Tech workers are organizing. Meet the labor vets whispering in their ears.
The nonprofit Coworker.org is revolutionizing the tech labor movement.
Photo: Courtesy of Coworker.org
Drew Ambrogi pushed open the glass door to the Washington office of Coworker.org, his laptop balanced on one hand. "Tesla has blocked Coworker.org on their internal network," he announced to everyone within earshot. "I think it's kind of a badge of honor for us."
Ambrogi, a senior campaigns specialist for Coworker.org, a nonprofit that helps workers organize, had just gotten off the phone with Dare Brewer, a salesperson at a Tesla retail location in Richmond, Virginia, who started a Coworker.org petition earlier this winter. The electric vehicle company recently cut commissions for sales employees, a change that some say has forced them to seek second jobs, sign up for public benefits, or fall back on food pantries to compensate for lost income. Tesla had reportedly said that it would make up for the change by increasing employees' salaries, but Brewer's petition calls the raise "very slight" compared with the "devastating decrease in commission." She asks for "a 15% increase in base pay to bring us closer to a living wage."
On the phone, Brewer sounded undeterred, even cheerful, as she described how Tesla had made it more difficult for her to contact her colleagues. Not only had they blocked the petition, she said, but they'd also made it impossible for employees to send mass messages on the internal email server. Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Ambrogi explained that Brewer could use Coworker.org's platform to contact any self-identified Tesla employees who had signed the petition, and offered to help Brewer write a survey that she could circulate to collect her coworkers' stories and concerns. "Oh, that would be perfect," Brewer said warmly. Ambrogi asked whether she was feeling any strain at work, and advised her to take contemporaneous notes on worrisome incidents, and to call him if she wanted to be put in touch with legal counsel.
Management is "doing the same thing that they've been doing since I brought this up, where they're trying to say that I'm not achieving to the level they'd like, trying to break down my character," Brewer said. "It's definitely not going to work. My numbers are holding up a little too well for them."
The purpose of Coworker.org, according to its co-founder Michelle Miller, is to serve as "the welcome mat on the internet to the labor movement." Its goal is to make organizing expertise available to anyone attempting to shift power at work, regardless of whether they are in a position to unionize.
Miller and her co-founder, Jess Kutch, a former colleague from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), argue that the expanded possibilities for connection afforded by the internet are essential to the changes they want to see in the workplace. Over the past few years, though, it has become equally evident that technology is enabling the conditions they most urgently want to combat. Miller and Kutch created Coworker.org in 2013 as an online petition tool, but their operation has evolved as they've sought to help workers convert one-off campaigns into lasting solidarity between colleagues — and as workers from the tech industry, in particular, have started bringing them problems too complex for a petition to solve.
In another meeting that day in D.C., Ambrogi fired up a weekly video call on his laptop. Slowly, the screen on the conference room wall split into boxes holding the faces of far-flung team members. Technically, the organization doesn't have a headquarters — Miller is based in New York, Kutch lives in North Carolina — but five people work out of an Industrious co-working space in D.C.'s Thomas Circle. Their cramped office is decorated with a few distinguishing touches: a wooden sign with the words, "Abuse of power comes as no surprise"; a printer-paper poster for the leftist Tech Workers Coalition — but the conference room's only features are glass walls that make it easy to spy on the equally fishbowl-like offices across the hall.
Coworker.org co-founder Jess Kutch helped create the nonprofit in 2013 as an online petition tool, but the operation has evolved.Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
Antonio Aguilera, Coworker.org's director of worker resources and training, who is based in San Francisco, brought up his recent phone call with Laurence Berland, one of the four former Google employees who were fired days before Thanksgiving. All are activists who had pushed the company on the ethics of some of its projects, such as a contract with U.S Customs and Border Protection. Aguilera first met Berland in June 2019 and assisted with some of the workplace organizing for which Berland believes he was fired. In December, Berland and the other members of what's become known as the Thanksgiving Four formally accused Google of retaliation by filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
Berland is one of a growing number of white-collar tech workers who have asked Coworker.org for advice and support in recent years. When their requests started to trickle in, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Miller and Kutch were surprised. "When people ask for help, we give it to them," Miller said. But their successes up to that point had been with low-wage workers such as Starbucks baristas, Kmart employees, Uber drivers, and other people who might sign up for a shift on a platform rather than spend a workday building one.
Miller and Kutch wondered what would happen if they could connect the two groups. "We thought about all the other workers who were attempting to use technology for organizing," Miller said. "We saw the internet and the infrastructure of technology as critical to the ability of workers to engage in freedom of association. It felt important that the tech companies be accountable to people like the users on our platform," who are mostly women, people of color and low-wage workers. Who better to hold those companies accountable than the class of employees that the companies value most?
Coworker.org was fixated on understanding how tech companies are changing the nature of low-wage work, Miller said. "And then a bunch of tech workers came to us."
The idea for Coworker.org arose from the frustrations its founders encountered while working at a traditional labor union. At SEIU, Miller, a documentary filmmaker by training, worked in arts-driven leadership development, which involved introducing union members to storytelling techniques. Kutch was on the digital side, involved in early efforts to organize workers using chat rooms and other online spaces. "Because of the nature of the work we were doing, both Jess and I were running across people who wanted to be connected to the labor movement but weren't part of a union and had no way in," Miller said.
Only around 10% of U.S. workers — and 6% of private sector workers — belong to a union, and the growing class of contractors and gig economy workers lack a clear route to joining one. Kutch and Miller talked often about "what the next phase of the labor movement needs to be to include more workers," Miller said.
The purpose of Coworker.org, according to its co-founder Michelle Miller, is to serve as "the welcome mat on the internet to the labor movement."Photo: Courtesy of Coworker.org
When Kutch left for Change.org to work on economic justice campaigns, she and Miller stayed in touch. They were inspired by the workers they saw organizing on the internet, who seemed to represent a cultural shift in which it was becoming easier for anyone to seek collective power. Kutch assisted one Target employee who petitioned to keep stores closed on Thanksgiving out of sympathy with a colleague who wanted to spend the holiday with his new baby. After that campaign, Kutch called Miller to propose that they act on their ideas.
"Change.org can be really effective, but when you're doing something in the workplace, you're up against potentially losing your income and job, which is a huge risk," Kutch said. "There's a legal framework for organizing in the workplace that general-use advocacy tools aren't going to have. We saw the need for a specialized set of digital tools." By then, Miller had also left her job at the union. She was making movies, but she missed collaborating with workers. The pair agreed to build a petition tool and go from there, polling their users on what else they could offer. "We wanted to let the people on our site guide us," Kutch said.
The first Coworker.org petition that brought about rapid change was started by a Starbucks barista who wanted to overturn the company's ban on visible tattoos. The petition attracted more than 25,000 signatures, and baristas all over America posted photos of their tattoos to social media, along with Starbucks' corporate hashtag. Within weeks, the company agreed to reconsider the policy.
As Coworker.org continued to host petitions, Miller and Kutch began to see its potential as a source of accurate information about workers' experiences. When Kmart claimed that it gave out Thanksgiving shifts on a volunteer basis, Coworker.org polled employees, who reported being assigned compulsory holiday hours. "It gave workers the ability to counter Kmart's narrative with data collected from themselves," Miller said.
A few years later, in 2016, the site served a similar purpose for Uber drivers. In what would become a pattern, the company cut fares while insisting that drivers' earnings would increase along with the number of rides. "We had 262 Uber drivers who took a survey and told us how much money they were losing on a week-by-week basis," Miller said. "That was the only data to counter [the company's] story."
Not long before that, Miller had come across a newspaper article about a behavioral analytics software that promised to help bosses find so-called "hidden influencers" among the ranks of their workers, ostensibly for the purpose of promoting high performers. The company behind the software was one of countless startups promising to improve workplaces through the application of new technologies. Miller was instantly skeptical. "I read that and was like, oh, hidden influencers are organizers," she recalled. "It was basically insider threat detection software, painted with a worker-friendly brush."
As she and Kutch contemplated Coworker.org's future, Miller kept thinking about the behavioral analytics software that had so alarmed her. "It just made me say, 'How much of what is being positioned as helpful technology is actually technology to increase forms of control and surveillance?'" she said. She and Kutch were trying to help workers exert power over employers, but the employers' power over workers was increasingly hidden in platforms and software. "It became clear that if we didn't address this, all of our work was going to be less effective," Miller says.
The election of Donald Trump swept a generation of more affluent professionals into organizing circles, and into contact with the nonprofit. After the CEO of IBM penned an open letter to the president-elect urging him to use the company's services, a cybersecurity engineer posted a petition on Coworker.org demanding that the company "affirm IBM values" and allow employees to refuse to work on government contracts that they believed violated civil liberties. Though IBM didn't grant the petitioners' demands, the campaign was an early example of the protests that would soon sweep the tech industry. IBM declined to comment.
After the IBM campaign, Miller began attending meetings of nascent grassroots groups such as Tech Solidarity. "I made a choice personally to really invest" in helping tech workers organize, she said. "I just kept thinking that if I could be doing anything right now, this seems like the thing I should be doing."
From the first, Miller could tell that the growing group of tech-worker organizers would need a different kind of support than Coworker.org offered its users in other industries.
One opportunity to hone that approach arrived when she received a request from workers at Google. Miller had met Liz Fong-Jones, a site reliability engineer at the company and an unofficial internal advocate for her colleagues, at a Tech Solidarity meeting, but "at the time, she felt confident in the mechanisms she'd created to be heard at Google," Miller said. That changed in August 2017, after an engineer named James Damore wrote a memo suggesting that Google's efforts to hire more diverse engineers amounted to discrimination against white men and would "lower the bar" at the company.
When Fong-Jones, who had seen colleagues float similar ideas on internal forums, asked her employer to "no-platform" anti-diversity arguments, her internal memo was leaked to right-wing media. Soon, her name and photograph and those of other Googlers — most of whom, like Fong-Jones, were queer, trans or people of color — were all over a pro-Trump subreddit, and then former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos' Facebook page. Harassment and abuse rained in. Fong-Jones and other targeted employees felt that Google didn't do enough to support them or stop the internal leaks that put them at risk. Meanwhile, Google CEO Sundar Pichai canceled a Town Hall where Fong-Jones had planned to push executives on their handling of the Damore situation.
"I had privately pressured the company before, but that approach, which worked from 2010 to 2017, did not work" after the Damore memo, Fong-Jones told Protocol. She and a few colleagues wondered if they should go to the press, but they weren't sure if they had a legal right to do so. "Google had a culture of internal secrecy, that you can discuss whatever you want, but you can't talk to the press," she said. "That was hammered into us."
They didn't drive the strategy; they helped us with our existing strategy. Workers were in charge, and Coworker was facilitating. — Liz Fong-Jones, former Google employee
Fong-Jones called Miller and asked her to arrange a "know your rights" training, which quickly clarified that the Googlers had the right to talk to press if they wanted to. From there, Miller and another Coworker.org employee helped the workers strategize about how to contact their colleagues. "They suggested setting up off-work email lists so we weren't on our employers' social networks," the use of which would not be legally protected, Fong-Jones said.
And, eventually, how to talk to the media. "A large portion of how Coworker helped us was in figuring out how to tell our stories in ways that we would be heard," Fong-Jones said. Coworker.org staff conducted practice interviews with Googlers and helped them fit their individual narratives into the overarching story — of an unchecked internal culture of harassment — which they ultimately told to Wired reporter Nitasha Tiku. Along the way, Fong-Jones emphasizes, Coworker.org maintained a subtle balance. "They didn't drive the strategy; they helped us with our existing strategy," she said. "Workers were in charge, and Coworker was facilitating."
Fong-Jones eventually left Google after more than a decade at the company — but Coworker.org remained involved at the tech giant, helping connect worker organizers with Alphabet shareholders who planned to introduce a resolution to tie executive pay to improvements in diversity. (The resolution was ultimately voted down.) Part of Coworker.org's contribution, in Fong-Jones' view, is serving as a crucial repository of institutional memory at a company — and in an industry — where workers who become activists often get pushed out or move on voluntarily.
Fong-Jones still frequently fields inquiries from tech workers who want to organize and don't know where to start. When Wayfair employees contacted her about protesting their employer's decision to sell beds to ICE, she sent them to Coworker.org. When Berland, of the Google Thanksgiving Four, got in touch with Fong-Jones last year about pressuring Alphabet to crack down on anti-LGBTQ content on YouTube, she sent him to Coworker.org, too. "A lot of people get inspired, but they don't know how to follow through," she said, noting that volunteer activists like herself are juggling jobs on top of organizing. "Coworker has the institutional knowledge of what has worked."
Meanwhile, Fong-Jones is leaning on Coworker.org to help realize a project of her own. Not long before leaving Google, Fong-Jones suggested on Twitter that Googlers could create a fund to support organizing efforts at the company; her offer to match up to $100,000 in donations quickly produced a starting sum of around $250,000. "I'm trying to use some of my financial privilege to help those who can't afford to be suddenly laid off," she said.
Many unions maintain solidarity funds to help workers who suffer retaliation at the hands employers — but neither Fong-Jones nor Miller and Kutch knew how to establish such a fund outside of any parent institution. (It's important to all parties that the workers, not Coworker.org, will control the fund.)
Coworker.org has spent the past year researching the legal intricacies of a freestanding "worker's trust." At every step of the way — from surveying the legal code to considering the rules that will govern how the money is spent — they've taken extra care, aware that the lack of a larger institution to absorb legal risk leaves more to be carried by individual donors.
In the meantime, the organizers of the 2018 Google walkout — in which 20,000 employees staged a global protest — have gone on the record about being pushed out of their jobs, and Google has retained a consultancy firm known for its union-busting tactics. Most recently came the Thanksgiving week firings of Berland and three other employees who had been active in organizing, and the December firing of Kathryn Spiers, a security engineer who created an internal pop-up notification that informed her colleagues of their right to organize.
Now, Coworker.org is hoping that the Thanksgiving Four can be the first recipients of support from the trust. If the project succeeds, they hope that workers at other companies will be able to replicate the experiment.
After the phone call with Brewer, the Tesla retail salesperson, Ambrogi sounded energized. "That's good — she's busy," he said. "A lot of petition creators, once the signatures stop rolling in, they're just like, 'What do I do now?'"
He was impressed that Brewer hadn't lost steam, especially because her petition — now hovering around 3,000 signatures — has faced an uphill battle. Coworker.org has never worked with Tesla employees before and didn't have an established email list it could use to blast out her request. Whatever happens with Brewer's campaign, she may be paving the ground for future organizing at Tesla. From here, "we can work to build out this database" of employees and their contact info, Ambrogi said. "This is a sales issue, but I imagine there's all kinds of things going on at Tesla that we would love to be able to talk about with employees at all levels."
Coworker.org's small staff is still figuring out what it might look like to connect workers whose livelihoods are affected by the tech industry across large socioeconomic divides. What could come of organizing the engineers who design Tesla cars together with the salespeople who sell them? Or putting Amazon engineers in touch with the Uber and UPS drivers who are being surveilled — and racially profiled — by the company's Ring video doorbells as they drop off customers and deliver packages? "From a theoretical perspective, those two [groups] fit together," Miller said. "From an operational perspective, we're still kind of figuring it out."
Some of the most successful organizing in Silicon Valley has involved such coalitions. In 2018, roughly 3,000 security guards who work at tech giants including Facebook and Alphabet ratified their first union contract. As the guards on Facebook's campus worked to unionize, they received a boost from Facebook employees who were members of the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC), a grassroots group seeking to build solidarity in the tech industry.
When union organizers were blocked from campus, the TWC members helped spread information to security guards. "I think that kind of 'cross' organizing is one of the best approaches we have," said Ross Patton, a software engineer and member of the TWC steering committee in New York. (Patton's TWC chapter worked with Coworker.org in 2019 when both helped protest the establishment of Amazon's HQ2 in Queens.)
"It's difficult to convince a highly paid software engineer that it's worth organizing and taking the risk," he said. "It's easier to convince an engineer to use their workplace power for someone they perceive as needing it, someone they see every day. After that, they might think, 'What if we use our labor power to demand that they stop doing contracts with oil and gas companies?' … The hope is that they can see, 'Oh, we can actually win a fight if we all stick together.'"
Workers know that technology is making them feel weird somehow — they just don't quite know exactly what's going on there. — Michelle Miller, Coworker.org co-founder
Coworker.org's relationships with white-collar tech workers may be entering a new phase as more attempt to unionize. "We are worker-led, so if the workers are leading in that direction, we want to be supportive," said Aguilera, Coworker.org's point person in the Bay Area. Aguilera has connected workers with union reps to talk about what a union could do for them. For many, he says, the priority is to keep organizing around the ethical effects of technology. "There's a narrative that having control over the impact of your work is a working condition," he said.
"Because we engage workers across so many sectors, we have a meta view of what's going on inside workplaces," Miller said. With every campaign, Coworker.org is trying to bring that picture into slightly clearer focus. "Workers know that technology is making them feel weird somehow — they just don't quite know exactly what's going on there," she said. "So it's a question of whether, by having so many contacts and so much access to what workers are actually thinking and feeling and experiencing, we can actually start to put together a better picture of what the technology is doing to them."
Correction: This story was updated to clarify that Coworker.org doesn't share employee email addresses with petition creators, but rather allows them to contact signees through its platform. Updated Feb. 26, 2020.