Organizing An App For That: Labor’s Absence from the App Store

The first phone I ever owned was a Nokia 3285, which my parents acquired for me through Alltel. It was a pretty basic phone: contacts and a short menu that offered a limited variety of ringtones (including this legendary one). Most people around me had cellphones that were similar; in fact, it was rare to see anyone besides white collar workers and their children with cellphones that had a color screen or web capabilities.

This was in 2001.

Thirteen years on from my introduction to cellular communication, the medium’s technology seems to have advanced at the speed of light. The BlackBerry, released in 2003 with its unprecedented access to email and that irresistible light notifying its owner of new messages, introduced America to the addictive power of the cellphone. In fact, the nickname for the BlackBerry became such a part of popular culture that was named the 2006 New Word of the Year by Webster’s New World Dictionary. That oh-so-appropriate nickname? The Crackberry.

And with the release of the iPhone, society has never looked back: 91 percent of humans owned a cellphone as of 2013, with 62 percent of them owning a smartphone. The smartphone has allowed us to do more than simply communicate directly with people via phone call or text message, but they have also become powerful tools for engaging the world in myriad other ways as well: social media, gaming and entertainment, shopping, and keeping ourselves informed. They have changed the way we communicate with one another, and they have used one primary means of doing it:

The application.

While there were programs for downloading applications onto computer and cellphone devices stretching back to the 1990s, the application really began to take off with Apple’s introduction of its App Store in 2008. Billions of downloads later and with the average cellphone user spending 80 percent of their mobile time using them, the app has become an integral part of the way we live. But has it become an integral part of the way we organize workers?

The labor movement has utilized the app, but they have not done so in a very productive way.

I downloaded iPhone apps from several organizations, including the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). When I dug into the apps, I found that they contained some beneficial functions that could be of use to working folks:

  • The CWA app had a dashboard where they detailed their actions and events. They also featured a sidebar which contained news updates from headquarters, some photos from events, and social media updates from their Twitter profile.
  • The IAMAW app is more comprehensive, with channels to updates from every territory and constituent industry group, a calendar for events, and a legislative action ticker that allows you to find local elected officials and get info into key votes and issues that the IAMAW is currently advocating for on the Hill. The best feature for the potential member, however, is a function that allows you to send information about organizing leads about your workplace to the union for further followup.
  • The AFT app has many of the benefits that the other apps do, with an additional channel where you can incorporate certain teachings into your lesson plan. The two that stood out for me was a discussion of the minimum wage for middle school students and a lesson plan built around Cesar Chavez for high school students.

As someone who lives and works in the Deep South, which is a veritable desert of movement visibility outside of election season, I look for a labor-oriented app to provide me with two things: access to information about nearby labor unions and providing me a list of businesses that are already organized or are union-friendly. Having these two pieces of information would allow me to show my co-workers that, yes, organizing ourselves into a bargaining unit is a possibility down here, and it allows me to use my hard-earned dollars at businesses that support workers.

Yet none of the apps from national labor organizations gave me information on either of these things. When I looked for apps from other labor organizations, I found that they were either from district and local labor unions or they were severely outdated (the app that pops up for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is from their national conference in 2012); some of these outdated apps are no longer operable (like the one for the IAM Journal). Many that did exist from national unions were laden with technical problems: The AFT app, for example, shut down every time I clicked on the channel to find out where their locals were in each state. If there is one part of the app that should work as advertised, it has to be the part that tells potential union members where they can find you. I did find one app, by an outfit called PhillyLabor.com, that gave you listings of union-friendly businesses. But the vast majority of businesses that were listed in their database were banks, investment firms, lawyers, and insurance companies. No grocery stores, no retail outlets, and only one car dealership. I mean, how often is the average working person in southeastern Pennsylvania going to be in need of wealth management and consulting?

One app that the labor movement can take its cues from is the app provided by a coalition of worker centers called Restaurant Opportunity Centers United (ROC). Their app rates restaurants on four different criteria: membership in the ROC’s Restaurant Industry Roundtable, wages, paid sick days, and the opportunity for employee advancement. The app also lets you know whether a workplace is engaged in any direct action to improve conditions on the job. Another good thing about this app is that it exhorts the consumer to action, encouraging them to inquire about working conditions at local restaurants and encouraging them to let management know that they will not be patronizing businesses that treat their workers unfairly. They also encourage consumers to call Congress and lobby for a raise in employee wages, but the priority on calling for community action is one that is fantastic to see.

The biggest drawback of this particular app is that the restaurants are heavily concentrated in the ten metropolitan areas that have Restaurant Opportunity Center local offices: Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Despite the fact that they apparently contacted fast-food restaurants in Alabama and South Carolina to establish what the floor is for hourly pay within the restaurant chains that were profiled, there were no restaurants listed for either state. Hopefully the ROC will expand its reach in the South, since Southern workers have shown that they are willing to join the fight for better pay and working conditions in the fast-food industry.

I bring this piece back to where we began: cellphone users spend 80 percent of their device time using apps.

Apps are used for entertainment, no doubt, but they are also used to inform, educate, connect, and organize. With all of this advanced technological capability at our fingertips, why would the labor movement continually miss an opportunity to put its best app forward? For all the millions of dollars that the labor movement spends on politics to little avail, sparing $200,000 on a quality app seems like a cheap investment to push the movement into the 21st century. The rise of alt-labor and organizing in non-traditional employment sectors makes this investment all the more necessary.

Forgive me the closing pun, but it is time for the labor movement to step app.

4 thoughts on “Organizing An App For That: Labor’s Absence from the App Store

  1. Innovative State, a book I narrated for Audible.com (under union contract) talks about the process of innovation using computer tech for use in improving Gov’t services. The same paradigm can work in the union sector, but innovation requires opening the doors to a wider pool of talent to develop apps. Usually they need an incentive. Prize money/challenge grants are one way to do that. Say “Here’s a data set. Here’s a challenge grant. Come up with new ways to use the data or solve a problem.” Simplified, but that’s basically the idea. If financial incentive is provided and the doors open to all who want to play, innovation can happen for the Labor movement. Unions putting up the money? That could be one way.

  2. They need an app that workers can use BEFORE they ever join a union. I’m thinking a encrypted message/forum system where the intial worker can create a group and have other workers join in. Signing up would include their name, home address, phone number and work place. The app saves all this, so not only do they not have to “talk union” at work, but whatever union they decide to join can have every workers’ info without management ever having to know. Mums the word…

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