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(Photo via Flickr/Otto-Yamamoto)
(Photo via Flickr/Otto-Yamamoto)

Technology as an industry has been largely anti-union. But could technology at last become a powerful tool of the labor movement?

Labor supporters say now is the time to harness technology to empower and unite workers. Smartphones are ubiquitous, app development pervasive and many workers — whether they’re among the growing numbers of self-employed contract and freelance employees, or laborers frustrated by stagnant wages — are eager to figure out ways to boost their incomes and improve their job security.

Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist and progressive activist said that if workers are going to boost their wages, “you’re not going to do it individually, you’re going to do it collectively.”
Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist and progressive activist, said that if workers are going to boost their wages, “you’re not going to do it individually, you’re going to do it collectively.”

Last week, Seattle hosted Digital Tools for Workers, a two-day technology design session that brought together labor leaders, organizers and entrepreneurs from around the country to brainstorm and begin developing ideas for tech solutions to strengthen workers’ rights.

At the same time, a few blocks away, attorneys with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the City of Seattle faced off in an ongoing battle over legislation that would permit unionizing among “for hire” drivers working for Uber, Lyft and others.

Organizers and participants of the design session said that if the huge disparity between the rich and poor continues, we’re at risk of sinking the American dream.

“If you want to have a high-functioning market economy, you have to find a way to systemically balance the interests of workers and owners,” said Nick Hanauer, a progressive venture capitalist and activist in Seattle, in an interview at the event.

“In the absence of that, you have a death spiral of demand and political crisis. See Brexit. See Trump,” he said. “We all have a stake in finding constructive ways to balance out who gets what.”

Hanauer was an event host and organizer in partnership with The Workers Lab, a San Francisco-based incubator supporting innovative efforts to boost low-wage workers and the middle class; Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 775, a union of nursing-home and home-health workers founded in Washington; and The Century Foundation, an East Coast-based, liberal think tank.

While many people working in technology receive generous wages, people punching the clock at traditionally middle-class and blue-collar jobs have seen their incomes slide and their share of health-care costs rise. That includes the roughly 75 million Americans earning less than $20 an hour, Hanauer said.

David Rolf, a Seattle-based labor leader, said that the old model for unions is inaccessible to most workers. To find collective power, “you’re going to need some new organizational and new technological synergy to create this.”
David Rolf, a Seattle-based labor leader, said that the old model for unions is inaccessible to most workers. To find collective power, “you’re going to need some new organizational and new technological synergy to create this.”

“America, we have a problem,” said David Rolf, who is president of SEIU 775, board president of The Workers Lab and a national leader in labor issues. “We are becoming a low-wage nation.”

But the past strategies for unionizing workers and wielding their collective power to bargain for better pay and benefits don’t work anymore, he said. Those systems were designed for employees who worked for the same, well-established companies for decades in an economy where jobs weren’t easily relocated out of the country.

“Workers need new tools to lift themselves up in the 21st Century and to exert power,” Rolf said. They need “collective tools that are new and distinct from the past century that can reverse the 40-year slide” of economic security and wages.

“The old labor movement is not coming back. The old unions of the 20th Century are not coming back,” he said. “The question is whether anything will replace them or not.”

This isn’t the first time that Rolf and Hanauer, one of the first investors in Amazon, have teamed up to help workers. The duo led the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage passed first for airport workers at SeaTac, then the city of Seattle. New York and California have since followed suit and passed legislation to raise their minimum wages to $15 as well.

The tech event last week explored numerous app-driven strategies for uniting workers, sharing employment information, strengthening benefits and promoting civic engagement.

Samantha Keller, program director for Seattle’s nonprofit Fair Work Center, participated in the design session.

Samantha Keller, program director for Seattle’s nonprofit Fair Work Center.
Samantha Keller, program director for Seattle’s nonprofit Fair Work Center.

“Now is this amazing moment in time where the connectivity is so high,” she said. For-profit companies have capitalized on technology’s potential for the last 20 years while not-for-profits, unions and those working on social issues have “all just been a little slow to come around.”

“We’re playing a huge game of catch-up to right the ship,” Keller said.

Keller was part of a team that proposed a wage-calculator app called Shorty, which would allow hourly workers to double check that their bosses were paying their full wages. The app would also include links to local resources that could help people being shortchanged. It could also compile information about employers who repeatedly cheated their employees.

Another team pitched an app creating “portable benefits” for self-employed, independent contractors. These workers don’t earn vacation or sick leave on their jobs. The app would allow them to create an account linked to themselves, and not a particular employer, where a fraction of their income would be set aside to essentially pay themselves for time off.

The hope is that the workers would also be able to borrow against their savings, replacing pay-day lending companies that can gouge customers with high fees. The app might also include the ability for employers to “tip” contractors and contribute to the accounts. Another idea shared was to seek legislation requiring employers to fund some of the benefit.

Lindsey Crumbaugh, managing director of San Francisco’s Samaschool, a nonprofit that trains low-income people for living-wage technology employment.
Lindsey Crumbaugh, managing director of San Francisco’s Samaschool, a nonprofit that trains low-income people for living-wage technology employment.

So many freelancers are “doing a cocktail of work,” said Lindsey Crumbaugh, an event participant and managing director of San Francisco’s Samaschool, a nonprofit that trains low-income people for living-wage technology employment. Workers need benefits, she said, that follow them from job to job.

An app dubbed Raze would create a Yelp-like experience where workers could share their wage information, helping employees shop around for better paying jobs and negotiate for higher pay. The Raze team imagined an app in which workers could anonymously submit information on how much they earned, their level of experience and give star-ratings for employers. The information could be displayed in a map for people looking for work in a particular geographic area.

The Raze team did a quick survey of some local workers and found that many were anxious about sharing their wage information, which could be a challenging — and essential — hurdle to clear.

Following the event, the teams have the option of continuing to develop their business plans for the apps and exploring alternatives for funding their ideas.

Admittedly it’s going to take much more than a few clever apps to begin shrinking the U.S. economy’s growing income disparities. But Hanauer, Rolf and others at the design session argued that connecting and empowering some of the 75 million low-wage workers could help.

“Given the new dynamism of the workplace and the way that industries change and people change jobs so often,” said Hanauer, “you have to reimagine the way in which the [working-class] people are going to come together to balance power against the rich people.”

Rolf put the daunting task more simply: “We have to rewire the way that the economy has worked for four decades.”

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