The coronavirus pandemic has shown how digital tools can foster online engagement that leads to real benefits for working people.
In response to the pandemic, workers both employed and unemployed have used digital platforms and tools to magnify their voices and meet their needs. They have launched online petition campaigns to demand safer workplaces. Worker centres, unions, and other economic justice groups are broadcasting Facebook and Instagram live events to share information about programs that support workers, offering online training to navigate state unemployment insurance systems, and sending out text blasts asking workers to take direct action.
These uses of digital tools are not new. Mainstream social media platforms, despite serious drawbacks discussed below, have played an important role in a variety of social movements. For example, activists used Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests during the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s. In the worker justice arena, online engagement using social media platforms that mobilize and organize workers, like Facebook and customized platforms like Coworker, has contributed to impressive actions and campaigns, including teacher strikes in the United States, strikes of Ryanair workers in Europe, and successful efforts to challenge unfair workplace policies in non-union settings around the world.
In many ways, COVID-19 has amplified and accelerated the digital efforts that have already been in motion. In a time of social distancing, people have increasingly relied upon digital tools to support collective action across different sectors, just as they have for a broad spectrum of other social interactions.
However, digital engagement will never replace analog or in-person forms of connection, as we have seen in the recent protests drawing attention to the epidemic of police violence against Black Americans. Nor will tools designed to directly address specific challenges confronting low-wage workers single-handedly transform the broader set of conditions that have produced rising inequality; ongoing expansion of the low-wage economy; and entrenched marginalization based on identity markers like race, gender, and citizenship status. Just as we need to challenge the idea that technological change will inevitably lead to mass unemployment, we also need to resist seeing new technology as supplying a set of easy fixes that secure a just and equitable future of work.
In this article, we examine how worker-centred digital tools and approaches to digital engagement might fit within a larger set of strategies for shifting power in the economy and ensuring that all people have access to “decent work” that provides fair income, social protections, and the freedom to organize, among other measures. How can online organizing foster connection and collective action even direct action for workers separated by geography and working across different sectors? For those lacking information about their labour rights and the behaviour of unscrupulous and abusive employers, how can digital channels offer a lifeline? How can digital tools help pave the way for “high-road” forms of employment that pay fairly and invest in workers?
Below, we look at some promising tools and approaches that are being used for these purposes, based on two years of interviews and background research funded by the Ford Foundation, the Labour Innovations for the 21st Century (LIFT) Fund, and Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labour Relations. We then offer takeaways that address the limitations and drawbacks of digital engagement, and consider where these developments might lead, given the systemic fault lines that the current social and health crises expose.
COVID-19 has highlighted the value of digital tools in fostering different forms of collective action, including petition drives, labour strikes, and walkouts. An important element of many of these actions is the sharing of information among workers who are employed by the same company or who work in the same industry. Digital tools help workers to identify common challenges and grievances. Even when this kind of information sharing does not culminate in forms of collective action and mobilization that we associate with organizing, it can be valuable, particularly for workers who are otherwise isolated and deprived of basic information about their legal rights, as well as about the actions that routinely violate these rights. Indeed, in situations where asymmetries of information between workers and employers are large, creating channels for workers to share information can empower them to avoid or hold to account employers and other market actors who engage in illegal and unethical behaviour.
Digital tools can expand distributed organizing. COVID-19 has underscored the value of digital tools in advancing labour rights and supporting collective action among working people. In the organizing arena, mainstream platforms like Facebook and mission-driven platforms like Coworker have enabled people to identify common concerns about inadequate protections against the virus, and to make demands of employers, policy makers, and other powerful actors. These activities are a subset of a wide array of movement activities percolating through online channels. Most strikingly, social media channels predominantly Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have served an important coordinating function in the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. These platforms have helped activists to organize actions at the city and neighbourhood levels, counter and block police surveillance of protest activity, and narrate the purposes of the protests in ways that challenge mainstream media stories.
Digital tools present new opportunities and new challenges. During the pandemic, digital tools have supported worker organizing and mobilization to address health and safety concerns, helped workers to obtain the information they need about changing conditions and to share that information among themselves, enabled workers to maintain steady work with needed supports, such as childcare, and facilitated access to benefits and mutual aid. In some cases, there are also important links across these different dimensions. For example, providing services using digital tools may bolster an organization’s value and create on-ramps for new members who then become engaged in organizing via digital and other channels.
Digital tools carry inherent limitations. Many organizers we have spoken with also underscore the danger of seeing digital tools as a silver bullet, despite recognizing and expressing their value. The craft of online-to-offline organizing remains under development, and significant questions remain about the relationship between online engagement and achieving durable gains for workers, in part because of the challenges of doing digital engagement well. However, these questions also have to do with limitations in what digital tools can accomplish on their own.
One important set of limitations is connected to the enduring digital divide. Unreliable internet access, limited digital literacy, and language barriers affect many marginalized communities most acutely, often limiting the reach of worker-oriented digital tools and platforms for those who might stand to gain the most. Support for online access, training, concerted outreach, and commitments to language justice can all help to make digital tools more accessible to those facing barriers to navigating online spaces. As Contratados.org illustrates, this kind of awareness should inform every phase and aspect of digital engagement, including design and development in the case of new tools. That said, no tool or initiative can fully address larger structural realities that limit digital access, and an overreliance on digital engagement can end up reinforcing certain patterns of marginalization.
Government plays a significant role. Central to such political struggle is the role of government, which has the power to institutionalize broad health care, labour, and other protections. Digital tools that provide workers with specific services and support are frequently responding to various ways in which government actors have abdicated crucial responsibilities and/or actively excluded entire groups of people from important policy protections, often in connection with factors such as race, gender, and citizenship. Alia, which occupies the void created by the exclusion of domestic workers from access to paid time off policies, is one example. Engaging officials at the local, state, and federal levels will prove important to how these tools become part of long-term strategies to institutionalize protections for all working people.
The Future of Digital Platform Power
The current moment is one of peril and possibility, and digital engagement will continue to play an important role in the pandemic and in the ongoing struggles for labour rights, racial justice, and climate justice that outlast the current public health crisis. A recent Roosevelt Institute report based on a survey of essential workers found that the COVID-19 crisis may be generating heightened interest in unionization and workplace collective action, and digital tools of the kinds we have discussed will help to shape whether and how that energy translates into meaningful and durable gains. The wave of protest activity responding to the epidemic of police violence against Black people in the United States shows that there is no replacing mobilizing in the streets as a way to build momentum, foster solidarity, and change the hearts and minds of those in power. It also makes clear that digital tools will be indispensable in helping to coordinate, narrate, and activate now and into the future.
The revolution will probably be livestreamed. The real question is how we can combine all the tools in our tool kit digital and analog to challenge the bulwarks of corporate and political power standing in the way of progress, and build something better from the ashes of this calamity.
Sanjay Pinto, Fellow at the Worker Institute at Cornell University and the Rutgers School of Management and Labour Relations and leads workforce research for the Ladders to Value Workforce Investment Organization.
Beth Gutelius, Research director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Senior Researcher at the Great Cities Institute.