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Post-Election Analysis: What's Next for Labor?


With most of the business community absorbed in the quadrennial D.C. parlor game of parsing cabinet picks and what they might mean for their industry's agenda going forward, little attention has been paid to what lies ahead for the labor community.

As a result of the labor community’s failure to produce critical outcomes it pursued for the presidency, Congress and governorships, unions will be forced to abandon much of the political and legislative agenda they had developed in anticipation of a friendly Clinton administration. The question is this: Do they retool that political agenda or do they turn their collective attentions temporarily away from politics and get back to old-fashioned organizing?

There is always a competition within unions for attention and resources between the political side of the house and the organizing side. In fact, in 2005, when five unions led by SEIU splintered off from the AFL-CIO, it was mainly because those unions thought the AFL-CIO was spending too much time and money on lobbying and not enough on organizing. That rift has since healed, but the underlying debate rages on. And the election results show that the millions of dollars spent trying to get Hillary Clinton elected and a democratic majority in the Senate went largely wasted. Not to say that the organizing side is taking an "I told you so" posture, but you can bet they're thinking it.

My guess is that the unions will face the fact that their future lies in fostering a renewed vigor for organizing. It’s not just the election results that are informing my opinion. It's also developments in organizing technology and new tools that could give them the boost they need. Now it appears unions are embracing automation as well.

App Targets Walmart Workers

One example of that is a new union-backed app called WorkIt (which is currently available on Android devices) developed to target Walmart workers. Similar to many companies, Walmart’s wage and benefit portal is only accessible within Walmart stores (on company computers). Not only did the creators of WorkIt obtain Walmart’s benefit packages, employee policies, human resource documents and employee guidelines, they uploaded them into the app for the purpose of answering any question workers have.

The app is powered by IBM’s highly sophisticated server known as Watson and if Watson cannot answer with 100 percent accuracy, questions are kicked to peer volunteers. The union-backed group OUR Walmart, leverages WorkIt to engage with workers who they have already been attempting to organize for years. They want workers to use their app to navigate benefits and leave options, wage and hour issues, plus other workplace rights instead of using existing company portals, which some may find difficult to use and unhelpful.

In essence, this is serving as a scaled-down version of a union in the workplace — a silent entry point that provides value to workers. The app will uncover areas in which workers believe management is not representing their interests. That opens the door to a later conversation with a third party group (an in-person union rep) advocating on their behalf. The most powerful functionality of the app is that it collects personal data about a company’s workers and whatever needs they have that are not being met. If OUR Walmart is successful in drawing in users to WorkIt, they will know the top concerns of Walmart’s workforce geographically and potentially by store location, and will have a working database of would-be union members for future organizing drives.

WorkIt is funded by the SEIU’s Fairness Project, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and OUR Walmart, among others. The app was created by the same team the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) used to launch a similar program to capture acts of police brutality and misconduct. The app was designed as a prototype with the expressed intent of replicating it in other campaigns against other companies.

In another technology related development that started in late 2015, the NLRB approved e-signatures on union authorization cards. Prior to that ruling, union organizers were required to physically collect an employee’s signature on an authorization card. This online effort began to show signs of hitting its stride in mid-2016 and today, organizers can collect cards through a basic click on a mobile device. It is a simple mechanism that requires very little thought on behalf of the user.

Organizing Campaigns

Most serious organizing campaigns now include or depend on e-signatures. The technology is progressing in a way that makes the signup process easier every day.

For example, the recently launched Web portal represents the next generation of online capabilities. The site currently features organizing campaigns at Walmart, Starbucks, Chipotle, Home Depot, Target and Whole Foods. Consider the environment at Chipotle for a portal like — 10,000 workers recently sued the brand for “wage theft.”

If virally spreads within that network where workers already feel cheated, then Chipotle will rapidly have a significant labor relations challenge moving forward. Everyone is exposed, even brands that have historically been favorites of the left. There is no way to know if the next NLRB, populated with Trump appointees, will roll back e-signatures, but a new board probably would not make it an immediate priority. Even if it becomes one, getting rid of e-signatures could take years.

So while business leaders are intently focused on new and unexpected legislative, regulatory and political opportunities in Washington, they can't afford to lose sight of what is happening with their workforces and workplaces. A new focus on organizing, buoyed by significant advances in technology, could mean the labor community may one day view this past November as a battle lost on the way to winning the war.

Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision-making. Align specializes in service sector industries.
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