Platform Power to the People

Essay by Sanjay Pinto & Beth Gutelius: “When stay-at-home orders swept across the United States in response to the coronavirus outbreak this past spring, workers’ rights advocates accustomed to in-person meetings had to adjust quickly—and many did. In April, thousands of supporters joined a digital workers’ town hall to learn about the issues facing Nashville’s low-wage workers amid COVID-19, compounded by a series of tornadoes that had recently hit the Tennessee capitol’s region. In May, Taco Bell workers in Michigan created an online petition with support from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a group formed in the early months of the pandemic. That effort won them hazard pay and increased paid sick leave, among other benefits.

In response to the pandemic, workers both employed and unemployed have used digital platforms and tools to magnify their voices and meet their needs. They have launched online petition campaigns to demand safer workplaces. Worker centers, unions, and other economic justice groups are broadcasting Facebook and Instagram live events to share information about programs that support workers, offering online training to navigate state unemployment insurance systems, and sending out text blasts asking workers to take direct action.

Digital platforms have also helped workers share information about the problems they’re confronting, mobilize different forms of support and mutual aid, and make demands of employers and policy makers. Such engagement occurs not only within the channels created by established worker justice organizations, including unions and worker centers, but also among informal networks of workers who have common concerns. In some cases, digital tools are mediating relationships between workers and employers to address needs that have intensified during the pandemic. Online platforms are connecting people to steadier work, for example, and enabling employers to pay in to benefits funds for workers who have been shut out of government-sponsored and regulated systems.

These uses of digital tools are not new. Mainstream social media platforms, despite serious drawbacks discussed below, have played an important role in a variety of social movements. For example, activists used Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests during the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s. In the worker justice arena, online engagement using social media platforms that mobilize and organize workers, like Facebook and customized platforms like Coworker, has contributed to impressive actions and campaigns, including teacher strikes in the United States, strikes of Ryanair workers in Europe, and successful efforts to challenge unfair workplace policies in nonunion settings around the world. In many ways, COVID-19 has amplified and accelerated the digital efforts that have already been in motion. In a time of social distancing, people have increasingly relied upon digital tools to support collective action across different sectors, just as they have for a broad spectrum of other social interactions.

However, digital engagement will never replace analog or in-person forms of connection, as we have seen in the recent protests drawing attention to the epidemic of police violence against Black Americans. Nor will tools designed to directly address specific challenges confronting low-wage workers single-handedly transform the broader set of conditions that have produced rising inequality; ongoing expansion of the low-wage economy; and entrenched marginalization based on identity markers like race, gender, and citizenship status. Just as we need to challenge the idea that technological change will inevitably lead to mass unemployment, we also need to resist seeing new technology as supplying a set of easy fixes that secure a just and equitable future of work.

In this article, we examine how worker-centered digital tools and approaches to digital engagement might fit within a larger set of strategies for shifting power in the economy and ensuring that all people have access to “decent work” that provides fair income, social protections, and the freedom to organize, among other measures. How can online organizing foster connection and collective action—even direct action—for workers separated by geography and working across different sectors? For those lacking information about their labor rights and the behavior of unscrupulous and abusive employers, how can digital channels offer a lifeline? How can digital tools help pave the way for “high-road” forms of employment that pay fairly and invest in workers, particularly in areas where prevailing policies and norms translate into chronic precarity?…(More)”.