Virtual Labor Organizing: “There’s an App For That”

Kamil Ahsan

The unionization of Gawker Media could spark an altogether new kind of labor organizing through technological tools.

The recent news that employees at Gawker Media voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the Writers Guild of America raises a number of questions about the future of organizing efforts within media and journalism in particular. Many have focused on whether or not web-based journalists will be willing to join a union at all. But we shoudl also be asking what unionization efforts in the modern world will look like, particularly for young workers who are significantly less likely than older workers to be unionized in today’s new economy” but significantly more likely to be pro-union. 

The victory at Gawker also suggests that a young, more pro-union workforce may push for an altogether new type of union that bears little resemblance to the stilted, hierarchical institutions in legacy journalism, as well as revitalized means of getting there. Gawker employees hoped that their union would usher in a trend not just within digital media, but also within the burgeoning tech world, which has rarely experienced union organizing activity. 

One can only imagine the vast potential of technology in helping union organizing, an activity which has traditionally seemed dated to younger workers. A report by Mark Zuckerman, Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit (a regular contributor to In These Times) for The Century Foundation, Virtual Labor Organizing, argues that online technologies, of the sort that have massively altered social relations with apps like Uber and Venmo and online tools to help with everything from tax forms to healthcare, could help support efforts by employees to unionize. 

The authors propose that a new online tool designed to take employees through a step-by-step labor organizing process could be effective in increasing unionization.” As they see it, technological prowess could well be the key to overcome long-standing impediments to unionization, such as employer intimidation or the lack of resources for organizing drives, by allowing employees to plug in and organize discreetly.

In other words, a virtual labor organizing platform could get around the classic disincentives to labor union organizing. This, despite what the cheery welcome Gawker management gave to the union might lead us to be believe, will still be immensely important. Especially for new digital and tech start-ups, labor negotiations on pay, work hours are likely to still be enormously difficult. Employers are likely to be less amicable to organizing efforts and thus more like conventional bosses.

Zuckerman, Kahlenberg and Marvit envisage an online tool that can provide three key benefits: allowing employees to build networks that can form the basis of the union, allowing employees to liaise with ease and anonymity, and organizing elections through electronic petitions and agreements.

To be sure, while such an app or online platform could someday be seen as indispensable to the organizing of modern workplaces, conventional organizing tactics cannot be underestimated. Coming together the good old-fashioned way will still be invaluable for everything from coordinating union responses to card checks, elections and fundraising. Most fundamentally, online tools can bolster but not replace the necessity for building a show of strength against employer intimidation strategies, rallying support from a wide base of employees and the sorts of community activities labor unions have traditionally seen as important to raise their profile and provide them leverage in ways that covert means of organizing cannot achieve. 

Because of course, reactionary opposition to unionization by employers is still to be expected — Gawker CEO Nick Denton seems to be an exception to this rule — and while an online tool could go a long way in helping workers reach the high threshold of effort needed to organize, it is likely to be just one tool in their arsenal. Nevertheless, it might be one of the more important tools — now, with a younger demographic of workers turning the tide towards acceptance for unions, it may be time to modernize unionization entirely.

Kamil Ahsan is a doctoral student in developmental biology and a dual-degree student in history of science at the University of Chicago, as well as a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in the American Prospect, Dissent, Jacobin, Salon, the Rumpus and AlterNet.
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