Workplace

How Slack and Discord became tools for worker revolt

Tech workers are organizing with tools designed for other purposes, like work and socializing. Here's how it happened.

Toolbox with productivity app icons

Tech workers have a playbook of tools they use for organizing.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

In August 2018, a couple of certified Apple repair technicians (not directly employed by the company) launched a Discord server called AppleConnect to help each other solve Apple tech issues. It wasn't secret, and it wasn't breaking Apple rules. It was just ... unsponsored. Apple is notoriously close-mouthed about how its technology works and how to fix it, even to the elite few allowed to crack open an iPhone and put it back together. The server was just a simple way to skirt the company.

AppleConnect was so successful that Apple workers across the company wanted to join. Now, more than three years later, nearly 600 people at Apple (they have to verify their current or former employment status to join) talk about frustrations with customers, concerning questions at work, office gossip, etc., and almost all of them use "alts," or anonymous alternate identities. The Discord server brought together workers who wouldn't necessarily talk to one another, eventually serving in part as the inspiration for the collective movement of workers trying to organize at Apple under the moniker #AppleToo.

"It was never marketed as a super-secret, cool-kids clubhouse just outside Apple's reach — it's just a place to chat. People understand that if someone more serious from Apple wants to join, they can," said one of the servers' founders, who goes by "Stella Fudge" online (and who was formerly best-known for leaking images of Apple products).

While Discord was originally built to be a platform for gamers to talk to one another, this isn't the first instance of workers at tech companies appropriating the app for their own use. It's also not the only communication company to suddenly find itself enthusiastically touted by workers organizing non-sanctioned communities, and even forming unions. Discord, Slack, Facebook Groups, Reddit, Signal — all of these tools are suddenly key to the worker organizing playbook, whether the companies themselves like it or not. Discord, Slack and Reddit declined to comment or answer questions about how their tech is used.

The idea that tech workers could organize into unions was almost alien three years ago. "You would be laughed out of the room to suggest that tech could be unionized [in the past]," Meredith Whittaker, a Signal board member and former core organizer at Google, said. Now, in part because workers are forming new communities on the internet, formal union movements have emerged across the industry — among them the Alphabet Workers Union, Mobilize, Glitch and Kickstarter. And both the unions and more informal communities are building what is essentially a playbook for organizing online: a set of tools, and how and when to use them.

A tech organizer's tool playbook

Each tool serves a different purpose, so tech workers use an amalgamation of them for organizing. Willy Solis, a Shipt delivery worker and lead organizer with Gig Workers Collective, said the group uses Facebook Groups for crowdsourcing information, a private Slack for everyday communication and Signal for confidential discussions. (The Mapbox Workers Union used an almost identical mix of private Slack and Signal).

"It wouldn't be possible for us to organize at all if these tools weren't available," Solis said, speaking both about the pandemic and generally. "We're so isolated from each other, and these spaces have created an environment where we can have conversations about the issues."

Gig Workers Rising, a collective group that unites Uber and Lyft drivers and other gig-economy participants, credits targeted Facebook ads for its campaign's success. GWR uses the Facebook ad-targeting tool not just to promote itself politically, but also to find potentially interested gig workers and persuade them to sign petitions and provide contact information to get them involved in the movement. "We use that as a tool to ID super [active] workers, and really have success," Gabriel Cardenas, a community organizer for the group, told Protocol. Cardenas also monitors comments and posts on gig-driver Facebook Groups to find hot-button issues and community-oriented people who might make good activist leaders.

Gabby Weiss works as a product marketer for EveryAction, a software provider associated with the Democratic Party. She's a part of the EveryAction Workers Union's organizing committee, and uses tools both to communicate and organize her work. For recruitment, the team informally reaches out to employees one-on-one, setting up Zoom coffee chats. Like Solis, they have a private Slack for chatting and a Signal for sensitive discussions. They also use Airtable to track and manage their work.

"They were all things we could get for free, online," Weiss said. "It's funny because EveryAction builds organizing tools … it was us figuring out how to do all the same processes with tools available to us for free on the internet that wouldn't be able to be monitored by outside people."

Having a private and/or encrypted way to communicate is key, according to every union organizer interviewed by Protocol. It's the first thing Solis tells others trying to organize their workplaces. Some people may be too afraid to speak out in a forum like Facebook or Slack, but message leaders in private to indicate their interest. Signal is the No. 1 tool for organizers in this regard.

Private and secure communication

There's always the risk of surveillance of organizing groups in the workspace, and Whittaker told Protocol that this risk has only intensified with the pandemic. "At all levels of work, we're seeing employer monitoring of worker communications, associations and what we could call boss spyware," Whittaker said. "In the case of labor organizing, you absolutely need ways to strategize that are outside of the boss's gaze."

While companies aren't legally allowed to forbid labor organizing, many don't allow employees to use their work devices or applications for personal use, and will tamp down on unions that way.

There aren't many tools fully dedicated to private, secure communication. Signal is one of them. Signal operates as a nonprofit, running entirely on donations. It is not explicitly an activist's tool, but rather a tool thoroughly dedicated to encrypted, private messaging. Signal received a huge spike in downloads after WhatsApp announced it had to share some personal data with Facebook, its parent company.

"The commitment of Signal is creating an app that can allow [safe and honest communication] in a world where almost every other form of digital communications, which is slowly becoming our primary mode, is surveilled and commercialized," Whittaker said.

Despite its broad mission, Signal is aware of its value to activist and organizing movements. In June 2020, Signal introduced a face-blurring photo feature in response to Black Lives Matter activists getting targeted by police. It's uniquely positioned to help organizers with strategic communications they want to keep away from prying eyes. "It's great for determining what recruitment messages might be, it's great for coordinating whistleblower networks, it's great for planning meetings, because all of those things would be tracked and you don't want to give the boss any added information if you can help it," Whittaker said.

Of course, any tool can be infiltrated through social engineering. Whittaker noted that any group could host someone spying for higher-ups, or someone keen on taking screenshots. Vetting is hugely important, as is keeping Signal off of corporate devices, she said.

Many companies are not willing to talk about how workers are using their tools to accumulate power. Slack, Discord and Reddit are all open about their platform's ability to bring people closer together, particularly those with similar interests, or those who want to vent about work. These kinds of interactions can be important first steps in building a larger movement in the workplace.

Community building, with and without tools

Regardless of whether these tools are used specifically for formal union organizing, they have some undisputed value for community-building among tech workers. The AppleConnect Discord server is perhaps the only place on the internet where a retail worker can connect with an engineer who makes more than 10 times their salary. (Everyone on the server is encouraged to remain anonymous, given that Apple and most other tech companies are more than a little sensitive about people publicly speaking out on internal issues). On Reddit, groups of Amazon workers like r/AmazonFlexDrivers aren't hiding from Amazon, but they are also able to anonymously share their successes, their horror stories and their tips for avoiding company surveillance, all while Amazon watches on and can do nothing to stop it. One Flex driver told Protocol that the group was able to provide helpful answers to half a dozen questions about the job well before they started, giving them a sense of what they were signing up to do.

Media coverage of Apple workers leaking internal petitions and salary information has embraced the prevailing narrative that the adoption of Slack at Apple in 2018 likely helped contribute to a shifting culture of public activism at the company. Apple itself seems to believe this, too, having recently banned a Slack channel for salary discussion. But while union organizers accept and even occasionally promote these apps for organizing, they are hesitant to credit them for making it easier, or for inspiring the kinds of connections that wouldn't otherwise exist. These apps might help make initial connections between workers, but organizers say that they actually make it harder for people to have the difficult conversations that lead to successful and strong unions.

"I don't think anything really substitutes in-person communication and being able to be face-to-face and stuff like that. That just matters a lot when trying to build solidarity and trying to build relationships. The chat platforms are helpful in a lot of ways, but also they are impersonal mediums," argued Wes McEnany, one of the organizers leading the Communications Workers of America's effort to unionize software engineers (called CODE-CWA). "When people are stressed about these campaigns, I don't know if these are the best venues to have conversations about these things," he said.

The tools have been crucial in streamlining and sustaining the work, according to Whittaker, but to her, it's ultimately the efforts of the people using them who have changed the game in tech organizing.

"The tools were essential for us to get here, but it's really the sustained struggle of so many people that created a movement that we now see," Whittaker said. "The tech worker movement is now a given. People are forgetting a time before it existed."

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