The American labor movement is finally starting to go online. It was born from the shifting economic environment created by the Industrial Revolution—and we are, once again, at a technological turning point: this time, change is driven across transistors rather than by steam engines. Labor issues are as much in flux as any part of the economy, with Uber and other “on-demand economy” companies creating both new opportunities and new perils for workers. Workers’ rights are struggling to keep pace with technological progress.
Responding to this tumultuous new environment, in June a report from the Century Foundation advocated the creation of an online platform for labor organizing.
“We’ve seen how technology can change an industry overnight,” said Mark Zuckerman, president of the Century Foundation and one of the report’s authors. “We’ve seen that with Uber, we’ve seen that with Amazon. Why can’t this technology that’s helping millions of people in the consumer realm be deployed to help individuals who want the choice of joining a union?”
The process of joining a union might seem straightforward. If a sufficient percentage of employees in a bargaining unit at a workplace indicate interest in joining a union, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) schedules an election. A polling area is set up, often on the employer’s property, and paper ballots are cast. The bargaining unit becomes part of a union if the majority of votes are in favor.
But difficulties arise when employers try to halt or delay the process, as they often do. They employ any number of tactics, for instance punishing organizing workers or spreading misinformation about the union. Zuckerman’s report cites a 2007 study that found that although 60 percent of workers that year indicated they wanted to join a union, only 12 percent were union members. Union membership in the private sector has decreased steadily since the 1950s, when nearly a third of American workers were unionized: currently, only about 7 percent of private sector workers are members of a union.
“The problem with organizing unions,” said Zuckerman, “is it’s the same way we’ve been organizing unions since the ‘30s. It’s not organic, it’s not making use of technology.”
An NLRB-backed online platform, he argues, would bolster unionization. It would alleviate much of the paperwork friction that discourages efforts to unionize and also could connect workers more readily with union representatives. Streamlining the process is important: low wage workers often view joining a union as too much of a hassle to gain better conditions at what they see as a temporary job. Getting the federal NLRB to endorse such a platform would be a highly political process and would surely encounter fierce resistance from business and its many allies in Washington. It’s hard to see it happening anytime soon.
But even without such a dedicated online tool, using Internet technology for labor organizing has already achieved significant victories for low-wage workers. The “Fight for $15” movement, funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and propagated across social media, has successfully mobilized thousands of fast-food workers, who historically have never unionized. The movement has won increases in minimum wage in cities across the United States, from Los Angeles to Chicago. Now Governor Cuomo has decreed that fast-food workers across New York State will begin receiving $15 per hour by 2021.
And there is a problem that the Century Foundation’s report does not address: traditional unions are simply not an option for an growing number of Americans. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which gives private sector employees the right to join a labor union, has undergone relatively few changes since its passing in 1935. It also excludes certain categories of workers—like independent contractors, whose proportion of the American workforce has steadily risen since the 1970s.
An official platform for digital unionizing, such as the one Zuckerman’s report suggests, would be restricted by the limited reach of the NLRA. “Unions have gotten smaller and smaller within this unchanged carapace of the NLRA,” said Joel Rogers, a professor of law, political science, public affairs, and sociology at the University of Wisconsin. “The technology’s not going to change the law. The technology’s just going to help you organize better within the frame of the law.”
But there are other ways digital technology can benefit workers seeking representation. According to Coworker.org cofounder Michelle Miller, future models of workplace advocacy will shift away from traditional labor unions and towards decentralized networks. “I hope that the future of labor organizing is more than just one thing, or one solution,” she said.
While unions have declined, nonunion labor groups—known as “alt-labor”—have stepped in to fill the void. Workers excluded from NLRA protection have found means to improve their lot in organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Freelancers Union, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC).
There are significant drawbacks for workers in resorting to alt-labor organizing. Without union protection, workers who participate in a strike risk being fired. There’s also the challenge of continuous engagement: without a regular cycle of union contract renegotiations, workers aren’t prompted to take an active stance in labor conditions unless a specific problem has arisen. A group of employees might come together and win one workplace dispute, but the next time their employer introduces an unpopular policy, they would have to once again coordinate an opposition.
Having previously worked on digital engagement at the SEIU, Miller is trying to tackle this problem by building communities through the Internet. In 2013, she and Jess Kutch launched Coworker.org, a petitioning platform that resembles Change.org but is focused entirely on labor issues. Users who sign a Coworker.org campaign have the option of identifying themselves as employees of the relevant company, which allows them to continue receiving community-oriented messages even after the campaign is over.
“We have a network of about 20,000 Starbucks baristas in 17 countries, who joined initially in a campaign against the company’s policy against visible tattoos,” said Miller. That particular petition resulted in Starbucks revising its dress code to allow non-offensive visible tattoos; Some Starbucks employees continue to use Coworker.org for ongoing campaigns regarding sick leave and higher wages.
“Every month, we send updates about what’s going on at Starbucks Corporate, and we share tweets and stories from baristas that we’ve collected,” said Miller, who hopes that perpetuating a community will help the baristas remain in solidarity with each other even when they aren’t fighting for a cause. “We’re testing the ways sharing content can help folks feel more connected through a network.”
Internet communication is also vital for labor organizing when some people may never share a physical space with their coworkers. Niloufar Salehi, a computer science Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, is researching how online workers could join together. As part of her research she created Dynamo to mobilize Turkers, the people who fulfill assignments on Amazon’s crowd labor platform, Mechanical Turk.
“Our initial assumption was that we were going to help them build a union,” she said. “The way unions generally work is that there’s a committee of people, and the goal for that committee is a single voice that represents all the workers.”
This doesn’t work quite so well with a group as heterogeneous as Turkers, according to Salehi. Some treat Mechanical Turk as a full-time job, others as a source of merely supplemental income. Turkers are from around the world, keep their own hours, and rarely come face-to-face with each other. “It’s really hard for them to get together and decide, ‘this is what our single voice should say,’” said Salehi.
On Dynamo, users post ideas on how to improve Mechanical Turk for Turkers. Other users then upvote or downvote these ideas Reddit-style, so that popular ideas rise; after a certain threshold of upvotes is reached, an idea evolves into an actionable campaign. One of Dynamo’s early accomplishments has been standards for academic researchers who use Mechanical Turk: 23 pages of ethical guidelines, including appeals for reasonable time estimates for completing work and fair wages. So far, 56 researchers have signed the guidelines—Salehi, naturally, was the first.
“I find it really fascinating to think about how we can use the resources we have to change the world for the better,” she said. “I think we could use technology as a tool, but we just don’t know how to do it yet.”
As organizers continue to experiment with new methods and approaches towards labor activism in the digital age, we may be seeing the glimmerings of a revived labor movement.