It’s tough to kill your darlings

But it’s time for me to admit that COVID killed this website–or rather, killed my ability to write a weekly newsletter about tech and organizing, at least for now.

If you’re interested in what I’m working on these days, check out my company’s website at New Working Majority. And of course–you can always hire me!

Stay safe, HTUers.


What should I do to support Bessemer workers?

If you’re on any kind of labor-related news or social media sites these days, you know that the RWDSU has a union election happening at an Amazon worksite in Bessemer, Alabama, covering about 5,800 workers. This is an historic election, not just for its size, but because it is led by Black women workers in the South.

Over the weekend, calls for a boycott of Amazon began to surface, and quickly spread across labor Twitter and Facebook, leading the union to put out a statement on Sunday saying that they did not call for, nor endorse, a boycott.

I understand completely why the union did this, and I don’t think a hastily-organized boycott is ever a good idea–but I think it’s also a missed opportunity to ask their supporters around the US to stand with workers in Bessemer, against the enormous pressure that is being put on them to vote “no” by their boss, who is one of the richest (and therefore most powerful) people on earth.

A disclaimer: as far as I know, I don’t know anyone personally working on the organizing campaign in Alabama, and I am not throwing shade on anyone in the RWDSU. This campaign is extremely exciting and I have every hope that they will win.

But historically, many unions have asked for very limited support from other unions, or from members of the general public in organizing drives, and I wonder if it’s time for us to start reimagining what a corporate campaign could look like, in the 21st century.

We just went through a year where people around the country spent their evenings and weekends texting total strangers to get them to vote–for president, for US senate, in state legislative races and Congressional ones. In the age of COVID, Americans have learned to have persuasive conversations with each other without being in person. If we had an organized support team in the labor movement, could we relieve the pressure from some organizers locally? Imagine a team of volunteers that Hustled every Alabama Democratic voter from the November election to come to the Black Lives Matter/BAmazon car caravan they’re having this weekend? Or generated phone calls from community members to the local government officials, in response to the news that they’d changed the stoplight timing to prevent the union from contacting workers?

To me, the speed at which the boycott call spread across the internet demonstrates that people understand the historic importance of this election–and want to do anything they can to help the union win, to fight the power of America’s #1 corporate behemoth. We are in a moment where inequality is more exposed than ever before to the general public. We need a way to get them in this fight with us. We don’t seem to have any trouble asking union supporters to support labor-endorsed candidates or legislation–see the calls to support the PRO Act that are currently spreading across those same labor social media sites.

Most unions are wary of enlisting the help of outsiders in organizing drives not least due to their very real fear of being accused of being outsiders. That’s completely understandable. But if we want to build a movement that is for the whole working class, we have to figure out ways for the whole working class to participate–even if they can’t be in Bessemer right now. If we are successful in passing the PRO Act, we could be having campaigns as large as the BAmazon drive occur faster than we can handle them with existing union staff, right now–who is thinking about how to decentralize and disaggregate some of the organizing work supporting this?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this–if you haven’t yet joined the new HTU Slack instance, please jump in!

We’d rather have e-bikes on our streets than FedEx trucks

We’ve all seen the stories of how the pandemic is impacting small businesses around the country—and the corresponding stories of how Amazon is growing larger at their expense. Here’s how one South Jersey town is taking an interesting approach to supporting their small business community by taking a page from the logistics behemoth. 

In January 2021, Collingswood, NJ launched a new program called Collingswood Prime. This program paired small businesses with a minority-owned e-bike delivery company called Bloc Delivery, to deliver products from those businesses to residents in town, two days per week. Historically, Collingswood has had a thriving downtown business that includes a small grocery store, as well as pet stores, music shops, kitchen supplies and a comic book store. 

In an interview, Collingswood Commissioner Rob Lewandowski talked to me about the genesis of the program. 

“We really see that part of the role of local government in business development is inviting people into our downtown—in normal times, that looks like pedestrian planning, throwing community events, improving accessibility, things like that. When COVID hit, we were presented with this hurdle—we’re telling people not to shop in person, so how do we get them to shop local, when they’re buying everything online? We’re telling store owners they have to limit how many people are in their store—how do we help them reach more customers online?

“Our traditional model wasn’t useful during the pandemic, so we reallocated our event budget to promoting local businesses in other ways. We think it’s much better for our town to have people buying things locally and having them delivered in an environmentally sustainable way, instead of having our streets crowded with FedEx and UPS trucks that are delivering things from far away warehouses.”

Collingswood Prime is a partnership between the town’s Business Improvement District and an employee-owned delivery service, Bloc Delivery. Customers are charged a transaction fee, on top of the cost of their purchase, which goes directly to the delivery company to pay for the delivery—that is not shared with either the businesses or the town government, instead it goes directly to the workers who own the delivery service. For its part, the township added a page to their website, advertising all the stores that are involved in the program and giving people a taste of what they sell, to help promote online shopping and local delivery.

“Our hope is that this continues past the pandemic,” Lewandowski told me.  “While residents can’t meet every single one of their needs by buying local, we want to show people that a lot of things that they buy are available in town, and we want them to keep relying on local stores when the need for social distancing and limits for how many people can shop in person is over.”

An open letter to readers of Hack the Union

Well, hi there! It’s been a minute—all on me, I know, as Hack the Union was suspended for probably more weeks of 2020 than it was published. 

As we move out of the chaos of 2020, and into the (even more?) chaos of 2021, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of this website, and where it is going. 

I’ve spent the bulk of my career organizing in the liminal space where political organizing and labor organizing meet. And I’ve been lucky enough to do that in both large, multi-racial labor unions and in smaller, primarily BIPOC worker justice organizations. To be clear here: when I say “political,” I mean a combination of legislative, policy and electoral work—“politics” is more than just elections. Similarly, when I say “labor organizing,” I am talking about organizing workers to make a change at work—which includes, but is not limited to, winning NLRB elections or securing contracts. 

I started writing Hack the Union in 2013, because I was reading a lot about the then-nascent gig economy, but only in the tech press. At that point, few labor leaders were paying attention to what was going on in Silicon Valley. Suffice it to say, that problem has been remedied over the past eight years (not exclusively by me, but I’ll take some credit for it). Part of my lack of focusing on this newsletter, over the past year, has been driven by the knowledge that other people have started covering these stories, thanks to the explosion in labor journalism that was kicked off during the Trump era (I will not take any credit for that). 

At the same time, a lot of what had me distracted last year (in addition to *gestures vaguely* all the things) was the fact that I had to really split my focus. Starting in the second quarter, with the pandemic in full effect, I (like many of you) spent countless hours on phone calls and zooms, supporting workers who were standing up against employers that wouldn’t keep them safe, and fighting for excluded workers to get the cash they needed to keep them alive.  And simultaneously, because of the liminal nature of my work life, I was also spending a ton of time with folks who were trying to protect our democracy. Notice I do not say “with folks who were trying to elect Joe Biden.” That was an important side effect, but for most of the people I worked with, electing Biden was a secondary goal. 

That combination of pieces of work has me thinking a lot about what failures exist, in the labor movement (not to mention our democracy more broadly) when it comes to the political education of the working class. 

I had planned to take the Christmas holidays/end of year break as time to figure some things out, but it turned out that I was so exhausted, I didn’t do nearly the amount of thinking work that I wanted to do. Last week’s actions in the Capitol are not making me feel like I’m going to have the mental capacity to do a ton of that thinking in work in the immediate future, either. 

I’m writing this anyway, because I want you to hold me accountable to doing it. 

One of the hardest things for me in being a freelancer is feeling like I don’t have the space to do things that aren’t about earning money. (Deep thanks, to all those of you who are supporting my Patreon—but it’s not enough to pay my monthly phone bill, at this point—and I don’t even write something I charge for every month!.) Suffice it to say that while my other consulting business is pretty secure, Hack the Union is a solid demonstration of my failure to be a successful capitalist. Which is okay.

It’s okay—but if it’s important to YOU that this thing here continues to evolve, I need some help from. Here’s what I need (pick one or both):

  1. Schedule a 30-45-minute long meeting with me to talk about Hack the Union, in the first two weeks of February.
  2. Send me the name of one great organizer that you personally know, with a one-paragraph description of something that they’ve done that’s worth writing about. Bonus points if it includes that organizer’s contact information.

Thanks to you all. Love to your babies (human and fur). Dance with joy at the defeat of our enemies. May 2020s be the decade we earned, though our mutual, exhausting work in 2020. 

With love & solidarity,


Philly Workers Organizing During COVID-19

This is a guest post by Madison Nardy

Growing up as a student in the Philadelphia public school system, no matter what grade I was in, our teachers would present lectures about the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic. We would go on field trips to learn about our nation’s history, but hearing about this epidemic terrified me as a child. I remember daydreaming in class, worried that something like this would happen again. Fast forward to today, my childhood daydreams have become my reality. As a child, what I failed to daydream about, is how a global outbreak of such a deadly disease would hurt our most vulnerable people, the working and poor class.  

I began the fight towards economic justice in 2016, while I was approached by a worker organizer at my previous job at Target, where I experienced a reduction in my hours while my manager simultaneously hired new employees, closing one night and opening the very next morning, and forced to stay late or come in early at the very last minute. Working in these conditions was very stressful on myself, my family, and even more stressful now during a pandemic.

Workers all across the nation work in stressful conditions like I did, but since the beginning of the pandemic, these conditions spiraled out of control. Somehow our nation divided “low-wage” workers into two categories, nonessential and essential workers. Regardless of which category someone falls into, everyone is struggling. Workers at nonessential businesses all across the nation, have been furloughed, laid-off, or even fired. Luckily for me, my nonessential business furloughed all of its employees company wide. We were able to collect unemployment, which is not the case for all workers.

 Domestic workers and people who work for cash make up a large portion of our nation’s workforce, and do not qualify for unemployment. Since families are beginning to work from home, they are no longer in need for domestic workers, like house cleaners and nannies. Domestic workers across the city and the nation are out of work and unable to receive unemployment benefits. Our highest priority is to keep our nation healthy, and to provide them with resources to protect their health, feed their families, and keep a roof over their head. 

Essential workers are most at risk for testing positive for Covid-19, and they are the first people we need to protect. Essential workers like grocery store clerks, mass transit workers, and mail carriers, come in contact with hundreds or thousands of customers a day. If we don’t protect them, the pandemic will only get worse. The Philadelphia Paid Sick Leave law provides workers with one hour of paid sick time for every forty hours worked, that gives a maximum of five days per year. This is not enough paid sick time during a pandemic. The recovery time for mild Covid-19 cases is two weeks, and workers need two weeks of paid sick time, and ensured their jobs will be protected once coming back from self- isolation.

The Coalition to Respect Every Worker organized a virtual town hall on March 26th, with two demands to tell City Council. Create an emergency fund for workers who are unable to receive unemployment like domestic workers, and people who work for cash. And to also expand the Paid Sick Leave law from five days to two weeks for all Philadelphia workers. I was in attendance along with 400 other workers, community members, ten City Council members, and supporters. Our turnout goal was 200 people, I was shocked when I logged into zoom and saw 400 other people fighting along with me. It felt powerful to see people all throughout the city support our demands, and the support of City Council. 

Workers like María del Carmen Díaz, who is a Domestic worker, lost all of her work due to the coronavirus shut down. Diaz expressed to the four-hundred in attendance, how important it is for our city to step up and protect those who don’t qualify for unemployment. Several more workers shared their stories about how their essential businesses are not taking any, or as many safety precautions as they should, putting their workers, and customers’ lives at risk. We need city council to expand paid sick leave so workers who test positive for coronavirus can self- isolate, and for workers who want to protect their health, to end the spread of Covid-19. While the City did expand its paid sick leave law to cover public health emergencies, in the first days of the shutdowns, the leave law only provides 5 days of paid time off to workers–far less than the amount many of us need. And many workers were left out of that bill initially, including gig workers, domestic workers, and those workers represented by unions. 

After workers shared their stories, City Council shared their thoughts. Freshman City Council Member, Kenrdra Brooks shared her story of being a domestic worker before running for office, and expressed how important it is to protect domestic workers who do not qualify for unemployment. Helen Gym reminded us of our previous long fights and victories, like Fair Work Week and The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Our two demands will be a hard fight, but it cannot be a long one. Once these legislations pass, Mark Squilla stressed the importance of labor law enforcement. 

With so much support from City Council members, two weeks later, we see no move for expanding paid sick leave legislation. Legislation of all kinds are being stalled due to the current circumstances of Covid-19, but workers like myself need legislation now more than ever. While I was daydreaming as a little girl, I never would’ve seen myself in the position I’m in now. A struggling college student, on unemployment, fighting for economic justice. I think back to how big of an imagination I had, and an even bigger one now. My adult day dreams include a world where our people are not suffering and we live in peace, and it only forces me to fight harder. Expanding Paid Sick Leave to two weeks, and creating an emergency workers fund is a first huge step our city can take to help our suffering people. 

Madison Nardy is a member of One Pennsylvania and a worker leader of the Philly Worker Power Organizing Project. Madison studies political science at Temple University. She worked at The Philadelphia International Airport before being furloughed due to COVID-19.

Southern public sector workers are fighting to stay safe, while they perform essential services

Public sector workers are more highly unionized than private sector ones, so it’s to be expected that they have some more ability to bargain about working conditions during the COVID-19 shutdown. However, public sector unionization isn’t uniform across the US—in many states, public employees labor under Right-to-Work laws, or work in states that don’t allow collective bargaining in the public sector. 

North Carolina is one of the Southern states that explicitly ban public sector employers and employees from signing a collective bargaining agreement–some have described it as the last relic of the Jim Crow South. To get a sense of how public workers are protecting themselves, as well as the public, I talked to members and staff from UE Local 150, which represents city workers in five cities in the state, as well as the state university system, and other parts of the state government. 

After a Raleigh sanitation worker Adrian Grubbs became the second person in the state to die of the disease, the union pushed for safety precautions and PPE for essential workers around the state—and some cities initially responded proactively. Charlotte, for example, switched their sanitation workers’ schedules to a rotating one, where workers shared shifts by working one week on and one week off—to reduce the number of people in the facilities each morning. However, after complaints from residents that their trash wasn’t being picked up “on time,” the City recently informed the entire sanitation department that they should report for work on Monday, 4/6. 

Dominc Harris, the president of the UE chapter at the City of Charlotte said in a phone interview, “Workers should die so they have a clean curb? It’s out for maybe 12 hours. It makes us feel like they are endangering us. It’s not fair, it’s not right.” On Monday morning, public workers around the city will be wearing stickers to show solidarity with the sanitation department. 

According to UE Local 150 organizer Dante Strobino, the union has launched several petitions supporting workers in both the state university system and in various cities, including this one that supports the Charlotte workers. “We wanted petitions that people could circulate through their cell phones, so they didn’t have to have physical contact, or pass around paper and pens (which could spread disease),” Strobino told me. “It’s attracted a bunch of interest from workers who weren’t previously active with the union. We had 500 university workers sign a petition to UNC and the governor, before it went out to the public.” 

While most students have left the university in order to minimize the spread of disease, UNC has let around 600 students who had no where else to go (mostly international students and students who have dysfunctional family relationships or no other place to go) shelter in place on campus. That means that the kitchens are still open, and housekeepers are still expected to report to work. However, those workers who have small children are finding themselves torn, as many of the daycare centers and schools that watch their children while they’re at work in normal times have closed. 

Greisa Vazquez, a housekeeper who works for the state Department of Health & Human Services at Central Regional Hospital, told me that she’s been at home since the daycare that her three-year-old attends was closed. “I went to HR weeks ago to ask them about the plan for those of us who have kids—and they didn’t have one. Other workers have family members taking care of their children, but my family all live in Puerto Rico, so I don’t have anyone here. My paid time has already been used up. I’m stressed because I can lose my job while I’m waiting for them to figure it out. I just moved into a new apartment, and I’m going to lose it if I can’t pay my rent.”

Strobino told me that the state’s mental health workers, generally, have not been getting hazard pay, even though the hospitals are still accepting in-patient admissions, making it hard to practice physical distancing. “They’re supposed to pay time and half during health emergencies—and they’re not even doing that. They’re not handing out enough personal protective equipment, for instance, not everyone is given an N95 mask yet. The Department is sending home instructions on how to sew your own mask. Some units are taking hand sanitizer off the floors to save it til there is a case—but the (mostly white) nurses get to use it, while the (mostly Black and Brown) blue-collar staff are denied access.” 

The union has recently worked with other movement groups to launch a new coalition: North Carolina United for Survival and Beyond, and is putting pressure on the state legislature to convene a special session to spend about $3.2 billion in Rainy Day & other funds, to address immediate and long-term needs related to the crisis presented by income and social inequality, as well as those directly created by the virus. 

you can’t buy a new fingerprint

This weekend, I found myself in a mall for the first time in a while, returning something one of my kids bought. In the store, the cashier, who was a seasonal hire, had to call a manager to approve the return. The manager used his fingerprint to sign off on it.

The manager used his fingerprint to sign off on it.

I was sort of stunned to see this technology in the wild, and asked the cashier about it–he said, “oh yeah, they’re everywhere now–my other job is at a gas station, and I have to use my fingerprint to turn the gas pumps on in the morning when I get to work.” I asked him what kind of online security he thought the gas pumps had, and he laughed.

I’m not going to lie, knowing what I know about the ability of corporate America to keep credit card data safe, the idea that retail and other service sector employers are suddenly going to up their data security game to keep their employees’ biometric data secure from prying eyes seems…unlikely, at best.

What does it mean for low-wage workers, if employers demand sensitive personal data, and then fail to keep it safe?

This technology has been around since 2009, apparently. Companies who have implemented it seem to be focused on protecting themselves from theft–after all, a worker can’t swipe someone else in to cover their lateness, if they need to use their finger. But who is protecting the workers from the dangers of having their fingerprints stolen? After all, you can’t buy yourself a new fingerprint, if your employer’s personnel database gets hacked.

Apple’s Touch ID wasn’t yet invented, when this technology rolled out–but now it is very common for people to use their fingerprint to lock and unlock their phones. Banks and credit card companies are also starting to roll out fingerprint ID as a method of additional security for customers, as well. One can imagine a not-too-distant future where it is possible for those with malicious intent to reverse-engineer an individual’s fingerprint from a stored scan, to steal from or impersonate victims.

It’s time for the labor movement generally to get behind the push for a GDPR-like law in the US, or a national expansion of California’s new CCPA. Low-wage workers (and the rest of us) need protection from employers that demand our most unique identifiers.

Interview with Emily Guendelsberger, author of On the Clock

I talked to Emily Guendelsberger*, author of the new book On the Clock, What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane.

Follow Emily on Twitter at @emilygee for more info.

*apologies for the wonkiness 3 minutes in, I had a wifi issue and we had to stop & start again.