Labor Apps Won’t Save Us, But Maybe Nothing Will

The Future of Labor
Labor Apps Won’t Save Us, But Maybe Nothing Will
Illustration:Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)

Tech is suggested as a remedy for almost every modern problem that can be traced to economic oppression and inequality. Housing? Tech. Healthcare? Tech. Education? Definitely tech. Disruption has been the refrain of the 2010s, with the object of that disruption ranging from juice to poverty.

As with all these examples, Tech and Apps will not fix the labor movement. But there are some interesting and promising examples of technological platforms that could help mitigate the broadly terrible circumstances workers are up against.

Union membership has declined—in the 1950s, it was around 30 percent; last year, just 10.5 percent of workers belonged to unions—and the bad guys have been winning the battle against workers for a long time. Brishen Rogers, an associate professor of law at Temple University and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, told Splinter that there is an “incredibly hostile legal structure facing workers who want to unionize.”

“If you try to unionize, you stand a very good chance of being fired, and then you’ll wait years to get reinstated, and you won’t really get serious damages,” Rogers said. “If you do unionize, your boss can often just go out of business, and so fire you and all your coworkers…If you organize and you work for a subcontractor, the principal company can replace the contractor, and you’ll be fired. If you strike for better wages, you can be permanently replaced, which basically means that you can be fired. If you go on strike, and you offend your boss, you can be fired, and never have any remedy.”

“Those just set up unbelievably long odds, and in that circumstance, workers make the very rational decision not to try and unionize,” Rogers added.

So it’s inevitable that worker organizations outside unions might spring up. “Alt-labor” is the term used to describe organizations that aren’t unions, but organize and advocate for workers. They don’t negotiate contracts and can’t engage in (barely) protected activity like strikes, but they can organize workers to pressure their bosses in other ways. They’re often funded by unions themselves or by foundations, and like unions, their advocacy activities aren’t limited to the workplace itself; examples include the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC).

Last year, for example, the ROC fought for a referendum in DC that would have eliminated the separate tipped minimum wage, thus raising tipped workers’ wages. The referendum passed, but was overturned by the city council, because the council felt it was a “bad law.” During the referendum campaign, Washington City Paper reported that the ROC was often criticized for “acting too much like a labor union,” as if it was self-evident why that was bad.

This is the state of things: A pro-worker organization that isn’t even a union can be dismissed in the local media for being too union-like.

There’s no question whether there’s a role for alt-labor organizations; given the hostility of the law, the courts, and the current government towards unions and the shrinking of industry jobs, we’re not getting rejuvenated traditional unions overnight. But what about bringing the promise of Tech and Apps to the labor movement?

There have been some prominent and promising examples of the internet’s power for organizing in the last few years. Rogers noted that even in traditional unionized industries, online organizing can be very impressive; the successful West Virginia teachers strikes actually started with “the members organizing in ways that union leadership didn’t initially sign on with,” Rogers said, such as Facebook.

But there are platforms that specifically address workers, too. The OURWalmart campaign, which began in 2011 with funding from the United Food and Commercial Workers union before splitting from it four years later, was a non-union campaign to organize Walmart workers. It used an app called WorkIt to inform workers about their rights—a more reliable and accurate source of information for workers than information they share with each other. HuffPost reported last year that the campaign’s director said these online platforms were key to their successes.

The app used AI to answer routine questions, but its more promising power might have been the human element: It allowed trained staff on the OURWalmart campaign to “personally address more specific inquiries, while chat rooms provide space for workers to share stories, exchange advice and collaborate,” according to HuffPost. (Of course, Walmart called the app “deceptive.”)

Another major problem for workers is atomization. Without sectoral bargaining and in generally non-unionized industries, it’s very hard for workers to achieve solidarity with one another; in many cases, it’s difficult to even talk about work.

Those are the problems that could be addressed by a site like UnionBase. It describes itself as the “world’s first social networking platform for the labor movement,” and allows unions to create verified profiles on the site. Once verified, UnionBase says that “union members can send Verified messages to other union members, receive updates about membership and learn about the status of their union.” The idea is, as its millennial founder Larry Williams Jr. told Fast Company in 2017, is for the site to be “an early-stage Facebook for the labor movement.”

The concept is very sound: Giving unions a platform to communicate with their members and keep them informed and engaged in labor issues specific to them. So far, however, the site doesn’t seem to have gained a lot of traction; most of the verified unions on the site have few followers. Which raises the question: what’s the use of a good concept if no one is using it?

Finally, there’s the actual process of making demands of your employer—and there’s an app for that, too. is a platform that allows workers to start petitions about their working conditions. It’s had some key successes; after a Coworker petition got more than 5,000 signatures, Starbucks recently agreed to provide needle disposal bins in its some of its bathrooms.

But Starbucks was also fined by OSHA earlier this year, after two workers in one store in Eugene, OR, were stuck with hypodermic needles that had been left in the bathroom trash cans. Maybe Starbucks wouldn’t have acted without the petition and attendant media attention; maybe it would, and an OSHA investigation would have been enough. It certainly wasn’t the financial penalty that caused the change: OSHA fined Starbucks—a company which made $6.4 billion in Q4 2018—just $3,100.

But while a platform like Coworker might succeed on individual campaigns—including very important ones, like needle disposal—what’s less clear is whether that solidarity among workers persists even after victories. It doesn’t build an institution or structure, for example, that workers can use to exert continuing influence over their workplace. And leverage can only come from the threat of some kind of harm to profits, which traditionally means workers withholding their labor—something that also can’t be organized over Coworker, or unfortunately without a union at all.

Instead, the harm threatened by these petitions comes largely from the threat of reputational damage through media coverage. This is undoubtedly very real: Rogers noted that “in the last 20 years or so, one of the only ways to get companies to change their behavior is really through public shaming.” But that’s a sad state of affairs, and it can’t work for workers every time or in every situation.

There’s always been something a little depressing about the online petition—the harnessing of the internet’s power for what is almost always a futile endeavor, the collective voices of thousands or even millions shouting into the void. Governments set up their own petition platforms, knowing that doing so is risk-free, since they don’t actually have to pay any attention at all to what they say. The same problem applies to Coworker. You can petition all you like, but ultimately, you need leverage.

Unionizing a workplace in America is hard; the odds are stacked against workers who want to try and do so, and it has to be done workplace by workplace. Without sectoral bargaining, it’s hard to imagine unions managing to protect all or even most workers, even without the rising scourge of companies using contractors to undercompensate workers. True strides for the labor movement will only come from a sea change in labor laws, which is a vast task that includes addressing the current majority for anti-worker policies on the Supreme Court; court-packing, for example, might be the only route to pro-labor policies in the next generation.

Workers, of course, shouldn’t be reduced to using online petitions for basic needs that ought to be mandatory, like paid leave and fair wages, or apps which tell them what meager rights they have. And if the future of labor is only and WorkIt, the situation will be just as infuriating and immoral as it is now.

But at this point, workers need all the help we can get. And if the future of labor includes these tools (and others yet to be invented) on the pathway to bigger and better changes, there’s no reason why they can’t be a valuable asset to the labor movement.

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