What if there was an online platform that could connect low-wage workers, separated by distance, but who toil for the same global corporations?
The idea struck Jess Kutch back in 2011. It was November, and Jess was the Organizing Director of Change.org. A Target employee in Omaha, Nebraska, Anthony Hardwick, was making national headlines after he launched a petition on Change.org to protest his workplace’s decision to schedule shifts late on Thanksgiving Day. Anthony’s complaint touched a nerve for many. Within two weeks, nearly 200,000 of his fellow workers, Target shoppers and others had signed his online petition imploring Target to “save Thanksgiving.” Change.org helped Anthony to manage press inquiries and publicize his campaign. Some 150 people were inspired by him to circulate their own petitions lobbying similar retail giants to let employees rest on the federal holiday.
“I saw the potential,” Jess remembers. The organization was young and had recently introduced its now-iconic online petitions. “I was part of the team of folks brought in early that figured out how people can leverage popular technology to influence major corporations or other targets, like elected leaders,” she recalled.
But Jess, whose background includes labor organizing at SEIU and digital campaigning at Public Citizen, also saw the limitations of a general-use platform like Change.org in responding to the specific needs of workplace organizing that emerging leaders like Anthony faced. Indeed, despite coverage by New York Times, Reuters and other news outlets favorable toward Anthony’s efforts, Target did not capitulate to his demands in 2011, and it has continued to stay open on Thanksgiving night in the years since. Jess doesn’t know where Anthony is today, and the brief and powerful worker outcry following his Change.org petition was a missed opportunity, in her opinion.
“Anthony recruited tens of thousands of Target employees,” Jess lamented. “Those folks were never communicated to again as Target employees. They’re not going to be able to find each other again through Change.org.”
What if, Jess wondered, there was a platform similar to Change.org, except that it was committed to helping workers like Anthony grow as labor organizers and support each other after they speak out?
“I thought, ‘We need to do this now, because workers are losing,’” she said.
Jess and fellow labor activist, Michelle Miller, launched Coworker in 2013. A digital platform that supports far-flung workers to publicize and rally support over shared grievances, it has helped its users to pressure Netflix into providing all of its workers with parental leave, NYU to stop posting ads for unpaid internships, and Jimmy John’s to allow workers to show their tattoos. It also is a hub for employees at global chains, including Starbucks, Uber and Publix, who can click a button labeled, “Join this Network,” and instantly connect with (in the case of Starbucks) some 38,000 other fellow workers who have already signed up with Coworker to receive updates relevant to them. Data aggregation tools make it easy for networked workers to come up with media-friendly statistics like, “fifty-seven percent of Uber drivers surveyed say they’ve bought, leased or made substantial investments in vehicles to drive for Uber.” Additionally, Coworker offers event management and communication tools that connect people who’ve signed a petition with partner organizations that sponsor campaigns on the site.
“Every campaign, even unsuccessful ones, builds a network of employees inside that company,” explained Jess.
If a Starbucks worker today launches a petition on Coworker, she can immediately have access to everyone else connected to the site who has ever signed a Starbucks worker’s petition in the past. This model of organizing that Coworker utilizes, Jess explained, is known as “distributed organizing.” It can be understood, she added, as “tools and strategies to equip people to go off on their own, without direction from some sort of central body or institution or group.”
“When I think of distributed organizing,” Jess said, “I think of creating the conditions for people to lead their own campaigns. Sometimes it’s messy, because people are making decisions that maybe a professional organizer or an institution wouldn’t make — but it’s really a strategy of building power and supporting their leadership in a variety of ways.”
Workers inspire each other all the time, Jess explained, and Coworker is one vehicle that brings un-unionized workers — often who don’t necessarily think of themselves as “workers” — together and become politicized.
“Christie Williams at Starbucks was campaigning to end the ban on visible tattoos,” Jess recalled. “She didn’t think much when she started the campaign. She was just angry. She found our site through a link in a New York Times article about Starbucks and decided to launch her own campaign and ended up mobilizing tens of thousands of coworkers around the world. Not only that, she inspired workers at other companies to run similar campaigns — like at Jimmy John’s — and win those campaigns. She inspired a Publix grocery bagger to campaign Publix to allow for people to have beards, which has mobilized more than 10,000 Publix grocery store employees. There’s also the spreading of ideas where people see that a person is campaigning for something in their workplace, and I have the same issue in mine and I can do that, too. It’s a shift in how people think about their agency in the workplace.”
Today, Coworker has a half a million users. Jess wants to see that number grow to two million.
“I’d say broadly speaking we see ourselves as part of the future of the labor movement worldwide,” says Jess. “We’re interested in leveraging technology to turn labor institutions as they traditionally existed inside out and make the resources, the knowledge and strategies that have previously been locked away in traditional institutions available to everybody.”
Jess has long been inspired by the power of the Internet to create community and effect change.
“As a queer teenager, the first people that I came out to were on AOL,” she said. “That’s how I found community. I found people to give me rides to punk shows on AOL punk chat rooms.”
Jess was raised by a single mother who worked as a freelance graphic designer in Connecticut during the 1980s and 90s.
“It was precarious,” she remembered. “The income was inconsistent. There aren’t many protections today, and there definitely weren’t any protections back then for freelance workers to get money from clients who stiffed them. I watched all that happen as a kid.”
Notably, Jess added, her mother was not represented by the labor movement or even respected as a worker — a fact that continues to influence her approach to worker organizing today.
Jess’ first job after she graduated from Bennington College in Vermont was as an organizer for ACORN.
“I lasted about six months there,” she recalled. “The night that I quit, I had a two-hour long conversation with a woman who worked at Wal-Mart, and there were tears shed. I couldn’t get her to sign the card. We had this amazingly wonderful connection, but she was just like, ‘That is not going to do a thing.’”
Jess paused. “She wasn’t wrong. I had a lot of questions about the way the place was run. It did a lot of good in the world, but also it was really hard on organizers when they opened up a new chapter, which they had just done. It was, ‘you got to get cards signed.’ It just didn’t feel very generative.”
Jess’ next job was for the progressive consumer rights advocacy group and think tank, Public Citizen, in Washington, DC.
“I created a position for a digital organizer,” she said. “I convinced my director to allow me to step into it. That was a time when there weren’t digital organizers for organizations. That was really the only way to get into that field, and I knew that I had a passion for the potential of the Internet.”
Afterward, Jess directed online campaigns for the service employee’s union, SEIU, for several years. She left to work for Change.org. In 2012, at a RootsCamp conference organized by the New Organizing Institute, she met Nathan Woodhull, a software engineer interested in progressive social change. At the time, Jess and Michelle had been brainstorming ideas for the online platform that would become Coworker. But they had hit a wall. Neither of them knew how or wanted to build software.
Jess remembered, “I was literally saying that to somebody at RootsCamp, and they walked me over to Nathan. We realized we both had the same vision for what distributed organizing could be. A partnership was born from that moment.”
Nathan founded ControlShift Labs, which powers the Coworker platform. ThoughtWorks, a Chicago-based software company that sponsors social and economic justice projects, provided development support to ControlShift to build customizations specific for Coworker’s needs.
In the beginning, Jess recalled, it was often difficult to explain Coworker’s mission to advocacy groups and social justice foundations. Today, platforms like AirBnB and Uber have made digital platforms familiar to most people. But up until recently, Jess said, “we were educating the philanthropic world, as well as our partners, like folks who use our tool set, which could be worker centers, trade unions, folks in the labor movement, about what we’re trying to do,” she said. “We’re no longer having to explain what a platform is, how this is different from other digital organizing efforts. There’s just been an insane amount of confusion.”
Technology aside, Jess said, Coworker’s mission is simple: to empower one worker at a time to organize in their workplace.
“Most people in the United States don’t have experience with workplace organizing, unions, or any kind of power-building in the workplace,” said Jess. “Those traditions have largely been lost. How do we get folks to actually think of their relationship with their employer in the context of power, and make the behavior of organizing with coworkers and speaking out in the workplace a normal behavior, something that is part of the culture, not just in the United States but in the corporations?”
Ultimately, Jess said, Coworker dreams of growing as big as the multinational corporations that employ today’s workforce.
“We think that there’s enormous potential for workers at global corporations where there is command and control from a central headquarters, and those folks make decisions about the working conditions and wages of workers inside that company, perhaps up and down the supply chain worldwide,” she said. “Technology makes it possible for workers in different parts of the world for the same company to join together, collaborate, advance ideas and share information. I think of our work in a much bigger scale than I think the labor institutions we encounter might, because they’re bound by the countries they operate in and the labor laws in those countries. We have a dream of ten percent of every Fortune 500 company using the platform.”