In the past, we have talked about Millennials and Gen Z using technology to revive unions. UnionBase.org is a sign of the times, and as it turns out, part of a movement to use technology as a union organizing tool and as a communication system enabling people to form virtual picket lines. Consider the Slack platform, intended to be a collaborative communication platform for workplace teams (and it is, we use). There are documented incidences now in which employees used Slack for underground organizing and as a digital protest tool. Are these events precursors to a new form of organizing that will expand in the future?
Union Organizing 2.0?
In January 2018, Vox Media employees were anxious for ongoing union negotiations to conclude and wanted to show support for the union. They believed that Vox Media management was stalling, arguing who should be allowed into the union, even though the company had voluntarily recognized the Writer’s Guild of America East. Organizers had already used a variety of organizing tactics, including happy hours and lunches to attract employees, but when contract negotiations slowed, they encouraged a “Slack Strike.” To show employers their collective power, the employees logged out of Slack for one hour, effectively creating a work stoppage.
Both employees and gig economy workers have discovered they have a new source of power in technology. The scary part – companies have placed the technology directly in their hands. The Vox Media event is just one example of the use of a social media platform that was intended to improve employee collaboration and workflows but instead became an organizing weapon used to harm the employer.
It’s not only permanent full and part-time employees who are taking this route. As the gig economy grows, temporary employees and independent contracted workers are using a similar tactic but in different ways. In 2016, thousands of New York/New Jersey Uber drivers protested reductions in corporate-set fare prices. The drivers turned off their phones for 24 hours and refused to accept fares, plus some protested outside Uber’s headquarters. The protest was organized by the non-union United Drivers Network (now Uber Drivers Network). On the group’s Facebook page, it says, “Our mission is to unite ALL Uber Drivers — all over — as one Network, to be able to stand together like a solid, unbreakable wall, to support one another.” The non-union group has adopted union language and is using the primary union tactic of hurting employers financially to get concessions.
An Employer By Any Other Name
Gig economy workers include freelancers and contracted workers and aren’t employees in the legal sense. The IRS has clearly defined the difference between an employee and a contracted worker. However, the gig economy also includes temporary and seasonal workers, and their employees. The laws are complicated concerning federal and state requirements to pay employer benefits, but generally speaking, gig economy employees don’t get the same level of benefits that full-time employees enjoy. However, they can make harassment and discrimination claims through the EEOC, and they can file complaints with the NLRB whether in a union or not.
In 2016, the NLRB issued a ruling in Miller & Anderson that said temporary employees, even if supplied by a staffing agency, can be combined with permanent employees in the same bargaining unit without your consent or the consent of the staffing agency. The test is that employees in the bargaining unit share a community of interest and the employer and staffing agency meet the “joint employer” test defined in the NLRA. Remote workers who are employees are subject to all employment laws. If your business has a union, the collective bargaining agreement probably spells out policies and procedures. A remote worker on the payroll who strikes is no different than an in-house employee who strikes, and your response should be the same.
Bypassing the Law with a Law
The fact that Independent or gig workers typically do not unionize, so to assist them the Seattle City Council passed a controversial law that allows ridesharing drivers to unionize. Companies like Lyft and Uber drivers can (for now) organize and collectively bargain. After getting the Teamster’s input, the law was written to require the ridesharing companies to give the names, home addresses, and contact information to the nonprofit, “Driver Representative Organization.” Naturally, this law has been challenged, but as of 2018, it still rages on in the court system.
There are various legal issues involved that beg resolution. One is that the NLRA doesn’t cover contracted workers. Another point is that independent workers who band together to set pricing could be accused of price-fixing in violation of antitrust laws. As the courts continue to address the issues, not all drivers support the law. Some say the City of Seattle and the Teamsters are secretly working together, to one day, force independent drivers to join a union and many drivers do not feel this is a necessary step to get what they want.
Virtual organizing is a form of alt-labor in which people organize outside a union but use technology to link people. Virtual organizers are using technology, like Slack, to communicate and come to an agreement as to the best way to protest an employer’s policies or practices. Unions and virtual organizing groups are already seeing success utilizing these methods. Companies can learn from other’s missteps. Take Lanetix, where software engineers organized, the company fired everyone and shipped jobs overseas, ULPs were filed, and now the case is pending before the NLRB. How did it start and what was the company’s bone of contention? Use of Slack in and out of the workplace. It is a textbook case of what a company should not do.
It will take new laws, like the one the Seattle City Council passed, to give legal status to the unionization of non-employees. In the meantime, unions are backing voluntary groups like the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG) – representing Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Via workers, which has an agreement with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The IDG has a website where people can become members of the non-union “union.” You can take note of the fact that Uber and Vox Media have proven that any form of a worker protest group can damage your business financially and harm your company’s reputation.
New Organizing Model is Here to Stay
Not long ago, white-collar employees were not prone to protesting or organizing. That is changing among some types of white-collar workers, especially among Millennials. For example, unions are targeting part-time faculty in educational facilities and Millennial services employees are showing interest in unionizing or organizing. It could be easier for any group of people to organize when they have access to platforms like Skype and Slack. In an interesting twist, Slack recently changed its policies so that employers can pay for a premium Plus plan that enables them to download private and public data without telling anyone. This new Slack policy means employers can access private messages between employees. It’s legal if the purpose of monitoring is vital to the business and not intended to prevent employees from talking about unions or working conditions (always check your employee’s Section 7 rights).
Virtual organizing is dangerous because it can remain underground and go undetected for quite a while, cost nothing to implement or maintain and engages the organizer and workforce very, very fast, and it appeals to the digital generations. Attorneys are reminding employers they need to have policies, that their employees acknowledge, that gives the employer the right to access and review any data created, stored or transmitted on the company’s computers. That way your employees cannot claim they had a reasonable expectation the communication would remain private. They may also suggest that your contracts with outside or independent workers include a “right to access data” clause.
Of course, the best way to prevent virtual organizing is to engage employees and non-employees through a variety of strategies that include fair compensation, reasonable work hours (think: work-life balance), employee or worker training and effective leadership communication skills. Social media, apps and other technology are entrenched in your employee’s lives and utilized to run our businesses and communicate with our employees. It is not something to get rid of or to fear but rather acknowledge and understand how you, your employees and yes, even unions can use this tech. Vox Media and Uber should also be addressing the root reasons employees and gig economy workers have turned to virtual organizing and unions. Training and education on social media and technology are just one of the many variables to tackle in creating your UnionProof culture.