Technology has already fundamentally changed the way that millions of people work. Now, it’s changing the way they unify to make demands of their employers.
Waning union power across industries and around the world has left workers with fewer formal structures for venting grievances. In some sectors, the rise of the gig economy and remote work means people aren’t meeting and forming relationships with co-workers like they used to. All of this has made it harder for rank-and-file employees to organize and collectively lobby their bosses for change.
But a spate of new digital tools offers a workaround, helping people to find far-flung peers, share grievances, and coordinate action.
Workers have used online petition platforms like Coworker.org to push their employers to give them hazard pay during the pandemic, require masks in stores, and drop controversial military contracts. Anonymous Google Docs and spreadsheets have empowered employees to share stories of harassment and data on wage disparities without fear of reprisal. And encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal enable workers to organize beyond the reach of their bosses’ digital surveillance.
“In some ways, organizing has had to remake itself in order to match the shifts that are taking place in the economy and in technology,” said Janice Fine, a professor who studies innovation in worker organization at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. A digital toolkit “gives workers an opportunity to organize directly together and not be mediated, through either workplace-based entities or even through existing union structures.”
Former Starbucks barista Kristie Williams knows the power of online organizing firsthand. In August 2014, Williams became an unlikely labor leader when she launched a petition on Coworker.org asking management to change the dress code. After four years on the job, she had grown tired of wearing long sleeves to work everyday to comply with a company policy requiring workers to cover their tattoos. One night she came home, sleeves spattered with hazelnut syrup, and posted her petition to a 55,000-member Starbucks barista group on Facebook.
“When it blew up on that group I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll try it on another group.’ One post led to another post and then other people shared it,” Williams said. After two months, 25,000 signatures, and some media coverage, the company changed the policy.
Digital organizing has its drawbacks. Even in the richest countries, millions of workers don’t have a broadband internet connection, and online efforts could leave them out. “The proliferation of tools is really exciting, but the question is: Are workers able to access them?” asked Phela Townsend, who researches technology in labor organizing at the policy think tank Next100. “If there are conditions where digital tools really are a differentiator, then you’re just going to miss workers.”
To avoid that pitfall, many workers’ groups that adopt digital tools are going for the lowest-tech versions possible. “When people were trying to figure out how to communicate with low-wage workers, some of whom might not have been online but all of whom had phones, they realized the power of texting and also WhatsApp,” said Fine.
Cosecha, a group that advocates for undocumented immigrants in the US, organizes demonstrations and builds its list of supporters through SMS short codes. At rallies, organizers ask attendees to text “HUELGA” (STRIKE) to 41411,” which gives the group the ability to broadcast messages to everyone at once, or assign activists to text them each individually.
Digital tools also have made inroads with traditional unions—after overcoming a healthy dose of early skepticism. “Labor hasn’t necessarily been kind to new technologies, and there are reasons for that,” said Townsend. “Technology hasn’t always been kind to workers.”
But now the tools are starting to get buy-in from venerable union stalwarts like the AFL-CIO, a sprawling federation that represents many different kinds of unions, from flight attendants to ironworkers. (The Quartz Union for US-based reporters is a part of the NewsGuild, which is a member of the AFL-CIO.)
The AFL-CIO has invested in developing an app called Action Builder, which helps organizers divvy up tasks, track who they’ve contacted, and store relevant information about workers. “It’s a more efficient and secure way to do basically what people have been doing with clipboards and index cards for a gazillion years,” said AFL-CIO deputy organizing director Christian Sweeney.
Digital tools can be useful tools for finding and communicating with people, said Next100’s Townsend, but that’s just the first step.
“One of the things I push back against is the fairly common idea that digital tools are a complete replacement for offline organizing,” Townsend said. Organizers have to build deeper interpersonal relationships to create a lasting labor movement.
Fine worries, too, that it may be easier for companies and elected officials to shrug off digital “clicktivism” if it never results in physical demonstrations. “When you’re standing in a room with 2,000 people and they’re asking you to do X or Y, [there’s] that sense of being on the hook and that visceral sense of accountability and anxiety about making a pledge to people,” she said. “I don’t know how that translates to online action.”
All these new digital forms of organizing are exciting and interesting, but it’s still not clear what their overall impact is, or will be, on workers’ ability to get what they want from their bosses; there hasn’t yet been much formal, academic study on their efficacy. But thanks to the pandemic, which has relegated so many aspects of our lives—including organizing—to online spaces, we’ll soon have much more data to study to understand the true power of digital organizing.