Check out Larry’s site Unionbase (and follow me, while you’re there!).
Check out Larry’s site Unionbase (and follow me, while you’re there!).
There’s a popular trope in electoral organizing that involves a young field organizer, dropped into a turf which hasn’t seen a contested election in a while, who tries to bring the newest tactics in their ground game and is told by the county chair, “That’s not the way we do things around here*.” Spoiler: the young organizer does it her way despite the resistance of the entrenched party, and wins the election.
While we don’t have a federalized election process in this country, our elections, for organizing purposes, are still pretty much on a plug-and-play model. There are variations from one state to another–is there early voting? how hard or easy is it to vote by mail? is there same-day voter registration? But at the end of the day, there are similar rules to follow from one place to the next. Both sides are competing for a fixed endpoint. Pro-worker electoral organizers may not get to set the rules of the election in one place or another, but we do know what they are–as government practices go, the rules for elections are transparent. As a result (while not advised), it is possible to win elections by dropping organizers into a place they don’t know well.
We get into problems, though, when we think we can win policy or worker organizing victories with this kind of plug-and-play thinking–especially when the reliance on plug-and-play means we don’t invest in places where sustaining work is harder. Organizing for policy victories–or organizing to build community support for workers who are taking actions to build power at work that could risk their jobs–both require the kinds of relationship building that plug-and-play organizing doesn’t prioritize.
Particularly when it comes to organizing in support of policy, it is imperative that local organizers understand the mechanics of how their government works–and the rules for how to affect legislation at the city or state level are rarely as clear as those that govern how elections are run. We have made a collective decision that, as a democracy, the state has to at least give the appearance that outsiders can win elections. We have not come to a similar collective conclusion about making the legislative process transparent.
In the last post, I talked about the need to invest in organizing ecosystems, not just individual organizations. As we think about what comes next, in the evolution of the labor movement and worker organizing, it is unlikely that we will see the exact replication on a wide scale of the functions that local unions and their internationals play in the movement. Let’s think about what a 501c5-style labor union can do, in addition to both representing current members and organizing new ones. Unions can make endorsements and spend money on electoral organizing within their membership base; can have a legal department that focuses on electoral law and legislative expertise, as well as labor and/or immigration law; can invest in a legislative director or team that is embedded in policy & legislative work focused at the state or city level; can have organizers that are responsible for building relationships with faith leaders and other community organizations with similar goals; and can have a communications department that is focused both on producing internal content for members and on producing issue-based content that targets the general public. Some unions also have affiliated PACs that can raise hard money from their members, which can be used to influence the general public in elections or can be contributed to candidates running for office. There are, to my knowledge, no other kinds of organizations in our movement that have this kind of flexibility in combining organizing work with electoral & legislative advocacy–this is the kind of ecosystem, however, that we need to be thinking about, if we want to build deep support for organizations that want to win for workers.
What if every national funder, network or organization, when making their plans for expanding investment into worker organizing in a particular city or state asked themselves the following questions:
I’m not, of course, suggesting that any one organization is going to play all of these functions–but all of them are required, if we want to win. We need to do a better job of figuring out the support that worker organizations need, and providing it holistically, rather than opportunistically.
*if you’re in the mood for lots of cynical takes on the inside game of campaigns and party politics, I can’t recommend CampaignSick highly enough.
As regular readers know, I recently rolled out a project to build a database of economic justice organizations in the US. It’s one of the things I’ve been curious about for a while–how good a job are we doing at building permanent, long-lasting infrastructure, in the face of increased attacks on traditional unions. As it turns out, we’ve got some real work to do to make sure that workers all over the US are able to build power for themselves and their families.
At this point, the database includes information on a total of 293 organizations, most of which are statewide or local groups–18 are national organizations or networks. When I set out to collect information on these groups, I built a list of organizations that are affiliated with national networks–organizations like the Center for Popular Democracy, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, PICO, etc. There are a couple of reasons for that, but the most important one is that, in my experience, it’s much more likely for local base-building groups to be able to raise funding from national foundations if they are connected to a national network that helps to validate and broadcast their work outside their own city or region. I also think that local groups in a national network benefit from the resources of the national network–things like research departments that can provide corporate profiles, intensive legal work, and innovative policy campaigns can be hard for local organizations to sustain (though there are obviously exceptions). National networks can provide an important role of convening a set of local groups that are working on a similar issue and helping them create a fundraising strategy, as well as provide some share resources like communications, that make executing that strategy easier.
What I found, as you can see in the map above (as well as the chart below the directory itself) is that the broader economic justice movement has been just as challenged to fund sustained organizing in the South and parts of the Midwest as the traditional labor movement has. And I think that’s a problem, because what it demonstrates to me is that, as the country’s population has shifted into the Sunbelt, we haven’t created organizing opportunities that give workers there hope that progressive employment policy will someday come.
I was somewhat shocked to see, for example, that the City of Oakland, CA has more of these economic justice organizations (8) than the entire state of Florida (7). Or that America’s smallest state, Rhode Island, has as many groups fighting for better work as does the entire state of Alabama (2).
I’m not trying to take anything away from folks who are doing this organizing in Oakland or Providence–in fact, I’m sure they could use more resources and support too. But we’ve got to do better about adding resources to groups that are working in severely underfunded places, if we want to ever be able to win federal legislation that creates an even playing field for all workers in the arena of wages, or paid time off, or racial justice at work, or any of the many things we fight for daily.
And it clearly isn’t the fault of those organizers running national networks, who are rarely able to seed wholly-new organizing efforts in places that don’t already host it. The start up costs of creating a new organization in a new place will run hundreds of thousands of dollars per year–and the work isn’t going to pay off in victories in the first year. It isn’t easy to raise money to fund solid, consistent organizing work for the five years or more it can take to build a base of support and begin racking up organizing or legislative wins–and that can take even more time in places with unfriendly legislatures with few elected allies to champion work. Some of the national networks are connecting groups that do base-building or direct worker organizing (CPD, JwJ, NDWA, NDLON, ROC, etc.), while others are connecting groups that provide legal support or help advocate for policy changes (PICO, Gamaliel, IWJ, etc.). In the places where our movement has had the most success winning local and statewide victories, you can see a rich ecosystem of groups that help support each others’ campaigns. We should be figuring out how to expand the map with those rich ecosystems, not contract in the few places we’re already winning to send resources elsewhere.
I’ll be writing another post next week with some of my thoughts about what we can do to change this map–but I’m curious about yours, too. If you have thoughts that you want to share on this issue, leave them in the comments or shoot me an email at kati (at) hacktheunion (dot) org. I’ll include them in next week’s post, too. And of course–I know there are a ton of amazing worker centers out there that aren’t necessarily connected to national networks, but are still doing needed and important work–so if you know of them, please add them to the directory (I’ll be working to do the same, myself).
*some notes on the map: I’m hoping to soon have a better one that you can dynamically click on, showing which actual organizations are represented here. The lack of clickability creates some representational problems on the map–for example, all of the organizations in GA (3) look right now like they’re in AL, and two TX groups look like they’re in Mexico. I did not display any of the 18 organizations listed as “national” in the database, which would have skewed the DC/NY numbers even more. In states where an organization has more than one office, I only used one of the cities to represent that entire organization. This is also only the map of the mainland US–there are three groups in the directory that are located in HI & PR, which I couldn’t fit in this screenshot.
How our organizations can better help people navigate the financial ups and downs of work as it becomes more precarious is a hot topic within the economic justice world these days. When the majority of Americans don’t have $500 in savings, we know that it is very hard to deal with routine “emergencies”–like an ER visit, an unexpected car repair, or a broken hot water heater.
Most of us are familiar with peer-to-peer lending programs like Kiva, which allow entrepreneurs and individuals around the world to borrow small-ish amounts of money, to fund business expansion or home improvements, without going through established banks. Lenders are partially repaid on a regular basis, until the entire loan is paid off–which can help both solve an immediate financial need for the borrower, and also establish a credit history for the borrower.
A new platform, Lenderly, developed a tool to refine this kind of peer-to-peer lending within existing networks. The site originally launched with faith communities in the US, and are now expanding their back end to be available for unions or worker centers who want to help facilitate loans between their membership.
Potential borrowers set up a specific funding request for between $300 to $5,000, and can specify the purpose of the loan with options like “take a class” or “pay medical bills.” The site acts as a guarantor of the loan–and will run a credit check on borrowers before making the loan request “live.” Borrowers also get to determine the length of time they will need to pay back the loan, up to two years.
Lenderly runs both the back end administration, adding their functionality to an existing website. It also helps borrowers get the word out about their loan request, by publicizing it to other people within that organization’s community.
Crowd-funding alone won’t fix income inequality, of course–but it might make it more possible for people to survive until we can build a more fair society.
Interested? Head over to lenderly.co and hit the “contact us” button–and let them know you heard about it on HtU.
A newly-launched website, Unionize Me, hopes to enlist large numbers of low-wage workers in winning NLRB elections. Founded by lawyer Jason Zoladz, the site hopes to take advantage of the NLRB’s 2015 decision to allow workers to sign union authorization cards electronically.
Zoladz is hoping to shift the conversation in the US, to focus on the fact that low-wage workers (who have been striking in large numbers through the Fight for 15 campaign) need bargaining power with their specific companies.
“2 million Wal-Mart workers need a union,” Zoladz told me ( a fact that few readers of this site would dispute).
When we spoke, the site had only been live for 6 days, but Zoladz had already received a number of electronic signatures on authorization cards. At that point, no one worksite had met the 30% trigger for a union election. Zoladz does not intend to organize one stand-alone business at a time, however—he wants to wait until a reasonable majority of workers in one specific region have signed, so that workers will be able to take actions from a position of strength.
It remains to be seen whether a mostly-lawyer based strategy can flip the script on winning union elections—but I’ll be curious to see how this plays out, over time.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what parallels—if any—exist between platforms and unions, and whether there are lessons that can be learned from platform design, that could benefit worker organizers who are looking for new models. This is the third in a series of three planned posts on the topic. In referring to companies as platforms, I am specifically talking about internet-based businesses that provide some kind of a marketplace for different kinds of users (called here in shorthand “buyers” and “sellers”—though of course, on some platforms a user can be both a buyer and a seller) to meet and exchange something of value (money for goods or services, ideas, advice, etc.). In this series, company platforms can refer to sites like eBay or Craigslist, as well as Mechanical Turk, Uber or Etsy. This series should not be read as an endorsement of any of the company platforms or unions mentioned. In thinking about best practices for community governance, I drew deeply on a panel discussion from this year’s CommonBound conference, between Nathan Schneider, Micki Metts, and Mario Liebrenz, as well as the book Swarmwise by Rick Falvinge.
Best practices for online communities
Building any community requires rules. Traditional unions have bylaws to govern member conduct and establish how decisions get made, and platform unions will need the same kinds of structure. Setting standards for online community conduct and ensuring that decisions made online are made democratically are problems that every movement needs to struggle with, and happily, there are some lessons we can learn from worker-cooperatives and other organizations that are further along in their online development.
Use technology that helps people build relationships & connect across distance
There’s a reason that Apple created FaceTime in an early version of the iPhone—seeing people when we talk to them is better than talking on the phone (and talking on the phone is better than having a text-only relationship, no matter what my children might tell you). The cost of setting up video conferencing has gone from exorbitant to practically free, at least for small groups. Jitsi Meet (https://meet.jit.si/) is an open-source, low-bandwidth encrypted system that allows unlimited people to participate in video conferences, right from a browser. Google Hangout requires a computer or smart phone with a camera and mic (as well as a free Google Plus account)—and has a mode that allows recording for later playback (Hangouts on Air). Hangout is only good for groups of up to 10—but having 2-3 people cluster at the same screen can also help add more folks to the conversation. If you’re still mostly having regular meetings of a geographically distributed group over conference calls, you are missing out on the chance to connect in a deeper way.
National or global assemblies should set overarching values for the organization
A platform union that is both representing workers in Fairbanks, Alaska and Kissimmee, Florida needs to ensure that the overall values of the organization are widely accepted. Bringing people together in one location is expensive and can be exclusionary—so make sure that your national gatherings incorporate an element for online voting and, if possible, live-streaming of decision-making meetings.
Decision-making is best left to the group that is most affected by the decision
Organizing a national dialogue any time one group wants to start working on a piece of city-wide legislation is impractical. Local organizing committees should be empowered to make decisions about local work—while ensuring that their work conforms to the national or international values set above. Some online organizing groups have developed a rule of three that says that any idea that three activists agree is a good one can be moved forward—as long as those three people are willing to take on the responsibility for doing the work.
Regular meetings still matter, even if they’re not in person
For groups at the local level, it’s still important to make sure that they are meeting regularly. It’s equally important to make sure that they have something to meet **about**. If you are able to have in-person meetings, think about centering the meeting in both community-building (bring food!) and some kind of discussion that everyone—even non-experts—can participate in. Some groups will use their regular monthly meetings to help brainstorm around a problem that an individual or sub-group are having, or to think about their larger strategy and how to achieve goals.
Customizing specific technology can allow your overall resources to grow
Fair Coop, a global internet-based cooperative that has created a marketplace for selling products online, has created a crypto-currency of their own, called Faircoin. Every member gets an account with a wallet, and they spend a significant amount of time teaching their members how to use it. As the currency grows in value, the coop uses it to invest in cooperative development, including funds to help refugees or other historically disadvantaged groups to start coops of their own.
Make sure to tell your stories—especially about internal successes
Organizing national discussions or local ones that are mostly mediated online is challenging, and new to most of us. Make sure that you are using your platform not just to talk about your external successes (we won portable benefits!) but also about your internal ones (we had an important discussion using only the internet!). Ask people to tell a story about how being in this specific community has changed their life, or something new that they’ve learned from being a part of the group. It’s important to reinforce that being a part of an online decision-making process can be fun, or informative, or helpful.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what parallels—if any—exist between platforms and unions, and whether there are lessons that can be learned from platform design, that could benefit worker organizers who are looking for new models. This is the third in a series of three planned posts on the topic. In referring to companies as platforms, I am specifically talking about internet-based businesses that provide some kind of a marketplace for different kinds of users (called here in shorthand “buyers” and “sellers”—though of course, on some platforms a user can be both a buyer and a seller) to meet and exchange something of value (money for goods or services, ideas, advice, etc.). In this series, company platforms can refer to sites like eBay or Craigslist, as well as Mechanical Turk, Uber or Etsy. This series should not be read as an endorsement of any of the company platforms or unions mentioned. For the analysis of platforms, I am indebted to the authors of _Platform Revolutions_, and to MIT’s Sloan School for their online course of the same name, as well as Simone Cicero’s work, including this recent article.
What can we learn from platforms?
As we move into thinking about how to design platform unions in ways that incorporate best practices from the world of for-profit platforms, it is critical to realize that, just like Airbnb doesn’t fulfill all the functions of a hotel—we shouldn’t be focused on replicating the entirety of the 20th century labor union online. There are many functions that a 21st century platform union could perform—some of which will be things that were traditional benefits of unionization. But if we’re building an organization that is not centered around one physical workplace, we will need to find a different center of activity for our organizing work.
Remember metcalfe’s law, when designing the business model
Metcalfe’s Law says that the value of a platform rises as more people use the platform. The high “price” of entry creates major challenges for 20th century unions who are seeking to grow to scale. The advantage of the platform union is that it can experiment with business models to see which one works best. While some traditional unions have experimented with associate member models and other methods of getting non-union workers to see themselves in the union, their heavy dependence on their current, dues-based business model makes scalability difficult. If we want platform unions to grow into a high-value proposition for members, it must be possible for lots of people to join.
Some examples of business models that a platform union might adopt are:
In essence, 20th century unions do this through the process of dues collection. The fundamental value proposition of a union has been—joining the union will get you a raise. Most unions bend over backwards to make sure that the dues that they collect from members are offset by raises, especially for newly-organized units. A platform union that adopts this model will need to make sure that the value that it is providing to workers is worth more than what they might command as solo actors, either through increases in wage rates, or some kind of benefits.
What the “specific” is will likely be different in different industries. While in some customer-facing businesses, having a large population of bilingual workers is important and hard to find, in others it is irrelevant. Employers who are struggling to fill a void in their workforce will appreciate an organization that helps provide stability in the face of that void. A deep understanding of the industry that workers exist in will be paramount to making this model work. A platform union that charges for access to specific workers will probably need to create some kind of certification, to affirm worker capability.
Workers may, in certain industries, benefit from skills upgrades or information, and some professions require continuing education in order to be certified to practice. A platform union could create a business model that brings in members through an education program, and then organizes them to demand power later.
In the new world of work, the tools we need to perform are not always provided by employers. Can we envision a world in which a platform union of Uber drivers collectively own a car (a practice which is, of course, already in effect in both the traditional and coop taxi industries)? Or where a platform union of Task Rabbits share ownership of a set of tools?
Platforms will have access to user data, which in some instances, will have value to third parties (for example—a labor lawyer might pay for access to a list of workers who have suffered wage theft, or workplace injuries). Obviously, members will need to decide what are appropriate situations in which user data can be sold, and what should remain proprietary to the platform.
Most of what we consider to be the gold standard of unionization wasn’t built overnight. The future of the labor movement may look much more like the pre-Industrial era workers’ movements than it resembles the unions that were built in the 20th century. Platform unions may not be able to hold all of the functions that current labor unions do—although they may be able to create new ways of building power for members.
Some examples of functions that a platform union might provide are:
Some kinds of craft unions (particularly those in the building trades) have historically made this the bread and butter of their organizing success—creating an apprentice/journey/master system allows unions to provide value to members over the course of a career.
Coupled with a training function, this can be a particularly compelling organizing model. A hiring hall is basically a method of finding unused resources (in this case, both skilled labor and access to jobs) and putting them to work.
Some 20th century unions have done an expert job of aggregating their gig workers’ income streams into a way to buy affordable health care and retirement savings. SAG-AFTRA, for example, provides a way for actors who have multiple income sources (commercials, TV shows, movies, audiobooks, etc.) to be eligible for health insurance and a pension, even if their work from one gig might not be enough to qualify them for a pension.
As more and more workers get rated for every job they do, issues around reputation management are coming to the forefront as a workers’ rights issue. A successful platform union could be focused on protecting workers’ reputations—both for groups (in the form of bargaining about algorithms) and for individuals who are removed from access to work.
Platform unions will have the ability to perform both data-based and anecdotal analysis for their members. Coupled with reputation management, this could provide a powerful tool for helping redistribute power between the employers and the members.
Some gig economy worker communities have built success by collecting information about the consumers of their apps/services, and sharing it with each other. No one wants to walk into a house, after being hired to do six loads of laundry, to find that there isn’t a washing machine, and the contracted time now needs to involve a trip to a laundromat—sharing information about customers makes it possible for members to reject jobs from chronic abusers of gig workers. Turkopticon gives Turkers the ability to see which Requesters have previously rejected completed work without paying for it—which could lead a Turker to avoid working for them in the future.
20th century unions have certainly engaged in brand damage campaigns—primarily through work stoppages and in-person actions. 21st century platform unions will have the ability to make their brand damage campaigns go viral in ways that won’t work, when you’ve just got an inflatable rat.
Other things to think about
For all of these models to succeed, a platform union needs scale. Thinking about the pricing structure must include a theory of how the price point will encourage adoption at a level that will make success more likely.
If an important part of the platform union is community discussion where users exchange tips or , then make sure that you and others are participating by posting and responding to other users’ comments. No one wants to keep coming back to a platform where they are the only poster.
If you’re giving something away to one pool of users, you need a network effect that is so strong it pulls in a different pool of users, who will pay enough to overcome the cost of the subsidy.
The third post in this series, which will be up next week, will propose some best practices around governance, for platform unions. Have thoughts about this post? Please leave a comment.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what parallels—if any—exist between platforms and unions, and whether there are lessons that can be learned from platform design, that could benefit worker organizers who are looking for new models. This is the first in a series of three planned posts on the topic. In referring to companies as platforms, I am specifically talking about internet-based businesses that provide some kind of a marketplace for different kinds of users (called here in shorthand “buyers” and “sellers”—though of course, on some platforms a user can be both a buyer and a seller) to meet and exchange something of value (money for goods or services, ideas, advice, etc.). In this series, company platforms can refer to sites like eBay or Craigslist, as well as Mechanical Turk, Uber or Etsy. This series should not be read as an endorsement of any of the company platforms or unions mentioned. For the analysis of platforms, I am indebted to the authors of _Platform Revolutions_, and to MIT’s Sloan School for their online course of the same name, as well as Simone Cicero’s work, including this recent article.
Unions and platforms—what overlaps?
One thing to keep in mind is that, at a pretty basic level, unions and platforms are both about disrupting power in an entrenched system. The point of a union is to decentralize power in a workplace, and to put more power in the hands of union members. The point of a platform is to decentralize power in an industry, and to put more power in the hands of users. Of course, both unions and platforms can be guilty of redistributing power in ways that are non-democratic, and sometimes power just gets moved to people who already, as a group, have status or influence in our society.
Let’s look at some of the qualities of a successful platform:
Discovers unused resources & puts them to work
Platforms that have achieved success have largely done so by tapping into markets for unused resources. Whether it’s Airbnb convincing people with an extra bedroom to rent it out occasionally, Etsy tapping into the desire for artists to sell their work to a national or global audience, or Josephine finding people who love to cook for others—successful platforms have figured out ways to sell things that largely weren’t sold **at scale** before.
Combines low cost of entry with a governance model that protects users.
The beauty of most platform businesses is that anyone with a device that connects to the internet can sign up for them, and there is not generally a high cost to staying on the platform. I might sell something on eBay only once a year—but my account stays active, without costing me anything. Because eBay employs a robust rating system, where both sellers and users rate each other, buyers can see that I’m an “honest” seller, even if I don’t sell frequently.
Uses network effects to grow (but needs rapid growth on both sides, early)
Platforms that grow best grow quickly. Uber isn’t worth much to me as a rider, if when I sign up there are too few drivers for me to ever get a ride. And it’s certainly not worth my time to drive for Uber if I have to wait for hours between ride requests, because not enough riders have joined. Uber and other successful ride-sharing companies have figured out that they need to concentrate on expansion of both sides of their user experience, and cannot merely open a new market with only riders signed up.
Immerses staff in data about users
Because platform business is by its nature conducted online, platform designers need to (and are able to) constantly immerse themselves in user data. Anecdotal information doesn’t cut it, when thousands of transactions are happening in an hour. And because it’s possible to “serve” different versions of a website to a segmented audience, it’s possible to run experiments on user engagement that track whether a new design will change the way users interact with the site.
Mono-homing versus multi-homing
The concept of mono-homing is one way that platform businesses seek to keep users on their platforms. Basically, mono-homing means “I have one home for this particular interaction or practice.’ It’s pretty easy to switch from one airline to another for different trips (ie–multi-homing)—so airlines have developed reward miles, to keep you ‘loyal’ to their particular airline (hence, mono-homing). Smart phone platforms have generally adopted this tactic—it’s hard to switch from an iOS device to an Android one, because you have to replace all your apps, and learn new methods of interacting with your phone. Other platform businesses have grown through multi-homing—there is no barrier to being a driver for both Instacart and Postmates, for example, or for customers to order food delivery through both GrubHub and Yelp Eats.
And some of the parallels, of a successful union:
Reduces information asymmetry between workers and bosses
An effective collective bargaining process has the great advantage of giving workers the same information that bosses have, about both the financial health of a company, and to some degree, the strategy the employer plans to employ to grow the business. Workers with more information have the advantage of being able to make better decisions—which might involve deciding to put more of their total compensation package into retirement savings, or to request skills training, to learn to use a new technology the company is implementing.
Has a high cost of entry, combined with a democratic governance model
For most US workers, the choice to join a union comes with peril. It can involve the risk of getting fired, or having to risk going without pay for some period of time to win a strike. In some parts of the country, bosses have successfully framed unions as a polarizing force, and potential members may face social pressure from friends or family if they join a union. And finally, the actual cost of dues (and sometimes, initiation fees) are much higher than in most other social movements. (The financial cost can, of course, be offset by gains made at the bargaining table.) Unions, at least in theory and often in practice, have a democratic governance model that allows for all dues-paying members to have a vote—usually outlined in bylaws that are ratified by members.
Uses network effects to grow value
There is a fairly clear relationship between the rate of union density in the US, and the level of income inequality: as union density has declined, inequality has increased. More union members in a particular industry in a particular market (say—hotel workers in Los Angeles) will inevitably push up wages in that industry, in that region, as they bargain better contracts. However, more union members will also cause anti-union employers to raise wages, as they seek to avoid unionization. In the best times in our history, unions have also leveraged their political power and social pressure to raise wages for millions of non-union workers through minimum wage legislative or ballot initiative campaigns.
Holds data as proprietary (sometimes even within organization)
Unions have not, historically, been great users of data either for member outreach or for making a public case for why they are necessary & socially useful organizations. While most unions are committed to meticulous upkeep of their seniority list, they do not tend to track as assiduously things like average wage rates, family size, number of member children who are able to successfully attend college, or other pieces of information that might be a boon to labor economists, academic researchers, or public policy makers. In addition, many unions hold tight their member contact lists (sometimes even restricting their own staff from being able to see them). The high cost of member acquisition forces unions into this defensive crouch—but the crouch itself can provide an additional barrier to fully serving members’ needs.
Mono-homing is the default
It’s difficult to belong to more than one union. Not impossible, of course—especially in the performing arts where recent years have seen the merger of SAG and AFTRA, acknowledging that many of their members were doing work in both film and TV. There is no institutional barrier in becoming a member of UNITE HERE as, say, a school cafeteria worker and a member of SEIU as a home health aide—but the high cost of dues may prohibit part-time low-paid workers from joining two unions, if the benefits largely accrue to full-time work in both cases.
What’s the market? (where the analogy fails, but we still have something to learn)
Unlike platforms, which mostly deal in single seller/single buyer transactions, unions are generally aggregating the selling power of a large group–in this case workers in one particular worksite or industry—to one particular buyer—the company for whom they work. That transaction is conducted through the collective bargaining agreement, and is enforced by a group of members (aka union stewards and officers) combined with paid staff (of both the union and the company).
As the rate of US unionization has declined, employers have done more and more offloading of their employment to third parties. Many workers who seem identical to full-time employees on their face, are ineligible for traditional unionization because they are employed by temp agencies or other kinds of labor brokers.
For those of us who are interested in seeding new types of worker organization, or evolving some part of our current organization to be more platform-like, the next post in this series will look at how we can design them using best practices from platforms.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the US workforce is experiencing a kind of personality disorder these days. On one hand, low-paid workers in the service sector are fighting to get their employers to give them more hours, as software algorithms make it easier for employers to accomplish “just-in-time” scheduling. On-demand workers are in a constant hunt for their next gig, through apps like Uber, TaskRabbit, Wonolo or Instacart. These apps give workers instant access to temporary work, and take the friction out of billing (and collecting payment from) clients. Automation—whether it’s experienced through the app economy or scheduling software—gives employers the workforce flexibility they want—whether workers are happy with that flexibility or not.
On the other hand, workers with traditional full-time jobs are feeling like they never get to truly leave work behind at the end of the day. Workers with employers that write late-night emails, or saddle managers with the responsibility of working unpaid overtime (because they are technically exempt employees) are left to juggle their personal and work lives—and to feel like they’re constantly failing at both. Working parents and people who are caregivers for their own parents are especially crushed between the need to perform well even outside of “normal” work hours, and also to be attentive to kids or other family members.
For some, freelancing feels like a chance to have flexibility in scheduling, to be able to control your own destiny in ways that full-time employees can’t. Unfortunately, nearly all freelancers have to worry about losing income if they can’t work—whether it’s one day staying home with a sick kid, or for longer periods of time. But freelancers aren’t the only ones struggling in the 21st century to find ways of paying the rent. The actual unemployment rate hovered between 10 & 11% for most of last year, and the World Bank recently estimated that, in order to meet the global need for jobs for youths aged 15-29, we will need to create 600 million new jobs over the next ten years.
The on-demand economy is forcing a national conversation about how to restructure work in the 21st century. More of us are jumping from gig to gig (sometimes in the space of a single day) to get by, and most people under 30 have given up the dream of having a career within a single company—if they ever had it. Millennials have watched their parents and older coworkers struggle with work-life balance, and many have decided that “having it all” doesn’t necessarily have to include full-time work, all the time.
Recent events held by a number of think tanks, have featured policy makers, organizers, and technologists discussing whether it’s time to give serious consideration to creating a form of universal basic income. While the threat of technological unemployment is probably not imminent, there are serious concerns that change will happen in some industries faster than others. Many robotics experts predict that self-driving vehicles will transform the transportation industry over a period of 10-15 years, potentially affecting millions of professional drivers.
Natalie Foster, a fellow at the Institute of the Future and the co-founder of Peers.org (a web community of workers in the on-demand economy) supports universal basic income as a way of easing the transition to a more automated workforce. “Today’s fights are between Uber drivers and taxi drivers, but tomorrow’s fights are between humans and robots,” said Foster. “As more and more jobs become automated, it’s important that we’re prepared for that transition.”
Gerald Huff, a Silicon Valley software engineer who’s studied the issue of basic income thinks it’s inevitable that automation will lead to job loss. “In the auto industry, electric cars & self-driving cars are the most interesting thing happening today. It’s inevitable that we’ll have them eventually—and millions of jobs will be lost due to this evolving technology.” Huff sees machine language programming as “a general purpose technology, like electricity, that will spread at different rates throughout the economy” but ultimately, like electricity, will have widespread adoption in many different industries.
Foster points out that, “despite misconceptions, we actually have a version of income for all in Alaska with the Alaska Permanent Fund, which issues dividend checks to every Alaskan resident each year, based on the oil wealth that they co-own together. Could an American Permanent Fund be a way to create transition income for all, as we march toward technological unemployment?” In addition to Alaska’s Permanent Fund, forms of basic income have been experimented with by some Native American tribes disbursing casino income. The city of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, has also announced plans to experiment with giving payments without conditions to people that currently qualify for social security, as has the newly-elected government of Finland.
Both types of workers being affected by technology could have their lives eased by experiments with universal basic income. The fast food worker struggling to get by in a week that her employer only wants her to work 20 hours, would know for certain that she could pay the rent. The full-time worker, struggling with the demands of balancing a more-than-40-hour workweek with the need to pick her kids up from school and feed them dinner, might decide to voluntarily cut back on her work hours, knowing that her overall income would be unchanged. Basic income might also allow us to return to the days when large numbers of people were able to volunteer with community organizations, in schools, or with senior citizens. If we reduce the need for adults to spend the majority of their waking lives at work, it is certain that some of them will choose to give back to their communities in ways they just don’t have time to do, right now.
As individual workers choose to reduce hours, we will also probably see more job-sharing arrangements. Many employers may find that they have to compete for workers by significantly improving quality-of-life issues on the job, which could include allowing two people to share the duties of what is now one full-time. If we want to achieve the kind of opportunities for today’s youth that the World Bank estimates we need, one way to do that would be to grant everyone some form of basic income, and encourage employers to allow workers to share jobs in ways that let them maximize the knowledge and expertise of incumbent workers, while bringing on the next wave of workers in a part-time capacity.
It will take a big leap, rhetorically, for people to go from thinking “no one who works full-time should live in poverty” to “no one should live in poverty.” Particularly in the US, one’s livelihood is in no small part the key to one’s identity—and the idea that we might all be sliding toward a future with much less work fills some of us with as much dread as it does joy. But Huff believes we’re slowly approaching a future where “people will not make enough money to participate in the economy. Universal basic income is a form of helping capitalism help itself—so that we won’t just rely on human labor as the way we get money to spend.”