At some point in your working life, you probably had an idea about something you wanted to change at work. Maybe you saw a way to improve the scheduling system, wanted to advocate for paid parental leave, or simply wondered how your coworkers felt about a new policy. Taking those first steps can be challenging but, over the past few years, the internet and social media have opened easier ways for all of us to connect and advocate on things we care about.
That’s why I co-founded Coworker.org, a digital platform for worker voice. We provide online tools, network building and data analysis to people who want to make their workplaces better. Right now, Coworker.org users from all over the globe are advancing an array of solutions in their workplaces – from updating company dress codes and pushing for higher wages, to advocating for better scheduling practices and expanded paid parental leave benefits.
A year ago today, I joined President Obama as co-host of a town hall at the first White House Summit on Worker Voice. Nearly a thousand people from around the country submitted stories and concerns before the event. They wanted to know the president’s thoughts on many evolving issues − like benefits and wage protection for freelancers and temps, the right to discuss working conditions on social media, and partnership models for businesses and workers. Their questions made it clear that the structural changes our economy is experiencing are not ust theoretical concepts. They are directly felt at the worksite, and many of us are wrestling with them every day.
Through our platform, Coworker.org, workers have spent this past year testing solutions to these challenges. Alia Todd, who asked the president about wages for restaurant workers, saw victory in her campaign within a month of the event and continues her work to raise standards for workers in Asheville, North Carolina. REI employees launched an effort to increase wages and implement fair scheduling after discussing these issues for months on Facebook. They connected with their fellow employees across the country, including the flagship store in Seattle, and were thrilled when their company announced a wage increase of up to 15 percent for stores in seven cities, including Seattle. WeWork employee Tara Zoumer is challenging the use of mandatory arbitration clauses in employee contracts. And longtime Coworker.org community member Jaime Prater spent the summer working with thousands of baristas across the country to address labor shortages and staffing issues at a coffee chain. Together, they produced a crowd-sourced document outlining seven areas of improvement that Jaime brought to meetings with the company, leading to a promise to look into these conditions.
Beyond Coworker.org, bursts of innovation are taking place all over the labor movement. Groups like the Workers Lab and OURWalmart are building technology software designed for low-wage workers. Unions like the Teamsters and the Machinists are developing ways to support workers in the on-demand economy, while digital media employees are organizing with the Writers Guild. The National Guestworkers Alliance, the Freelancers Union and the Domestic Workers Alliance are tackling wage theft and alternative benefits models for workers left out of protections afforded to traditional employees. And the Department of Labor has been hard at work expanding overtime protections to 4.2 million workers and supporting portable benefits pilots that can help us reimagine retirement security.
Jess Kutch and Michelle Miller of Coworker.org
As my co-founder Jess Kutch always says, the history of labor is marked by great waves of innovation and iteration. From the Knights of Labor calling for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to track the growing 19th-century industrial workforce to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America founding a union bank in the 20th century, labor has long catalyzed new kinds of institutions to respond to changes in the economy. That next great wave of that experimentation is now upon us. Workers are finding new ways to come together and forming organizations to tackle emerging challenges. Businesses are seeking common ground and engaging those workers to identify sustainable solutions. Department of Labor agencies are expanding protections and opening their doors to more workers. The White House Summit on Worker Voice was a moment to bring all of us together to build a new kind of economy: one that provides for, and is shaped by, all of us.
Michelle Miller is the co-founder and co-director of Coworker.org.