Disconnected: How the Digital Divide Harms Workers and What We Can Do about It
We must close the digital divide for workers to build inclusive worker voice and power, and create a more sustainable, democratic, and equitable future.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, an estimated forty-two million Americans did not have the ability to purchase broadband internet. And as the pandemic has ravaged the country, these vast inequities in technology access—which, together, have come to be known as the digital divide—have intensified and worsened. Roughly half of low income families have struggled to pay their internet and cell phone bills. Millions of unemployed workers had trouble navigating state unemployment websites, while almost 15 percent of students face barriers in remote learning conditions because they lack access to high-speed internet at home.
As reported by the Guardian, despite internet service providers (ISPs) saying networks are performing well, most people in 62 percent of counties across the United States did not have the government’s minimum download speed for broadband internet.
Yet, despite an increased awareness of the digital divide, the full extent of its harmful impact on workers’ lives and livelihoods is still not receiving sufficient attention. Yes, we should be discussing how, for too many communities, access to technology is a matter of survival. However, what is not being discussed—and should—is how the digital divide undermines workers’ ability to organize and build power, which is especially critical during crises in our digitally connected world. We must close the digital divide for all workers, if there is to be any meaningful increase in worker power.
As this report lays out, federal and state policymakers, as well as philanthropy organizations, all have a critical role to play by 1) making broadband more affordable and accessible, 2) making data more accessible and increasing transparency around its use, 3) funding worker organizations—and their capacity—directly, and 4) including worker voice in policymaking and philanthropy decisions.
The Digital Divide and Labor Power
The digital divide generally refers to the gap between those who use or have access to telecommunications and information technologies—including hardware, internet access, and literacy in using both effectively—and those who do not. Access to the internet has become what access to electricity was in the early 1900’s—a necessity for modern living—and yet equity gaps in this access remain. Even though the issue has been recently amplified, like many other challenges, it is not new, and stems from income inequality and systemic discrimination and racism, as outlined in a 2018 report by Free Press. The workers who are most disproportionately impacted include those with less education and lower incomes; communities of color, such as Blacks and Latino; older adults; rural residents (and most acutely in Native communities); the physically disabled; the LGBTQ community; and those falling in the intersections of these groups.
Moreover, these challenges and equity gaps are replicated at the organizational level. In conversations with more than forty labor leaders and organizers across the country, I found that the worker organizations that are disproportionately impacted by the digital divide are: 1) smaller organizations, 2) grassroots, community advocacy organizations such as worker centers, sometimes collectively referred to as alternative labor (alt-labor); 3) organizations led by people (especially women) of color; or 4) organizations that support marginalized, historically underserved or low wage workers.
Each of these types of organizations are typically under-resourced and under-funded, circumstances which make it difficult for them to grow or expand significantly in size and power. Even though some may engage in advocacy, lead policy campaigns, and form alliances at the national level, they are highly dependent on support from foundations or unions, and such sources of support can be inconsistent, limited, or perceived as more risky. (See here, for a more extensive report on funding challenges of non-union worker organizations.) Furthermore, those led by people (especially women) of color are often subject to racial bias, which means they receive less funding or have more strings attached to their funding.
In sum, these organizations are doubly challenged, dealing with their own and workers’ digital divides. As with individual workers, those that would benefit most from having better access to technology have the greatest difficulty accessing it. This is especially unfortunate because these organizations are overlooked and under-utilized vehicles through which resources and tools can be directed to workers that could help close the digital divide. Many are community-based organizations, and thus have direct, culturally unique, trust-based access to workers, especially in historically underserved communities.
In an interview, one black director explained the challenges that she faces when trying to access the same money as organizations headed by white leaders, saying, “Once we were given a small grant, and a [white-led] organization was given a million dollars to do the same work in our community. Then that organization came to us to ask us for help to do the work that they got the grant to do. That money should have come to us directly. It’s like building a house of cards when we don’t have the infrastructure for us to actually do the work…so I am arguing that the money should come to us, but at the same time, I don’t have the infrastructure to substantiate why the money should come to us to do the work…We have to demonstrate that we can do it, get the money to do it, train our folks, and keep putting out tests for change, all at the same time.”
4 Key Ways the Digital Divide Undermines Worker Power
Many have linked the digital divide to poor economic and social outcomes, such as fewer job opportunities, less competitive economies, or lower student performance, showing how it exacerbates existing inequalities along racial and other social lines. However, its impact on labor is no less significant: the digital divide undermines workers, worker organizations, and worker power in several distinct ways.
1. Lack of Access to Real-Time Information and Communication
A major challenge of the digital divide for workers is that limited access to high-speed broadband, hardware, and/or effective tools results in limited access to real-time information. I recently discussed how workers are increasingly finding themselves in chaotic, uncertain conditions, and facing new risks every day, and they need to be able to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Effective, relational organizing requires workers to be able to quickly access and exchange real-time information and news, to communicate and plan, and to demonstrate “responsiveness” to the other members in their networks, as Hahrie Han argues. Comparatively higher income workers are used to this kind of access, but it is far from the reality for many.
2. Lack of Access to the Best Digital Tools for Their Needs
More digital organizational and organizing tools and platforms exist today than ever before. Examples of online tools that have emerged in recent years that focus on empowering workers include Unit, Coworker.org, Getfrank, Action Builder, UnionBase, and the Alia and Workit apps, developed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) Labs and United For Respect, respectively. A 2018 study by Ársælsson and Rogers found that with digital technology, worker organizations have greater organizational power and capacity to serve specific communities of workers and to identify leadership potential among them; access and use more sophisticated tools and platforms to retrieve more detailed information about workers; use data analytics to improve their messaging and expand the scope and leverage of issue campaigns; and receive more feedback and input from workers in the field.
Yet many workers and organizers are often not aware that these resources even exist, because of how the digital divide impacts them. And even when they do know about the wide range of tools and services available, they often cannot use them because of prohibitive subscription prices, high customer service support costs that the software and systems frequently require, and other such barriers.
Instead, they rely on cheaper or free social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Using these online platforms can be cost effective, and arguably are where many workers already are, but they can also be less effective or desirable in that they open workers up to greater risks of being victims of “trolling” or employer and government surveillance (e.g. by Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Businesses also often share and sell individuals’ personal data to outside, or third parties. Alternatively, workers may rely on in-person or non-digital tools and methods. These are not inherently lesser options—all organizing methods have value in their proper context. However, the in-person methods can be more costly, less efficient, and more difficult to scale.
3. Disparities in Access to Data and Information
Another, lesser known aspect of the digital divide is the great disparity in access to data and information between workers and companies. As I discuss in an earlier piece, companies collect enormous amounts of data from the individuals, including workers, who use their products, systems, and services. However, most people are often not even aware of the data that is being collected on them, let alone able to utilize this data to build power for themselves. And battles over data access and data privacy rights are increasingly becoming central in labor disputes, especially those involving gig or platform workers. Meanwhile, companies such as Amazon and Walmart use the data they collect to create algorithms (computerized sets of instructions about how to analyze data) that monitor and track virtually everything from customer online traffic and shopping preferences, to workers’ on- and off-the-job activity and body temperatures, to labor organizing activity and unionizing efforts.
Because the algorithms used to mine and manipulate these data are hidden from view, it is almost impossible for workers to see and understand how they affect pay, work schedules, employment conditions, and current and future job prospects. The opaqueness of these practices enable both illegal and legal anti-worker and anti-unionization behaviors, including surveillance, blacklisting, and wage theft, according to a 2017 Roosevelt Institute report. The companies that own and control the most data, also known as “superstars,” benefit most from these algorithmic and data management practices, because they achieve informational advantages which are translated into market gains and increased profits. To be sure, these profits are rarely passed down to workers (or consumers) from whom the data comes.
4. Limited Digital Literacy and Knowledge about Technology and Data
Even if workers have internet access, they also need to be digitally literate, which means having the ability to use technology critically, confidently, and creatively, and in a variety of ways. This only comes with regular use; and like any skill, can be improved with training. Workers must also understand how issues relating to data and technological change impact their lives and work. This is important for organizing, collective bargaining, and effectively participating in policy conversations.
Limited technical knowledge can also be a challenge for labor leaders who want to build or improve their organizations’ digital capabilities. Developing a more sophisticated digital strategy or hiring skilled staff requires a particular skill set as well as time, money, and resources. In smaller or more resource-strapped worker organizations, these activities typically fall on the shoulders of the leader of the organization. In another interview, a founder remarked, “My organization relies on me as a labor leader to establish the necessary partnerships and funding to achieve success on the technology front. But doing this, takes a lot of time and comes with a financial challenge, often leaving us to have to do more work with less money.”
Here are four of the most important things policymakers and philanthropists can do to close the digital divide for workers.
The digital divide is a cross-cutting challenge that affects multiple stakeholders in multiple ways. The solutions below are by no means an exhaustive list and hopefully can serve as a foundation for future work and research.
Each of these four solutions must be implemented with an eye to the reality of the systemic inequality, discrimination, and racism that has caused and exacerbated the digital divide. Building worker power in the most marginalized communities or for the most underserved workers (e.g. low income black women, formerly incarcerated students, LGBTQ elders, or disabled individuals in rural areas) must be front and center in our goals, and thus, in our policy implementation.
Our goal should be 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage in all parts of the country.
1. Make Broadband More Affordable and Accessible
Our goal should be 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage in all parts of the country. Closing the digital divide means ensuring that devices and high-speed internet are affordable and accessible. Federal policymakers should take the following steps:
- Reinstate net neutrality and other policies that foster market competition among Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Restore Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversight authority over ISPs who violate net neutrality. Net neutrality is a principle to ensure that the internet remains open and free, and that ISPs treat all content equally by not discriminating or charging differently based on user, content, or other factors that may affect the flow of the internet, communications, and information—all of which can drive up the price of the internet for low-wage workers and others.
- Enhance Lifeline, E-Rate, and other internet subsidy programs. Increase access to FCC-administered programs like Lifeline and E-Rate, which provide subsidies to low-income individuals to help pay for internet access, including: increasing caps on funding; expanding program scopes by broadening eligibility requirements or allowing support for home broadband access; supporting device purchases; and providing training and education on digital technology use.
- Expand targeted internet access programs. Continue programs that expand internet access in targeted ways for specific high-need communities, like the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and expand beyond rural communities to un- and underserved poverty-stricken urban areas with limited access.
Although many states have broadband expansion programs, varying in form and structure, the following ideas should also be considered by state policymakers:
- Remove prohibitions on publicly-owned broadband. Remove state restrictions that prohibit cities and towns from building their own broadband networks. These provisions are often instituted as a result of lobbying efforts by ISPs and telecom monopolies wanting to slow the development of community-owned connectivity and limit competition, which results in higher costs for internet service. As of last year, nineteen states restricted or prohibited publicly owned broadband in their state laws.
- Connect broadband to other policy priorities (e.g. economic development, transportation, and agriculture). In addition, ensure that federal and state funds, which can be used for broadband expansion are being evaluated to see if that’s the best use. This could help increase the resources going towards broadband connectivity by allowing states to use funds that otherwise may not have been specifically directed to broadband expansion. The Community Development Block Grant program, which provides funds to states, cities, and counties to improve housing and to expand economic opportunities for lower income communities, is an example where federal funds for economic and community development were used to address the digital divide.
Steps should also be taken at both the federal and state level to foster greater coordination and sharing of information and best practices among agencies focused on broadband expansion, in order to ensure agencies working on a variety of issues—from broadband to housing to education—are aligning on broadband access priorities. Earlier this year, a coalition representing state and local governments, including governors, called for more federal investment in addressing the digital divide. The Broadband Interagency Coordination Act and the Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Business Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand (“ACCESS BROADBAND”) Act are examples of programs that were introduced at the federal level in the last year.
2. Make Data More Accessible and Increase Transparency Around Its Use
Right now, lack of access to data and the use of opaque—and sometimes biased—data management practices and algorithms undermine workers’ ability to take full advantage of technology, and erode their power. Federal and state policymakers can better empower workers and close their “data disadvantage” by promoting more “worker-centric” policies on data and technology usage in the following ways:
- Regulate the collection and use of data that companies collect on workers. This could include the following:
- Require companies to disclose to workers what, how, and for what purposes their personal information and data are collected, used, and shared. This data can be used for anti-worker and anti-unionization behavior, or infringe on workers’ civil, labor, and human rights; however it is used, workers have a right to know.
- Give government agencies and the public greater access to the datasets that companies gather about workers in a way that protects worker privacy, as appropriate.
- Limit the use and application of software and technologies that surveill workers and monitor the effects of such technologies as well as the amount of data that is collected.
- Increase workers’ access to their own data. Support policies that give workers greater access to and control over their personal data, and ensure that both individual and collective worker rights are taken into account. For more on this, see here. This is both a question of fairness and justice for workers, as well as a critical part of empowering them to organize and leverage their power vis-a-vis their employer.
- Promote greater transparency around companies’ data management practices and algorithms: Ensure that companies go beyond the simple disclosure of the fact of the use of algorithms (and artificial intelligence) in management and workplace practices (e.g., recruiting, hiring, performance evaluations) such as in the case of the Artificial Intelligence Video Interview Act, to require them to actually share what their practices are algorithms are.
3. Fund Worker Organizations—and Their Capacity—Directly
The reality is that closing the digital divide will take investing in the capacity of worker organizations, directly and through supporting the development of new tools to support their work. Philanthropy has a critical role to play by investing in:
- Developing technology solutions that help workers to organize and build economic power: Many labor leaders and organizers are interested in creating and using digital tools and services that can help workers to build economic power (e.g. platform cooperatives), track employer unfair labor practices (e.g. wage theft), improve their technical knowledge and digital literacy, and bring revenue into their organizations—all while addressing the digital divide. Philanthropy can fund worker organizations directly, or technology companies that are willing to work hand in hand with such organizations, to develop the needed tools and make them widely accessible and “open-source” (made freely available to use, modify, and re-distribute), where appropriate.
- Improving organizational and individual staff capacity in worker organizations to use technology. Philanthropy can fund more entrepreneurial, community-based endeavors focused on developing new digital tools and content that would enable skill building and leadership development, and encourage greater self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration among workers; as well as funding worker organizations directly to access such trainings or hire internal staff with stronger technical capacity and knowledge.
- Funding more partnerships and ventures that support collaboration between worker organizations. Broaden and deepen investments in connecting labor leaders and activists with one another to learn and build best practices. This would help to build their technical knowledge and literacy, allow them to share challenges, resources, and lessons learned, and to generate new ideas for technology solutions. In an interview, Larry J. Williams, founder of the tech-based worker organization, UnionBase, voiced this need, saying, “When it comes to technology, in order to push the innovation needle forward, collaboration and decentralization are key. In the tech industry, coders and programmers like to make things public and open-source because the most skilled developers need to be able to share with one another. I would like to see us do more collaborating in the labor movement around tech.”
Federal and state policy solutions for addressing the digital divide generally involve businesses, colleges and universities, and K–12 schools. However, policymakers can also fund worker organizations in the following ways:
- Direct grants for digital and technology enhancement. Congress could authorize the federal Department of Labor (DOL) to make grants to worker organizations for building better digital infrastructures, hiring technical staff, and providing technical training, education, and support to workers using the digital tools and applications they develop.
- Support local entrepreneurs that develop solutions to close the digital divide. Federal and state policymakers could provide loans to small business owners or local entrepreneurs that start businesses that would both help to close the digital divide and create jobs, giving priority to owners from marginalized groups and in underserved communities who will at least partially serve others in their community.
4. Include Worker Voice in Policymaking and Philanthropy
As with many policy areas, one of the reasons we see growing gaps is that we do not have the right people, those directly experiencing some of the challenges, at the table — so the most pressing issues are not prioritized. At all levels of policymaking (federal, state, and local) and philanthropy, we should include workers at the table.
- Ensure an inclusive and diverse worker voice in policy development, implementation, oversight. Policymakers should directly engage with and involve workers as well as the various types of representative and advocacy organizations that build worker power in developing and implementing policy. Often non-union, or alternative worker organizations, and workers themselves, are particularly underrepresented in these forums, so it is important to have them represented as well as unions. This can be done through formal avenues, such as task forces and councils focused on closing the digital divide, as well as through increased relationship development between policymakers and impacted workers.
- Include worker presence on boards of philanthropic organizations. There have been calls to have worker representation on corporate boards, but it also could benefit philanthropy to include workers, particularly those who are directly impacted by their efforts and investments, on their boards.
In addition to these four recommendations, it is clear that the impact of the digital divide on building worker power simply has not been deeply studied; nor has its connection to the other structural, cultural, policy, and non-policy barriers to such power which workers and worker organizations face. More research in these areas could help us better define the issue and target solutions.
There are many reasons to close the digital divide: doing so will spur U.S. economic growth and competitiveness, expand access to health services and education, increase the productivity of businesses, and drive innovation. But closing the divide is also a matter of increasing worker voice and power, and doing it in a way that more broadly and inclusively represents our nation’s many workers.
A widening digital divide threatens a brighter future for workers. If we don’t address this, technology will continue to do what it has done in the past: give greater power to the already powerful, while working against those with limited power.
A widening digital divide threatens a brighter future for workers. If we don’t address this, technology will continue to do what it has done in the past: give greater power to the already powerful, while working against those with limited power.
We must close the digital divide for workers if we want to build more inclusive worker voice and power for the twenty-first century and create a more sustainable, democratic, and equitable future.