American Workers Try to Organize — One Click at a Time

February 16, 2016, 7:15 PM UTC
Unions Rally For Stimulus And Jobs Legislation In San Francisco
Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

Technology is often tough on labor, whether it’s automation eating jobs or “gig economy” platforms undermining the traditional social contract between employer and employee. Now, some workers are trying to leverage social media and other online networks to their own ends.

Among them is OUR Walmart, an organization dedicated to ensuring that every worker at the retail giant, “regardless of his or her title, age, race, or sex, is respected.”

One solution is to bring workers together on Facebook (FB), where OUR Walmart facilitates the sharing of information among about 60,000 active participants in various discussion groups.

In addition, a new smartphone app, “OUR Walmart Connect,” where workers can report and counsel each other on workplace problems, is under development. It’s expected to go live later this year.

“There have not been a lot of major breakthroughs for the labor movement in a very, very long time,” says OUR Wal-Mart co-director Andrea Dehlendorf, a former staffer at the Service Employees International Union and a veteran of its 25-year-old Justice for Janitors campaign. “The question is, what can we now do creatively” to help hourly employees protect their rights as well as agitate for higher pay and better working conditions?

The company, for its part, questions the need for what OUR Walmart is doing. Kory Lundberg, a Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) spokesman, says an intranet site, WalmartOne, is used by hundreds of thousands of employees every day to exchange information. Managers, he adds, have an open door. “Our associates have never been shy about speaking up for themselves,” Lundberg says.

Dehlendorf views it differently. “There is a tremendous number of employees inside Walmart who want to make change,” she says. “We’re creating space for them to lead and design it.”

Meanwhile, those employed in agriculture are also taking advantage of technology. “The biggest thing that has helped farmworkers has not been unions,” Phil Martin, an economist at the University of California at Davis, recently told National Public Radio. “It cellphones—because they can call each other and say: ‘Hey this guy’s paying a little more per bin over there,’ and workers can move.”

Elsewhere, is supplying online tools so that people can engage in workplace advocacy. OUR Walmart has used to petition for reforms to the company’s scheduling practices. The Committee for Better Banks, which is trying to aid front-line workers in the financial-services industry, also encourages the use of online petitions.

“This is what victory looks like for labor in this day and age,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University and the author of What Unions No Longer Do.

Some call this new model “peer-to-peer unions.” Notably, though, OUR Walmart is not a union; the nonprofit does not represent any of Walmart’s 1.3 million U.S. workers through collective bargaining.

For some in the labor movement, this is a huge failure. OUR Walmart, they point out, was launched in 2010 with an explicit aim of unionizing at least 1% of company employees, only to see that effort fizzle and funding cut off by the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“OUR Walmart was a public relations irritant to the company, but it never was a strategic challenge to Walmart’s power or its business model,” Peter Olney, the retired organizing director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, wrote last December in a blistering assessment published in In These Times. “Perhaps the campaign contributed to recent increases in minimum wages; perhaps it contributed to the growing national conversation about increased inequality; perhaps Walmart’s recent increase in its starting hourly wage to $10 was result of this campaign (though it may also have been the result of tightening labor markets because other employers have raised their wages as well).

“But none of these is ‘organizing,’” Olney asserted, “and none builds a powerful union.”

Dehlendorf is unapologetic—and undeterred. “Facebook,” she says, “has become the on-ramp to action on the ground.”

A few Walmart employees I spoke with recounted assisting co-workers who felt they were wrongfully dismissed prepare cases for reinstatement. Others have made sure that women understand what the company can legitimately ask of them when pregnancy limits their ability to perform certain tasks on the job.

“I feel like I’ve got someone to stand beside me,” says Talisa Borders, a Walmart worker in O’Fallon, Ill., who is a regular participant in the forum for pregnant workers—an initiative known as “Respect the Bump.”

All of this is, of course, a far cry from the perch that labor once occupied. In 1953, more than 35% of the country’s private-sector employees were unionized. Today, fewer than 7% are—a big reason for rising income inequality in America. Myriad factors are to blame: structural shifts in the economy, the proliferation of right-to-work statutes, missteps by labor itself, and increasingly hard-nosed (if not illegal) opposition by employers.

Walmart has long resisted unionization with particular ferocity. For, those at OUR Walmart, that reality presented a stark choice: keep banging your head against the wall by attempting to organize workers in the traditional way, or devise a new paradigm.

“We’re not just going to sit on the sidelines and lament that Walmart workers don’t have a voice,” Dehlendorf says. “Rather than try to come in from the outside, we’re saying, let’s reverse the process and build from the inside.”

What’s unclear is how far OUR Walmart can reach or how long it can survive. Rosenfeld says he has “real worries about scaling and sustainability” at such “alt-labor organizations.”

Currently, OUR Walmart collects a symbolic $5 in annual membership fees from several thousand members—a tiny fraction of the dues that a real union would take in. (Other donors keep OUR Walmart afloat.)

Yet Dehlendorf says she and her colleagues are thinking through new approaches so that OUR Walmart can keep going—and growing. Longer term, she foresees extending the OUR Walmart platform so that employees can offer a range of services to one another. For example, an expectant mother’s peer network might not only give her advice on workplace discrimination, but it could also arrange for wellness visits and postpartum support after the birth.

As Walmart employees cultivate their skills in these arenas, other job opportunities should arise. “A peer-to-peer community like this could provide whole new career pathways,” says Phil Auerswald, a professor at George Mason University who has been brainstorming with Dehlendorf about the possibilities.

For now, though, OUR Walmart is focused on a simpler, if no less important, vision: helping workers stick up for themselves, one click at a time.

Rick Wartzman is senior advisor to the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. The author or editor of five books, he is currently writing a narrative history of how the social contract between employer and employee in America has changed since the end of World War II.

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