Coworker.org was founded in 2013 by former US labour organisers Jess Kutch and Michelle Miller. Jess skyped in to our digital fringe event at TUC Congress 2016 to tell us more about what they do, and what they’ve learned to date.
Jess and Michelle’s story is a real whirlwind – in only three years they went from launching their first online product, via building links to 1 in 10 Starbucks worldwide workers, to hosting a live-streamed worker voice summit from inside the White House with President Obama. They’ve pioneered and field-tested a whole bunch of innovations in organising with digital tools.
We’ve sought to emulate a little of what they do in a UK union context with our GoingToWork.org.uk petitioning tool. We’re using it in a very different context – through existing unions rather than grassroots-focused organising outside of unions, but in addition to the comments Jess outlines in the video, there are two lessons that I particularly wanted to highlight from their work, that we need to work better into our own campaigning.
Start from the user need:
When they started at Starbucks, they didn’t go for low pay or bad shifts as an issue to campaign on. Their tools let the workers themselves suggest the problems they saw as the first ones to deal with, and do it in their own voices.
In Starbucks’ case it was the policy against open display of tattoos whilst working. That might seem small compared to other concerns for insecurely employed and low paid staff, but the issue was deeply felt, easy to communicate, and so much against the company’s ethos that it seemed winnable.
Winning that first issue led to a sense that workers at the previously “unorganisable” company could unite and win change, which Coworker and their newly developing grassroots leadership of Starbucks workers were able to seize on, finding new issues to tackle and building a more solid network that could support other campaign tactics.
Build, test, develop:
The site that Coworker started with looked slick, but was really a minimum viable product for the first tactics they wanted to use – based on the same toolset used by a number of other campaign groups (and now by us at the TUC – the great ControlShiftLabs framework). They didn’t set out to develop a whole system from the start.
As they’ve grown, they’ve expanded their toolset and tactics hugely, but it’s been iterative development, based on the learning from the data generated by existing tactics, and using basic third party tools to pilot changes before developing anything.
They’ve been open to challenging their assumptions about their journey rather than trying to map it all out from the start, and as a result they’ve probably traveled even further.