join and immediately see who else in their workplace is signed up. They'd be presented with campaigns or questions — "should the workplace have paid sick leave?" for example — or petitions to sign about changing working conditions. By signing or declining, you'd see who else agreed with your complaints.
"It helps to see yourself as part of a collective in a digital environment, instead of an atomized individual with frustrations," Miller said.
Instead of spending money on people going from workplace to workplace, unions could direct funds to advertise and popularize apps like this, said Zuckerman — as well as relying on the organic reach of social networks.
That kind of low-cost organizing could address one of the biggest contradictions of the modern labor movement: that its most energetic and high-profile campaigns, to organize fast food and other minimum-wage workers, are unlikely to result in dues-paying members, and are funded primarily from the membership fees of workers in other industries.
"I feel like once a hundred groups of employees use this, it would catch on, like a lot of these apps," Zuckerman said. "It would initially need some promotion, but labor has the resources to do it."