Will baristas bring a revolution in worker organizing?

In June of 2016, Starbucks baristas began to notice a change in the way their stores were being scheduled all across the US. More and more of them were working short-staffed, and it soon became apparent that the company had changed its scheduling algorithm to allow stores fewer hours, especially during peak times.

Worker leader Jaime Prater launched a Coworker.org petition calling on Starbucks to improve morale by re-staffing the stores, and in less than a month, that petition had reached 10,000 signatures, most of them from Starbucks workers. These workers (who were both front-line baristas and store managers) didn’t just leave signatures—many of them left substantial comments about their complaints: “As a store manager, it really hurts to write a schedule knowing that it’s going to feel understaffed,” or “Ive (sic) been a partner for over nine years, and this is the worst I have ever seen it. Lines to the door, drinks wrapping around the bar, and they just keep coming.”

Coworker.org organizers have been building relationships with thousands of baristas since they saw the launch of their first Starbucks-related petition back in August of 2014. That petition, which asked Starbucks to change their dress code to allow baristas to have visible tattoos, took off when a handful of baristas posted it to private Facebook groups. As Coworker staff saw the petitions signatures rising, they stepped in to help workers develop a press strategy that would move the campaign forward. “There is a sense that things move forward quickly online,” said Coworker co-founder Michelle Miller, “but that’s not true with this. We’re moving at a human scale—this is run by workers. We could have pushed things from the top, but we want workers to learn things on their own, and to lead the campaign.”

Tim Newman, a Coworker organizer told me, “We knew we would need press to win, so we had to find workers that would talk to the press. There was a committee, and people stepped up in their own ways and connected with each other.” The tattoo petition campaign was covered by national news outlets, and in October 2014, workers got their first taste of victory when Starbucks announced that they were changing the policy, and that workers who had tattoos on their arms would be able to wear short sleeves.

Coworker’s Starbucks network continued to grow over the next two years, as workers started petitions on wages, paid sick leave, and other dress code issues, and at this point, fully 10% of Starbucks employees have joined one or more of these campaigns. Coworker also started a curated email newsletter that directly reflects the experience of baristas inside the workplace—and connected the petitions on issues that had been started by baristas. When petitions are started on similar issues, staff will connect the petition generators to see if they want to work together, but “one worker might be in a better position to promote it, there are so many variables, it’s much more an art than a science,” says Miller.

As the traditional labor movement struggles to develop new models of organizing that reflect the way work has changed from the Twentieth Century, there are a few bright spots in figuring out new ways of building worker power that meet the needs of workers today, many of them being innovated by women- and people-of-color-led organizations. Coworker, along with organizations like the National Domestic Worker Alliance, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Taxi Workers’ Alliance, and my own employer, the National Guestworker Alliance, are pioneering new methods of building power for workers.

Baristas who work at the whim of a global corporation are emblematic of a much larger class of US workers that the labor movement has struggled to meaningfully engage with—those who have precarious employment, and often lack power in society—and as their numbers grow, their problems increasingly affect us all. For organizers who are used to building power through intensive one-on-one conversations conducted in workers’ kitchens, and who’ve fought to get back workers’ jobs after they were fired for organizing, the idea that real power can be built without a fight can seem like a stretch.

In discussing the challenges of their work, Coworker’s Miller says, “sometimes the momentum of workers inside the network is faster than we have the capacity to keep up with. If they are taking risks, we want to be able to support them to succeed—we don’t want people to try a bunch of things and fail at all of them.” Currently, Coworker has three staff—not nearly enough to support the 30,000 baristas who have signed petitions on their site, much less all the other workers who have started petitions there.

One important thing to keep in mind, as people develop pilots and experiments in the worker organizing space, is that platform unions will invariably not look exactly like traditional unions. Platform unions might, for example, be able to create some kind of grievance-like intervention—but it is more likely that platform unions will be successful at winning class-action grievances, than that they will have the resources to spend on winning hundreds of individual grievances in a year, as a typical union local might.

Coworker.org and many of the other worker centers and national organizations that are commonly categorized as “alt-labor” are primarily funded through grants from foundations—unlike the traditional labor movement, which has been almost exclusively funded by members’ dues. As online organizing takes more prominence in the work of economic justice organizers, platform unions will need to create new ways of generating the income needed to support their work.

Some potential business models for platform unions could involve creating certification mechanisms that are either worker- or employer-focused. For example—an employer might decide that it needs to find workers who are CPR-certified, or bilingual, or can change a tire quickly—and a platform union could create a pool of certified workers who have been tested and found to hold those skills. Similarly, a platform union could develop a checklist of approved policies, and certify a business as a good employer, to workers who are considering working there. In both of these cases, the cost of certification would be paid by the employer or business.

Another, as-yet-untested tool that platform unions might develop are data collection products, for collecting information about working conditions across stores inside a retail chain’s network, or across an entire industry. Coworker is interested in moving into this space, as is HourVoice, an employer-rating app recently launched in the Chicago area. It’s possible that, as workers become more comfortable with rating their employers online (and are confident about their privacy when doing so) that we’ll start to see class-action wage theft cases that are jointly brought by platform unions and a group of workers from a local, regional or national chain.

A dues model is possible, although in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement that provides greater value than the amount of the dues, it will be hard to make that mandatory. No one wants to pay more in dues to their union than they are getting in raises, every year. However, a platform union could also create a fee-for-service model that helps workers get training that helps them move up the career ladder, or into a new job classification—in the way that union Training & Upgrading Funds, or apprenticeship programs have historically done. One could imagine that a platform union might be able to access workforce development funds that help workers grow new skills.

It can be hard to imagine that an online network of low-wage workers, no matter how tightly linked by technology, is going to be able to replicate the financial stability of the kind that was built by payroll dues checkoff—or that foundations will be reliable sole funders for training and certification that ultimately may benefit commercial employment platforms like Uber or Task Rabbit, if those platforms don’t themselves have skin in the game.

This wouldn’t be an article about digital organizing and unions if it didn’t ask about the role of offline organizing—and while I am a firm advocate of the need for unions in general to beef up their online game, there’s no argument that a face to face conversation is better than a text-based one. One next step, for Coworker and other platform unions, will be to figure out what kinds of value can come from bringing together workers that might not work in the same industry, but exist in the same region, to brainstorm about tactics and just build relationships. One Coworker member—who launched a successful petition to raise wages at her local restaurant chain, after they announced they were reducing all the wait staff to $2.13/hour—pulled together a Labor Day picnic, to meet people in person. As platform unions become more mature, they will invariably have (at least in some cities) the ability to make offline connections. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that an asynchronous online connection is sometimes the best way of reaching someone—especially workers with disabilities, or those with significant parenting or elder care responsibilities, or who is holding down multiple jobs with insecure schedules.

What digitally-savvy worker organizations do have going for them, in the 21st century, is an increased ability to shame corporations, which are more sensitive to brand damage than ever before. Whereas 20th century union organizers had to rely on the nightly news and the daily paper to get their message out and worker struggles rarely became a national story, today’s worker organizations can make an impact by connecting people across the country in a matter of minutes or hours.

At this writing, Jaime Prater’s petition about Starbucks’ scheduling problems has over 17,000 signatures. On the strength of other baristas’ interest, Prater crowdsourced recommendations to the company about hours, pay and perhaps most importantly, making their workers feel valued. After making public and then emailing those recommendations to the company’s CEO, Prater got a return phone call from Howard Schultz himself. The scheduling problems haven’t been fixed yet—but they’ve certainly gotten the company’s attention.

Designing 21st century platform unions—part 1

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).

However.

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.

Robots vs. Apps: What’s an Organizer To Do?

Aside

When I started writing this blog, around this time last year, I wanted to get more folks in the economic justice community thinking about technology, and the ways it is changing work. Historically, the labor movement has been painted as a foe of technological change, and I didn’t (and still don’t) think that’s an accurate picture. But I also get that the rapid pace of technological change makes all but the most tech-savvy nervous, at times. And those times seem to be increasing.

In the intervening year, it feels to me as if this topic has gotten a lot more coverage in the mainstream, particularly when it comes to the apps of the sharing economy. There was a little worry, a year ago, about Uber and what it might do to the taxi industry–but there hadn’t been, yet, local government taking action against the company (or Lyft, or any of the other big ride-sharing apps). There was some concern about what AirBnB might mean for hotels, but there hadn’t yet been regulatory action pushing them to pay taxes, or to protect their users. It feels, now, like we are starting to have more of a conversation about the gig economy and what it means for workers today–and I’m happy to have played some very small role in that conversation.

But I’m also worried that we haven’t started yet having the bigger conversation, which to my mind is not about apps, but robots. I’m going to use the term “robot” here pretty broadly–basically meaning any mechanization of work that was formerly done by humans.

If you haven’t yet watched this video that was linked in this week’s newsletter, go do it.

Our movement can be great at reacting–and it’s easy to feel, in the light of so many challenges that face us RIGHT NOW that we don’t have bandwidth to think about what might happen in ten, fifteen or twenty years. But if we don’t, who will be worrying about the impact of widespread job displacement on workers of all kinds?

Next month, as my own celebration of the US’s Labor Day, I’m hosting a tweet chat about robots and work. Please join me–8 pm Eastern, Monday 9/1/14. #robotwork will be the hashtag.