Where There Aren’t Unions, Can Online Platforms Organize Workers?

Starbucks workers fought and won the right to display their tattoos using Can even bigger victories for workers be next?

Where There Aren’t Unions, Can Online Platforms Organize Workers?
[Top Photo: Kheel Center Flickr]

Until October last year, Starbucks had a strict policy against its employees showing their tattoos. Essentially, if you had ink on your arms and you wanted to work as a barista, you needed to cover up. That it now has a different, more open dress code is down to two factors mainly: an Atlanta-based barista named Kristie Williams who started complaining about the policy and an organizing platform called


Since launching in 2013, Coworker has facilitated dozens of worker campaigns covering everything from Nike’s lobbying policy (it gets employees to argue in favor of trade liberalization even if those employees don’t agree with it) to FIFA’s (ridiculous) decision to play the Women’s World Cup on artificial turf. Anyone can start a petition (“Let US Have Beards” says a recent one from a Publix employee) and engage colleagues in signing up if they agree. Cofounder Michelle Miller says 250,000 people have signed up for the platform and that 70,000 of those people have participated in campaigns so far, including about 20,000 Starbucks employees, or about 7% of its total global workforce.

As such, is offering new ways to organize labor, and compensating just a little for the ongoing decline of traditional unions. (In the last 50 years, union membership has dropped by at least two thirds, as this striking graphic shows). Miller started the group with Jess Kutch after the pair met while working at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

“There needs to be a lot of innovative approaches to fill for the decline of the trade union model,” Miller says. “What we can do is help run networks inside companies by providing expertise and support. Whatever the future of the union is, it’s going to come from those experiments. We’re surfacing new ways for people to behave in collectives.”

After the Starbucks baristas started congregating on Coworker, Miller and Kutch set up an Instagram featuring some of the offending body art, and they found and trained about 15 baristas to talk to reporters. After stories started appearing in the media, Starbucks really started listening, Miller says.

New forms of labor organizing are particularly needed given the changing structure of the workforce. With more people working independently and more of us freelancing in the gig economy, traditional unions are perhaps less pertinent than ever. Miller says the online petitions bring together people from different companies and locations, so they can learn from and inspire one another.

“It’s not just about improving this single thing or getting a bit more money, although that’s critically important,” she says. “It’s also above fostering a sense of community among people. When you get people to trust each other, you get them thinking about how things can be different on a broader scale.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.