COVID-19, and the worker uprisings and protests that have emerged in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and other Black Americans who have been victims of police violence, are not just disrupting our current way of life. In so many ways, these events are exposing what has long been broken, unjust, and unsustainable—“the disaster within the disaster,” as actor Danny Glover once said about Hurricane Katrina. For example, we are seeing very clearly that you can be essential AND expendable, and that for many workers, the two are inextricably linked. And for far too long, blacks have been treated as if their lives do not matter.
You can be essential AND expendable, and that for many workers, the two are inextricably linked. And for far too long, blacks have been treated as if their lives do not matter.
We are also coming to another realization: that digital technology does, in fact, offer something of value to the labor movement. Sure, the need for massive, in-person protests and collective actions is clear, and continues. But the current moment has demonstrated just how important digitally supported actions and tools can be for worker mobilization and organizing.
This piece gives a quick rundown of some of the ways that workers and labor organizations have used digital tools and online platforms to support their efforts in recent months; and highlights two important ways that the use of digital tech builds worker power.
More labor leaders are turning to digital technology to get the job done.
Historically, labor movements have been slower and more reluctant than others to adopt new technology. In a sense, this is understandable. Technology has not always been kind to workers. This wariness is apparent from the way that many labor organizations—from those with international or national memberships down to those operating only at the local and affiliate level—lag behind even today on digital basics like having a decent, functional website.
However, change may be on the way. Social distancing and business closures have made it difficult to meet even workers’ most immediate needs, giving many labor leaders and workers a newfound urgency and incentive to lean into new tools. The COVID-19 pandemic has incapacitated or restrained some of the more traditional tools used to organize. And underlying all of these shifts is the fact that in-person interactions have been significantly limited, while virtual ones, on a computer screen or mobile device, have increased.
Adjustments are now not only expedient, but necessary for organizations’ basic functioning, as well as for continued growth in a moment when the labor movement’s contributions are more important than ever. For some organizations, this has meant being more strategic about data analytics—-in targeting certain groups, collecting and tracking different kinds of data, and building contact lists for further organizing or event planning. Others have expanded or diversified their private and public use of online tools, ranging from social media (e.g. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), videoconferencing (e.g. Zoom, Google Hangouts/Meet, etc.), mass text messaging (e.g. Hustle), and peer-to-peer communications (e.g. Whatsapp, Signal, Slack, etc.).
Brandworkers and UnionBase, among many others, have held live virtual webinars to educate, train, and foster community on topics like building “long-term power during COVID-19” and the “Understanding Police Unions.” UnionBase and Jobs with Justice collaborated to create the Workers Memorial Wall, an online portal where the public can submit stories, pictures, and memories about fellow workers and activists that have lost their lives in the struggle.The NewsGuild used online document-sharing for its members to crowdsource the “tracking of layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts associated with the pandemic.”
Digital tools have seen increased use for financial purposes as well. Numerous organizations have used platforms like ActBlue or DonorBox to set up online donation funds. The National Black Worker Center Project launched bailout funds to support Black workers, including mothers and caregivers, experiencing increased financial difficulties, as well as for community organizers fighting to transform the criminal justice system. Coworker.org, United for Respect, and the AAUP-AFT union at Rutgers University used tools like ActionNetwork to launch online petitions for workplace and legislative actions.
Frontline workers are the ultimate problem-solvers when it comes to organizing networks.
In a recent piece, I discussed how data in the hands of workers can actually mean more power for workers. Well, the same can be said for digital tools: in the hands of workers, they also are a source of power. Given the increasingly fast-paced changes in news and information, and the chaos and uncertainty of the dangerous and volatile work environments that many workers find themselves in, it is crucial that workers have what they need to quickly mobilize and to take action in their communities.
We should be asking workers: what tools, information, and systems would better support you, or make mobilizing and organizing easier? And then we build and test, with workers’ involvement incorporated from the start.
Digital tools and online spaces enable the distributed, decentralized, lower-cost communication and organizing structures that make it possible for workers to spread what they know and learn from other workers in and across their networks. They know their problems more intimately than anyone else, so they are best positioned to identify the most appropriate solutions, and to inspire and lead their coworkers. This is not to say that workers don’t want or need the support and assistance of labor organizations—quite the contrary. But what it does mean is we should be asking workers: what tools, information, and systems would better support you, or make mobilizing and organizing easier? And then we build and test, with workers’ involvement incorporated from the start.
Digital tools cultivate greater diversity in terms of the people, ideas, and actions that are necessary for building a more powerful movement.
Many of the new ideas and actions that we are seeing in the labor movement have come through digital experiments. This diversity is not only in terms of representation—however much that matters. It’s also been in terms of problem-solving approaches and the forms of organizations, strategies, and tactics that are used to empower workers.
The range of labor organizations and advocacy groups experimenting with newer technologies in recent years has led to a rise in worker-focused “innovation” funds and incubative organizations, such as The Workers Lab, The LIFT Fund, and Social Movement Technologies. Geared towards the digital age, they provide financial, online, and other resources and support to workers and labor organizations. The surge in tech industry organizing also has stimulated greater digital tech use and innovation, allowing for groups like Code-CWA, Rideshare Drivers United, Tech Workers Coalition, and the Worker Info Exchange to use the tools of their trade for resistance.
If we look at some of the organizations featured in a recent piece by labor reporter Hamilton Nolan, which focuses on the “crowding” of the online worker organizing space, they were started by women (e.g. Coworker.org), people of color (e.g. UnionBase), or individuals with backgrounds that are not “traditional” labor organizing backgrounds (e.g. Unit.work, and GetFrank). This diversity is a powerful counter-narrative to long-held, false beliefs about what types of workers make up the labor movement, or who is (or can be) a labor leader. These organizations, despite their differences in (business) models, are all about helping workers to build power in their workplaces and communities. The diversity in leadership, type of organization, and the workers represented among them give me hope that the labor movement will one day fulfill its overdue promise of being a truly inclusive movement that embraces all workers. In fact, I would argue that the movement’s survival depends on it.
The diversity in leadership, type of organization, and workers represented among them give me hope that the labor movement will one day fulfill its overdue promise of being a truly inclusive movement that embraces all workers. In fact, I would argue that the movement’s survival depends on it.
Not all of these efforts may succeed. Some may fail; but the more we experiment, the more we learn what works and what doesn’t. New technology brings new learning curves, pitfalls, and challenges (many of which are systemic) in, for example, addressing digital divides, developing resources and capacity, and managing and safeguarding data (e.g. ensuring privacy and security, minimizing surveillance and algorithmic bias risks). Furthermore, not every organization will desire or be able to use the tech that other organizations might use, or in the same way. Each has different needs, and the need should drive the technology use. Just as there is no “one size fits all” approach to organizing, there also isn’t one approach to digital organizing.
Meeting Worker Needs with Everything at Our Disposal
Digital organizing strategies don’t and shouldn’t entirely replace good “boots on the ground” in-person strategies: for some groups of workers, the in-person methods cultivate forms of engagement that are necessary and endemic to how their members connect and build community with one another. Digital tools, however, can complement and enhance them.
Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic and the surge in social justice activism have highlighted the opportunities for digital technology in the labor movement. However, consider the digital world we live in: the reality (for better or worse) that technology and data shape the organization and structure of people, money, and society; the challenges that workers face; their need to create community, build relationships, trust and solidarity across fissured workplaces and dispersed and fragmented workforces—these are reasons why digital technology has to play a role in the future of the labor movement. There will be costs to not having different options and pathways for engaging and organizing workers—whether it be in-person or online. The stakes were high before the crisis, and they will be high, if not higher, in the future.