“What if the inventory could walk and talk?”

Original Content

Douglas Williams took a look at labor’s apps…or lack of them…in this new piece, “Organizing An App for That: Labor’s Absence From the App Store.”

What’s Going On in the Workforce?

“What if the inventory could walk and talk?” Amazon plans to have 10,000 robots helping pack shipments in their warehouses. By the end of this year.  

Uber drivers in Seattle are organizing with the Teamsters—not as a traditional union, but for mutual solidarity.

It’s not bad enough that corporations are considered people in the US—this Hong Kong company just appointed an AI to its board of directors. I guess it’s only a matter of time before political contributions from cyborgs become legal?

If we achieve more automation in manufacturing, what will that mean for developing countries’ ability to build wealth? (or should I say, for workers in developing countries? I would, but I don’t think they’re generally the ones building the wealth.)

Geeking Out

“We are able to turn the physical world into a virtual world.” How Google is ‘crawling’ the streets of Silicon Valley to build a program for self-driving cars.

Organizing Theory

Are you looking for a place to find academic research on social and activist movements? This one doesn’t quite get there for me, but it’s a good start.

From Partners

Friend’o’the’blog Jason Gooljar pointed out to me that SEIU sent out an email using the ‘tel’ html code last week. Wanna ask folks to make a phone call in your next email? Here’s how.

Australian union organizer Godfrey Moase wants to build a website to help people figure out if a general strike is feasible, in their region.

Are you a young worker in the US? Join the Young Worker Media Project’s tweet chat to talk about how work defines (or doesn’t define) young workers’ lives.  Wed., 4/28, starting at 8 pm eastern. Use the hashtag #risengrind, and follow @youngworkflo for more info.

Sharing,  Solidarity, & Sustainability 

“We need more cultural celebration of missionaries vs. mercenaries.” A provocative speech by Justin Rosenstein made TechCrunch ask “what can tech do better to help change the world?

Can we replace money through a Twitter hashtag? This guy gave it a shot, with #punkmoney.

As the world contains more and more people, we’ve got to get better at not wasting food. Here are some entrepreneurs, working to solve basic food-delivery logistics problems.

Reputation, Reputation, Reputation

“The power is where the data isn’t.” If our new world is all about data, can we use it to upend old power structures?

I will not like the Internet of Things, if it just turns out to be another way to bring advertising into my house.

The Russian underground isn’t just a place to buy and sell personal data…it’s also a place to buy software that allows you to steal data.

And while we’re on the topic of data (ok, I’m always on that topic)—is education technology data-mining your kids?

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.

“…there’s more of a connection between black cooperatives and civil rights than there is between black cooperatives and capitalism.”

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

“…there’s more of a connection between black cooperatives and civil rights than there is between black cooperatives and capitalism.” Professor Jessica Gordon Nembhard talks about her new book, Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Pratice to Colorlines magazine.

“Food sharing is still on the edges of mainstream.” But will sharing your leftovers with strangers become a thing? I’d personally like to stop throwing out fruit that my kids won’t eat…

This video chat lets teens abroad who want to practice their English connect with elderly folks who want to help teach them—or just want someone to talk to during the day.

Twenty years ago, Zapatistas in Chiapas declared war on the Mexican government for signing NAFTA. Since then, they’ve rebuilt their local economy to focus on solidarity, and to prioritize self-sustenance.

Geeking Out

MIT’s Center for Civic Media wants to make access to telepresence bots available to anyone, not just the rich. So they created the People’s Bot.

What’s Going On in the Workforce?

The “army of the self-employed” in Britain are wondering—will legislation ever catch up with the way we work now?

“Nobody ever asks a cyborg to lean in.” Haley Mlotek has some interesting thoughts about how robots and mechanization means we’re all becoming feminized at work—and how that might help us overcome oppression.

If you’re building a business that isn’t, strictly speaking, legal, attracting top talent to work for you can be tough.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez wants construction workers to Stand Down for Safety in the first week of June—to make sure employers are doing everything they can to ensure safety from falls on the job.

Do you make some or all of your income from freelance writing? If so, these folks would like to hear from you.

Organizing Theory

Fighting street harassment or sexual assault on campus? There’s an app for that.

I know, you hear the words “Pirate Party” and think of groups of people wearing an eyepatch while drinking rum and singing sea shanties. But the emergence of a continental political party that’s been largely organized online—and around digital issues—is not to be underestimated.

If you’ve got an email list with lots of inactives, you might want to try separating them out and running some tests…

From Partners

“If geeks are anything they’re problem solvers. If you give them a hard problem they get really excited about solving it. The problem is, many of them don’t have personal experience with hard problems. So the trick is to be very intentional about exposing them to the problems and then asking them to participate.

Things that don’t work are shaming, guilting, accusing. This whole attitude now that “techies don’t care” really bothers me. It’s not productive. “ This Reddit AMA by Catherine Bracy from Code for America might be my favorite thing ever.

Reputation, Reputation, Reputation

If we’ve come to Andy Warhol’s future, where everyone gets their 15 minutes to be famous (even if it’s just online)—will we next be searching to be forgotten in 15 minutes?

If you can’t opt out of a facial recognition world—can avoid it, by wearing someone else’s face?

“It costs more to have an Internet connection in your house per month than the casual worker on MTurk can make in 30 days.”

Original Content

Did your lawn get mowed this weekend, by you or someone else? Check out Wyatt Closs’s new piece “A Cut Above: The Workonomics of Grass.”

What’s Going On in the Workforce?

“It costs more to have an Internet connection in your house per month than the casual worker on MTurk can make in 30 days.” In 2009, Jason Huff launched an artistic project to get Mechanical Turk workers to tell their stories. Five years later, he went back to that well to see if and how things had changed.

Veteran journalist Karl Hodge takes a look at life from the perspective of a freelancer, in the age of Oodesk, Elance, and other apps.  And Stas Zoblinski talks about why we should all take a chance on building our own businesses, because “Corporations Will Eat You for Breakfast.”

Sometimes, even when your app makes money, you still have to lay off all your staff.

Watch NYU B-School professor Scott Galloway shred this robotics industry executive on the question of whether people’s jobs are being replaced by robots.

Geeking Out

You may have already figured out who gets your stuff, after you’re not here anymore. But do you know who might inherit your email? A new set of state laws may make this clearer. (As for me—hey, my kids don’t read their own email—what are they going to do with mine?)

As someone who has personally used both exercise and calorie tracking apps, I was disconcerted to see this new report from the FTC about how those apps might be selling very personal data about you to ad companies.

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

Civic crowd funding has become a larger & larger trend. This MIT student has been looking at the success rate & average size of proposals in this sector, for the past two years. Here are the results of his research.

These Greek factory workers took over their factory after it had been abandoned by the boss, and started a worker-coop that makes environmentally-friendlier products than what they made before the crash.

Wouldn’t it be cool if every road in the US was paved with solar panels? These folks are crowd-funding to perfect that tech.

Can co-ops become the dominant form of enterprise in the sharing economy?

Organizing Theory

Industry-leading email newsletter provider (and the host for this fine list) MailChimp has a great internal website to let their staff know what kind of tone to use in writing for every possible circumstance. Does your organization help staff figure out how to write for different parts of the web?

And speaking of email—are you looking for good examples of, say, an announcement email? Check out Really Good Emails.

Reputation, Reputation, Reputation

Is it too late to opt out of world-wide facial recognition?

Apple, I love you. Mostly. But you’re starting to seriously creep me out.

“Devices which are networked or controlled by a corporation therefore cannot form part of an individual’s extended body.” Interesting polemic on the consequences of wearable tech, from the folks at Stop the Cyborgs.

From Partners

Need to do a video conference with a group that includes English and Spanish speakers? USiLive’s got your hookup for video conference meetings that involve interpreters.

Not A Cut Above: The Workonomics of Grass

Bought your first bag of grass seed yet? Thinking about a new hose? Scrolling through Angie’s List for a good lawn service? Uh-huh. Well think about where your lawn maintenance money is going, because these are $24 Billion questions. As Wilson Pickett sings “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.” What I’ve found is that we seem to place such a high value on the perfect lawn but yet, don’t place much value on those who care for them. 

This Plot of Green, an American Obsession 

We can be fools about our lawns. Obsessive would be an understatement for some. Be it Beverly Hills or any patch of green in Piscataway or Akron I suspect. We like to look at them, sprawl on them, breathe nostrils-deep and admire them. It says something. There was a man near my childhood home in North Carolina named “S.L.” – that’s what everybody called him – and every afternoon after finishing a hard day’s work as a house painter, he would stand out on his finely cut lawn, smoke a cigarette or two and just gaze out far beyond the horizon. He was in his domain. He was proud. He was figuring out a lot of things about the world on his lawn and you knew it. Now that I can respect but its the folks that go over the top with their odd fascination with their lawns and the people who do the hard work to make them look good that concern me. For the frontline workers, the grass is definitely not greener. 

From Grass Seed to Grass Cut, Let’s Follow the Money 

We spend a pile of dough on this obsession. An industry report  from HighBeam Business says that “according to Dun and Bradstreet in 2010, 92,325 establishments in the lawn and garden services industry brought in revenues of $23.98 billion. Companies with fewer than 100 employees accounted for 99 percent of employees and 80 percent of revenues.” The lawn services game is hella packed with thousands of small businesses. Most firms (80 percent) have four or fewer employees. No surprise there. But this translates into grounds maintenance workers holding about 1.2 million jobs in the 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Roughly 36 percent of workers were employed by companies providing landscaping services to residential and commercial customers. And then there’s the unaccounted like your kids or the day laborers that some(ok, most) people paid in cash as this Fox News article about a proposed Georgia law affirms.  But who is really getting paid? Well, stakeholders in the ‘let’s keep up a façade in a bad economy’ game are one set. You see, even in empty homes – say those vacant due to foreclosure, there’s money to be spent on grass. Last year, ABC reports, American taxpayers will spend more than $40 million just to keep the lawns mowed at these addresses. 

Mowing Down The Wages 

There are many other winners and losers in this gigantic grass economy. Like, the owner of Scotts Miracle Gro, James Hagedorn whose compensation was $5.4 Million in 2012. Yet, out of 204 jobs recently listed for Scotts on the job search website Indeed, 134 of them were pegged at being likely under $30,000. And that’s not counting the person just cutting the grass for one of Scott’s Lawn Care franchises that are popping up like weeds. The market on wages can seriously vary. On discussion boards on Yahoo! and elsewhere, folks are saying no more than $10 an hour. Others proposed pay based on square footage, a little extra for trimming perhaps, different if done by a team. Its all over the place. But no matter how you slice it, its unlikely that those in frontline lawn service will have a lawn or home like Mr. Hagedorn. Let alone healthcare, health and safery protections or other benefits.   

Golf Courses and Other Pastoral Illusions of Grandeur 

And while many might want to cite the big number of small businesses as a signal of grass as some mighty entrepreneurial engine for the economy, the truth is the average lawn guy or gal is barely making ends meet. Like taxi drivers or maids and others jobs regarded as  “independent contractors,” the cost to be in business is more like hacking out of a bunker. Which brings us to golf, clearly a world that values a well-cut lawn, right? Not exactly. The wages of lawn care there are below par at best. In a US Golf Association article called The Escalating Cost of Golf Course Maintenance, despite its title, lays bare a wage ceiling that has not been raised much:

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, hourly wages at a golf course were superior to those of many competing businesses (fast food, retail, etc.) and were very attractive…The gap between golf course wages and other work options [now] is far less than in the past.”

Think about that at Augusta National this year in addition to their normal, um, “diversity challenges.”   “Beautiful place, bad work environment”, a former Groundskeeper wrote online. In addition, there’s serious environmental impact with all of this perfectly manicured lawn mania, as noted by Duke’s School of the Environment Dean Bill Chameides.  

Which all brings into question the very notion of what having a home is supposed to mean in the first place. Keeping up with the Joneses is turning more into keeping up with the Rockefellers, and in lawn care, we’re led to think we can and should manage that competition. 

About fifteen years ago, I visited the Canadian Centre for Architecture which dug deep into this world full force with an exhibit dedicated to lawns. Yes, you read that correctly. As CCA wrote in the exhibit program guide “The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life reveals the lawn as a domestic symbol, civic showplace, economic force, and national icon. Bungalows in tract developments, suburban corporate headquarters, and the White House are all alike in that they sit behind a lawn: a carefully contrived patch of “nature” that lies open to the sky.” 

And with the inequities found in the care of lawns empires big and small have and will continue to rest on them.

Wyatt Closs is a writer from Los Angeles. He can be found at @wyclo

Click below to listen to Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”

“We (drivers) have become the functional end of the app.”

What’s Going On in the Workforce?

“We have become the functional end of the app.” A price war between Lyft & Uber means real problems for the drivers from both services.

For May Day, Paul Hiebert looked at the difference between the US and the rest of the world, when it comes to work-play balance.

From Partners

“Civic tech doesn’t work unless it works for everyone.” Great blog post from Catherine Bracy about what Code for America’s doing next.

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

Check out this website, which is pointing out to insurance companies the license plates of cars being used by Uber and Lyft drivers. I guess some people really don’t like to share…

“Businesses need to be about two things—staff and customers.” So pay a living wage, folks, if you wanna be considered a socially-conscious business.

24% of the US’s largest companies have their CEO pay tied to some kind of sustainability metrics.

Organizing Theory

Here’s a novel plan from folks in California—let’s give corporations a tax incentive to promote more equity between CEOs and workers.

This is a really good wiki of how/why to create a protest or rally, done by people who want to draw the world’s attention to the plight of 234 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped from school & trafficked.

Thinking about using mobile technology to motivate voters in this mid-year electing? A new poll from Gallup shows there’s plenty of room, in that organizing space.

If it feels like your organization’s Facebook reach has gotten reduced, you might be right. Here’s why.

Reputation, Reputation, Reputation

“Whether it is possible to attribute real change to the use of satire, or whether it just makes those who tell the jokes feel better, can’t be empirically proven.” Yes. And yet, the reaction to online satire seems to lend itself to an interpretation that it is effective.

Geeking Out

The next time you think you see a bug crawling across your floor, check again. It may be a nanobot. That is, if you’re hosting some kind of manufacturing process.

This engineer hacked a guy’s brain. No, really.