Coworker.org Updates Digital Labor Organizing
BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, November 26 2013
In 2011 Anthony Hardwick was informed of a Thanksgiving scheduling change for his job at a Target in Omaha, Nebraska. To accommodate the most zealous holiday bargain hunters, he’d have to show up at 11 p.m. the night of Thanksgiving. The turkey would still be warm, but his holiday would be over. This didn’t sit right with Hardwick, who would have to follow up his over-nighter at Target with an early morning shift at OfficeMax. He went to Change.org and posted a petition asking for Target to push back opening to 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving.
“It was massively successful,” says Jessica Kutch, a former SEIU organizer who was then director of social justice campaigns at Change.org. The petition gained over 200,000 signatures, and was copied by employees at Targets, Best Buys, Kmarts, and ToysRUs’s across the nation. The story was reported on by the New York Times and other national media outlets.
But after the campaign was over, those thousands of Target employees weren’t ever again communicated to as employees. The data wasn’t stored or maintained. Those employees who had their first taste of workplace activism couldn’t be cultivated to do more. “And that’s also why every year you see the same rush of petitions that actually aren’t building towards anything lasting,” says Kutch.
Kutch and Michelle Miller, a fellow SEIU organizer, had seen a similar dynamic in play with the Wisconsin statehouse protests earlier in 2011. Thousands of people protested for the collective bargaining rights of public employees, but no online mechanism existed to keep those protestors organized and active when they returned to their jobs.
To fill this gap in the nascent field of online labor organizing, the two started Coworker.org, a platform for digital organizing around worker’s rights, that’s been in beta for a year.
“What we aim to be is a combination of online tools and resources, media outreach, and strategic organizing support.” Anyone can start a campaign on Coworker.org, but the idea is to turn any worker campaign or petition, like Hardwick’s, into an opportunity to build networks of employees. The strategy is to build networks of employees that can be mobilized more than once.
Currently, Coworker.org features a petition against Wells Fargo pushing its employees to meet unrealistic sales goals. Coworker.org keeps track of who signs it, depending on if they do or do not identify as a Wells Fargo employee.
“So in the future, when there’s another Wells Fargo employee who has an issue at work, they have an instant audience of their peers,” says Kutch. According to her, nearly 1,200 Wells Fargo employees have signed the petition. Eventually, the platform will automatically connect campaigns and ideas with a like-minded audience, and broaden the visibility of campaigns that perform especially well.
The platform has also proven useful to employees who don’t work for large national corporations. For instance, restaurant employees at the Tabard Inn in Washington D.C. used the site to protest “internal restructuring” there.
“The petition was… probably the easiest way for people to really express how they felt about what was going on,” says Carolyn Dewitt, a bartender at the Tabard who helped set up the petition, which has been signed by over 2,100 people. Dewitt says Tabard employees benefited not just from the attention the petition brought, but from the hands-on involvement of Coworker.org’s founders. “They’ve been instrumental in thinking through strategy on the campaign,” says Dewitt.
Coworker.org is supported by fellowships, Miller's from Georgetown University, and Kutch's through the New Organizing Institute. It exists in a small but growing ecosystem for worker organizing tools.
“There’s been a renewed sense of the need to invest in more innovation in the last few years in the labor space,” says Nicole Aro, who directs the digital strategies department at the AFL-CIO. Two years ago her department didn’t even exist.
The AFL-CIO collaborated with Working America to make its own tools for worker organizing called Fix My Job, and Organizewith.us, but both Aro and Kutch don’t see those sites as competitors to Coworker.org.
“Those sites are a little bit more of an in depth how-to,” says Aro of the AFL-CIO sites, which are “deeper rather than broader” in their approach. She says the AFL-CIO sees Coworker.org as another tool at its disposal that they wouldn't shy from using if they thought it would be helpful in a worker campaign.
This spike in innovating for labor organizing couldn’t come at a better time.
“Membership numbers are in decline,” says Kutch, “and we need to figure out new ways to bring people into workplace organizing.” She remains optimistic, and imagines a near future where a Starbucks barista in Tokyo can exchange ideas with another barista in the Bronx, or in Sydney, Australia, about how to improve their workplace. “We’re not doing our job as a movement if we’re not creating the infrastrucuture and tools to make that possible,” she says.