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.
Cofounders Michelle Miller and Jess Kutcher created the site in 2013 as a platform for workers’ voices. Both had previously worked at Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union representing nearly 2 million workers. Kutcher had also worked at petition site Change.org. The duo saw a need for a platform that was more than just a social media-based advocacy group or petition site—they wanted to create a place where workers could specifically advocate for change in the workplace.
“What we weren’t seeing was any infrastructure with the lessons, data, and information in one place so that the next person [advocating for better conditions] wasn’t starting from scratch,” Kutcher says. If a worker could log on and tap into an existing network of coworkers and see the history of changes that had been made, the campaign might have more success, she says. That power could create more democratic workplaces.
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.
One of those women is Kristie Williams, who worked as a barista in the Atlanta area. She launched a petition on Coworker.org to get Starbucks to allow employees to show their tattoos instead of hiding them under long-sleeved shirts. After roughly six weeks, more than 15,000 coworkers in 17 countries signed her petition, which gathered more than 25,000 signatures. Employees shared photos of their body art on Instagram, which also attracted media attention. In October 2014, Starbucks changed its dress code to allow visible tattoos, except for those on the face or throat, or anything profane or lewd.
Is wearing a long-sleeved shirt to hide tattoos really that big a deal? Miller says there’s a bigger picture than just wardrobe. “People look at [bans on] beards, tattoos, and these things, and it’s very easy to say, ‘Well, why is that a problem?’ But it matters when you are surveilled. It’s a form of personal surveillance at that level and managed at that level on your job, when it has nothing to do with whether you can perform the tasks you’ve been given,” she says.
And now, there is a large network of Starbucks employees on the site that are working together to advocate for other working condition improvements. For example, some workers want more advance and consistent scheduling to allow them to better plan child care and secure second jobs, she says.
“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.
Kutch points to other success stories as well. Walmart workers joined with the group OUR Walmart to launch a Coworker.org initiative that helped improve scheduling practices and access to full-time opportunities, she says. And, after recruiting more than 100 of her colleagues to join her initiative, an adjunct professor at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, persuaded her employer to participate in a federal student loan forgiveness program, which would forgive her debt after 10 years of on-time payments.
“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.
It’s not only employers that are paying attention to what’s happening on Coworker.org. On October 7, Miller led a town hall meeting with President Barack Obama, where they discussed the importance of the worker’s voice, and shared platform users’ questions, ideas, and concerns.
Miller thinks Coworker.org serves an important role at a time when trade unions and worker groups find themselves under fire in some areas. “We’re codesigning new forms of collective advocacy power for workers, which don’t replace trade unions. They are actually new kinds of models that sit next to trade unions as options for workers to start to think about the ways in which they want to have organizational power inside their workplaces,” she says.
By giving workers a more powerful voice through a platform that allows them to build networks and access previous efforts and their impact, she and Kutch believe Coworker.org can make a big difference in workers’ lives—especially women.