Creating Digital Tools To Advance Worker Organizing

Students prepare to spend the weekend developing tech tools for worker organizing.
Students prepare to spend the weekend developing tech tools for worker organizing.

At The Workers Lab, we spend a lot of time exploring how technology can support and scale worker organizing. We are clear that online, mobile, and digital organizing is no replacement for the deep connections and transformative power of person-to-person organizing. Rather, we are working to understand how the use of mobile phones, social networks, and digital platforms can scale existing organizing efforts across the country. Here go some lessons from working with a group of students at UC Santa Cruz.

Instead of researching the myriad of issues facing workers, we prioritized addressing a set of concrete challenges that kept resurfacing in conversation with organizers and workers. The issues we identified are:
• Privacy: On more than one occasion, we’ve heard the troubling stories of workers being retaliated against because of their activity on social media. Workers and organizers needed a secure digital space to communicate, plan, and organize.
• Services: We’ve also heard organizer wanted to be able to support workers by connecting them, in real-time, to medical, social, and financial support.
• Peer Support: Workers hold the solutions to solving many of their work place challenges and we wanted to see how technology could facilitate real time peer-to-peer connection and support.

We started by sharing these issues with 16 teams of students who participated in UC Santa Cruz’s annual hack-a-thon. Over the course of the weekend, in partnership with organizers and workers from OUR Walmart, they addressed all of these issues by by creating an app that allows workers to connect with each other to discuss and solve workplace challenges. The app features an ‘advisor’ function that designates trained worker leaders as providers of deeper support. It also allows for geo-location that connects workers by store and geography as well as by issue area. Through a forum section with “up voted” responses, good solutions are kept available and workers are also able to connect directly and link to action tools. This app allows workers to communicate on a private network and share critical service resources that bring ease to their day to day.  The act of starting, creating, and testing, allowed us to get real time responses from workers about what they would use and would be most impactful to their work.

Cultivating relationships with unlikely partners in service of building power for working people is part of our DNA at The Workers Lab. In this case, we found that partnering with technologists, data scientists, and entrepreneurs helped us identifying news ways to organize those who are not directly impacted by limited worker power or voice.

For example, one of the teams from UC Santa Cruz’s hack-a-thon developed Reveal, a beautifully designed chrome plug in that shows consumers using Amazon (or any third party on-line marketplace) a product grade for supply chain working conditions. Currently linked to International Labor Rights Forum reports, the system shows an ABC grade based on forced labor, child labor or health and safety and links consumers to more detailed information and on-line take action tools. These young computer scientists wanted to know how they could make better choices aligned with worker power movements. They brought this commitment and their skills to address the challenge of building deeper alliances between consumers and workers.

Platform for Peer to Peer Communication Platform for Peer to Peer Communication

At the end of the day we are committed to using technology to amplify worker voice, build worker power, and scale worker organizing. Without these as our North Star, we know how easy it may be to slip into the traps of creating empty tech tools without clarity on how workers would use it to lift up their collective voices to improve our collective conditions.

OUR Walmart created a live platform for workers to beta test tools and platforms. Students who knew people working at Walmart called them and asked what they needed. From the very first moment, our partners had to commit to understanding, engaging, and building infrastructure to lift worker voice.

One of the tools created in service of increasing worker voice and connection is CoPower. It is a geolocation app that allows workers to see where other workers are and what services are in their surrounding area. It supports workers to self-report workplace concerns and visually see other, similar, reports in their geographic areas and connect to each other, either anonymously or publicly to share experiences and take action.

Let’s face it, technology is often being used to silent worker voice, rollback worker movement gains, and hollow-out our economy. We’ve all heard the harrowing stories of workers drowning in the predatory debt of gig economy because of the promise of “freedom & flexibility”. At The Workers Lab, we are not naïve to the ways digital tools have been used, but we know we can do better and will commit resources to proving as much this year.

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