Why Union-Free Companies Should Be Very Concerned About This Particular Website…

Over the last three decades of dealing with union issues, it is difficult to count the number of times a business owner or human resources generalist commented that they did not realize the National Labor Relations Act—the federal law that regulates labor relations for most private-sector employers—applies to non-unionized, as well as unionized businesses.
More importantly, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last five years, there have been dozens of cases coming from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) aimed specifically at an expansion of workplace rights for non-union employees under what is called “protected concerted activity.”
In fact, the NLRB has ruled that even an employee’s “like” on Facebook is considered “protected activity” under the NLRB. This was further confirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in October.
Of course, this is not surprising given the fact that the NLRB has even built a page on its website explaining (for non-union employees) what their rights are under the law.

What do you know about CoWorker.org?

A few weeks ago, during a panel discussion in Denver about online organizing and social media, I made mention of Coworker.org on a slide.
However, due to time constraints, we did not have a lot of time to go into a deeper discussion about the ramifications of the site with the audience.
If you don’t know about Coworker.org, though, you should learn about it quickly.
In sum, Coworker.org is a website designed for non-union employees to exercise their NLRA-protected rights for “change” in primarily non-union workplaces.
Free The BeardThe site is essentially organizing the unorganized, with a caveat, it is without a union (for now).
Recently, Coworker.org was a key contributor at the White House’s Summit On Worker Voice (see video below), co-hosting “a conversation with the President.”
Its founders, Michelle Miller and Jess Kutcher, are two former SEIU staffers—yes, that SEIU—but the site does not advocate for unions…yet.
FastCompany.com has this to say about Coworker.org:

Whether they’re seeking better pay or working conditions, employees—especially low-wage workers—have typically had to traverse a tough road of organizing to get their message across and then getting others to listen. Now, dozens of employee networks have found a new place to gather, organize, and create change: Coworker.org.

Coworker.org is now primarily a platform that connects coworkers who are advocating for change in the workplace. It currently hosts hundreds of initiatives by everyone from restaurant servers and bank tellers to Uber drivers and salon workers who are calling for specific improvements to their jobs and workplaces. And while the site is not specifically targeted to one gender, women, who make up two-thirds of minimum-wage workers, according to the National Women’s Law Center, are disproportionately affected by workplace democracy issues, Kutch says.

FastCompany goes on to note how a Starbucks Barista, wanting to change the company’s policy to allow employees with tattoos to show them visibly while at work, started a petition on Coworker.org.

After roughly six weeks, more than 15,000 coworkers in 17 countries signed her petition, which gathered more than 25,000 signatures.

Starbucks changed its policy. However, it did not stop there.

“We have 25,000 Starbucks baristas that have more than two dozen active campaigns right now, ranging from paid sick days to paid vacation to wage increases to scheduling improvement. So, that universe of people continues to grow and will likely reach 30,000 by the end of the year, representing 10% of Starbucks’ workforce,” Kutch adds.


An ulterior motive?

As Coworker.org garners more attention, it continues to grow. And, the more it grows, the more abilitiy it has to do more than merely help non-union employees with their non-union issues.

“As these digital networks continue to grow, we’re building out new tools and interventions that make it easier for employees to collect and share data with coworkers and the public on what’s happening in their workplaces,” Kutch says. That includes data collection, such as anonymously surveying coworkers on their new 401(k) package, for example, and comparing their working conditions with others. With greater transparency, workers can collaborate on solutions that go beyond a single idea or initiative, she says.

With Coworker.org’s ability to collect data from any employee of any company who logs onto the site, it appears to be a ready-made tool for the co-founders’ former employer, the SEIU (or any other union for that matter).
With both employee data in hand, as well as the ability to “launch campaigns” electronically, perhaps it is no mere coincidence that the National Labor Relations Board recently allowed for the collection of electronic signatures for the filing of union petitions.

What’s an employer to do?

Coworker.org may not be as big a threat to small ‘mom-and-pop’ companies as it would be to medium-sized, or even larger companies with multiple locations (like the fast-food industry, for example).
However, as is noted by Coworker.org itself, the purpose of the site is connect workers to affect change on the issues they have.
One of the simplest strategies for any employer of any size to negate the effects Coworker.org (or unions) might have on their company would be to identify and try to eliminate workplace issues before employees turn to the outside for change.
Read the rest of the FastCompany article on Coworker.org here.

Image credit: NLRB

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