Unit tests an easier way for workers to organize

Work looks wildly different today than it did a year ago. In tech, every bit of the workplace has been tweaked to fit our new remote world. From scaling accountability and onboarding remotely to figuring out what old perks can be made socially distant — myriad decisions have been made at the hands of the employers.

An early-stage startup thinks it’s time to give some of that decision-making power back to employees, too. So Unit, a New York-based company, is tackling perhaps the most elusive and controversial topic in mainstream tech today: labor unions.

Numerous studies show that union members earn significantly higher wages and get better benefits than non-union workers. At the same time, many companies are anti-union because it impacts the bottom line, or puts more autonomy into their workers’ hands and limits control.

Unit wants to make it easier for employees to virtually organize, and manage, labor unions to protect them from their employers. Unit itself is not a labor union, but instead helps worker-organizers set up, affiliate and manage a union with a mix of software and human resources.

Janitorial entrepreneurship

Unit founder and CEO James White watched Occupy Wall Street unfold in real time while he was a graduate student. He helped out a cohort of janitorial workers from MIT and Harvard that were organizing with the SEIU, or Service Employees International Union, a union of about 2 million people across the services industry.

“By day I would be working in the bio-instrumentation lab at MIT on medical injection devices, and by nights and weekends we were organizing students to support these janitors in their bid for better pay and working conditions,” he said. “[Volunteer organizing] felt very manual and inefficient, but they won some things. It took a couple of years, but they won.”

White spent most of the next decade picking the day job, and worked on a company in the medical device space. But after getting business and sales chops, he left to start his own business. He kept thinking about labor unions.

“Tech-enabled organizing kept coming back to the forefront [of my ideas], and being both the most exciting to me personally, but also I think the most impactful in the ways I wanted to see the world change in terms of income inequality and individual empowerment,” he said.

A turnkey solution for unions

Unit offers a suite of services to fix the process of unionizing, which starts with education. The startup has a step-by-step process of how to virtually unionize a workplace that it offers for free public use on its website.

After a worker-organizer decides that they want to unionize, Unit helps them begin the process. Employees can come to the website, run through an eligibility survey, and begin to start inviting fellow co-workers to the organizing platform. Interested employees will fill out paperwork and a small cohort will begin to form within an organization.

In the background, Unit begins handling the legal automation process needed before a team approaches a national union, such as the national Labor Relations Board, or local union with their pitch. The startup works with a Boston law firm that files the petitions on behalf of employees.

“So far, the biggest feedback we’ve gotten from our organizing application is that ‘I chose you guys over calling a labor organizer at a national union or over contacting volunteers to come and help us because it seemed like the fastest way to get started’,” White said.

After (and if) a union is approved, Unit takes on the role of a labor advisory service. The startup uses a combination of digital and human services to create a “turnkey solution” for union management.

The startup will help conduct voting and polling, provide consensus tools and oversee the charter draft and review process, otherwise known as the governance of a union, on behalf of workers. It will also help with negotiation, such as bargaining surveys, contract drafting and review, compensation and strategic analysis. Beyond that, Unit focuses on ongoing organizing such as new member education and strike planning, as well as contract maintenance. Another company in the space, UnionWare, helps with membership management, while Unit is aiming for the full suite.

“We plan to try to take the time commitment down by quite a bit by automating a bunch of it,” he said. “So that people can vote over software, they can get updates over software, nominate new officers or run for office within these small unions over software.” A Shopify for union organizers, of sorts.

Similar to how an employee only pays fees once a union is approved, Unit only charges a fee after the formation process is complete. The typical cost of national union dues is 1.5% of wages, the company said, meaning that an employee who makes $40,000 a year would pay about $50 a month. Unit charges 0.8% of those monthly earnings.

The “no strings attached” business model means that Unit could lose 90% of their customers once the union is approved, White said. The startup is in the process of forging partnerships with large national unions so that it gets paid whenever a Unit-approved union that comes through one of its networks gets affiliated — with the pitch that it saves unions time and resources through its software.

Customers include software developers, digital media companies, fast food franchises and mental health companies, with a specific focus on helping smaller companies unionize.

‘It’s not a technical problem we have to solve’

Arianna Jimenez, who was a labor organizer for 20 years at SEIU, expressed caution around oversimplifying the unionizing process, which she thinks could give a false sense of hope to workers. In her experience, the negotiation process is the most contentious part of unionizing, taking anywhere from six months to 10 years.

“Once you have signed the cards and you are technically a union in the eyes of the law, that doesn’t in and of itself bring a change in the material conditions of the workers’ lives,” she said. “What brings the change is that the workers are engaging in a legal process that is protected by law with the employer officially to change the contract — such as increased benefits, healthcare and pension.”

While Unit and labor organizers across the country help with the negotiation process, employer-led oppression and fear tactics can often force employees to worry about their livelihoods, and thus vote against forming a union. For example, earlier this year Amazon conducted an anti-union campaign to pressure employees to vote against organizing efforts. The corporation defeated the union attempts, a setback for the biggest unionization push in Amazon’s 27-year history.

Jimenez doesn’t think that unionizing could ever have a fully turnkey solution because “the transformation fundamentally for workers between having a union and not having a union is not a legal threshold. It is really a more intangible transformation from a group of people who feel disempowered and disenfranchised to not.”

Jimenez says hitting scale for Unit would mean rewriting U.S. labor laws.

“It’s not a technical problem we have to solve, it’s a problem of values,” she said.

When venture is the elephant in the room

To scale, Unit will have to lean on VC, per White. In July 2020, Unit closed $1.4 million in financing, from investors such as Bloomberg Beta, Draper Associates, Schlaf Angel Fund, Haystack, E14 and Gutter Capital.

And this is where the heart of the tension with Unit is, per White: It needs to raise venture capital to hit scale, but getting in bed with that very asset class can feel counterintuitive.

For example, what if Unit helps employees within portfolio companies of existing investors start unions? Is there a conflict of interest, or can Unit be swayed to not prioritize those clients in order to keep its cap table happy?

Last year, California voters passed Proposition 22, essentially supporting Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates that gig workers should not be entitled to the same labor right as employees, staying as independent contractors. The move was a blow to the efforts of worker-organizers around the world, and a reminder that venture-backed companies can be incentivized to act against broader access to benefits and worker protections.

While White says that venture was the best option for speed and scale, he did admit to worrying about some of these concerns, specifically about the influence that investors might try to have in later rounds if the founding team is unable to keep the majority of the company. He hopes that Unit can operate off of little venture capital for as long as possible to delay or altogether avoid those interests.

Siri Srinivas, an investor at Draper, thinks of Unit as a service that is building a better tool for a process that is regulated and complex. In other words, stripping out the politics, it’s a SaaS tool that makes sense.

“Frankly as VCs, we invest in technologies that people want. We as a team make a hard call on not engaging with certain products (e.g. tobacco) which we think are net negative for the world but don’t see this as much different from investing in other companies building software products in regulated industries,” she said. “Unit allows for a form of worker equity and can unlock a lot of value for its users and in that our incentives are completely aligned.”

For now, White is hoping that general interest in rebuilding workplaces keeps Unit busy and revenue-generating.

“We never could have predicted COVID having the impact that it did and really igniting even more conversations around labor and safety,” he said. “I do think, when we face these problems on a national level, sometimes they hit everybody at once and people think about the same things at the same time.”

#draper, #labor, #prop-22, #startups, #tc, #unions, #unit


Coal miners’ union lobbies for jobs in renewable energy

Dumptruck full of coal drives through strip mining area.

Enlarge (credit: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

What if the British crown had offered the Luddites a retraining program and the promise of good-paying factory jobs? Perhaps they would have accepted the textile transition?

That’s essentially what the nation’s largest coal miner union is suggesting. In exchange for job retraining, wage replacement, and preferential hiring for out-of-work coal miners, the United Mine Workers of America would support the transition away from carbon-polluting fossil fuels. It’s also calling for tax incentives to build portions of the renewable energy supply chain in coal country.

“We’ll take good paying jobs any way we can get them,” said Cecil Roberts, the president of the UWMA, in a talk hosted by the National Press Club. “The government has not done a good job, if at all, managing what’s going on in the coal fields,” he said, citing rounds of layoffs and mine closures.

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#ccs, #coal, #energy-policy, #policy, #unions


The Amazon union drive in Alabama appears headed for defeat

A union supporter stands before sunrise outside the Amazon fulfillment center on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama.

Enlarge / A union supporter stands before sunrise outside the Amazon fulfillment center on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. (credit: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

A closely watched effort to unionize an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama appears to be headed for defeat. With about half the votes counted, 1,100 workers have voted against forming a union, while only 463 voted in favor.

The National Labor Relations Board is counting the 3,215 votes that were cast by workers at the Bessemer facility. The union needs to win at least half the votes in order to become the official representative of the roughly 6,000 workers at the Bessemer facility. Counting has ended for the evening and is scheduled to resume at 8:30 AM Central Time on Friday.

The stakes are high for both Amazon and the labor movement. Amazon has more than 1.1 million workers overall, with hundreds of thousands working in fulfillment centers. A successful vote in Bessemer would embolden labor organizers at other Amazon fulfillment centers around the country. An organized workforce could force dramatic changes in the way Amazon manages its warehouses.

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#amazon, #bessemer, #policy, #unions


Amazon illegally fired two employees who pushed for climate, labor action

An Amazon logo falls apart and catches fire.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Ars Technica)

Nearly a year ago, Amazon fired two employees who had criticized the company. The employees had publicly called on the company to do more to reduce its carbon footprint and had circulated a petition among Amazon employees supporting better compensation and support for warehouse workers. Now, the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, has found that Amazon acted illegally and in retaliation when it fired them, according to a report from The New York Times.

Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa were both designers at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, and their tussles with management began in 2018 when they joined a group of employees who vocally backed shareholder petitions urging the company to do more to combat climate change. (The group had received Amazon stock as part of its compensation.)

They and a handful of other employees rallied others to the cause. On September 20, 2018, thousands of employees walked out in protest of the company’s climate policies. Lawyers told Cunningham, Costa, and others that in speaking out, they had violated company policies that restrict employees from talking about Amazon publicly. The group ultimately wrote an open letter, which was signed by more than 8,700 Amazon workers, to CEO Jeff Bezos and the board of directors.

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#amazon, #labor, #nlrb, #policy, #unions


Amazon admits its drivers sometimes have to pee in bottles

A dark blue van with multiple Amazon logos.

Enlarge (credit: Lawrence Glass / Getty Images)

Amazon has posted an apology to Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) for a tweet last week denying that it makes its workers urinate in water bottles.

The controversy started with a tweet by Pocan blasting Amazon for its treatment of workers—a topic of particular public interest as workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama were voting on whether to unionize.

“Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles,” Pocan wrote.

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#amazon, #policy, #unions


Google employees kick off union membership drive for 120,000 workers

A large Google sign seen on a window of Google's headquarters.

Enlarge / Exterior view of a Googleplex building, the corporate headquarters of Google and parent company Alphabet, May 2018. (credit: Getty Images | zphotos)

More than 225 workers at Google have formally launched a company-wide union membership drive, following an increasing drive toward organization inside the company over the past several years.

All 120,000 people who work for Google parent company Alphabet, including temporary, contract, and part-time workers, will be eligible for membership in the Alphabet Workers Union, according to a joint statement from the union and the Communications Workers of America, of which it is a part.

“Our company’s motto used to be, ‘don’t be evil,'” the chair and vice chair of the new union wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “An organized workforce will help us live up to it.”

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#alphabet, #alphabet-workers-union, #biz-it, #communications-workers-of-america, #google, #labor, #labor-rights, #organization, #policy, #unionization, #unions, #workers-rights


Google illegally spied on and retaliated against workers, feds say

Sunset, by the Google empire.

Enlarge / Sunset, by the Google empire. (credit: 400tmax | Getty Images)

Google’s actions amid workplace organizing efforts, including the high-profile firings of several employees, were illegal violations of the National Labor Relations Act, federal regulators said this week.

The National Labor Relations Board filed a formal complaint (PDF) against Google Wednesday, alleging that the company has been “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees” to interfere with their protected concerted activity—workplace organization rights that are protected by law.

Google fired several different workers late last year amid apparent efforts to organize company employees. Four former employees who were let go last November—Laurence Berland, Paul Duke, Rebecca Rivers, and Sophie Waldman—filed complaints with the NLRB almost exactly a year ago alleging that Google’s “draconian, pernicious, and unlawful conduct” was an unlawful attempt to prevent workplace organizing.

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#alphabet, #google, #labor, #labor-law, #labor-rights, #national-labor-relations-board, #nlrb, #policy, #unions


Human Capital: Uber engineer explains why he spoke out against Prop 22

Welcome back to Human Capital where we discuss the latest in labor, and diversity and inclusion in tech.

This week’s eyebrow-raising moment came Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Labor essentially accused Microsoft of reverse racism (not a real thing) for committing to hire more Black people at its predominantly white company.

And that wasn’t even the most notable news items of the week. Instead that award goes to Uber engineer Kurt Nelson and his decision to speak out against his employer and urge folks to vote no on the Uber-sponsored ballot measure in California that aims to keep drivers classified as independent contractors. I caught up with Nelson to hear more about what brought him to the point of speaking out. You can read what he had to say further down in this newsletter.

But first, I have some of my own news to share —  Human Capital is launching in newsletter form on Friday, Oct. 23. Sign up here so you don’t miss out.

Now, to the tea.

Stay Woke

Coinbase loses about 5% of workforce for its stance on social issues

Remember how Coinbase provided an out to employees who no longer wanted to work at the cryptocurrency company as a result of its stance on social issues? Well, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said this week that about 5% of employees (60 people) have decided to take the exit package, but that there will likely be more since “a handful of other conversations” are still happening.

Armstrong noted how some people worried his stance would push out people of color and other underrepresented minorities. But in his blog post, Armstrong said those folks “have not taken the exit package in numbers disproportionate to the overall population.”

Trump’s DOL goes after Microsoft for committing to hire more Black people

Microsoft disclosed this week that the U.S Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs regarding its racial justice and diversity commitments made in June. Microsoft had committed to double the number of Black people managers, senior individual contributors and senior leaders in its U.S. workforce by 2025. Now, however, the OFCCP says that could be considered as unlawful discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That’s because, according to the letter, Microsoft’s commitment “appears to imply that employment action may be taken based on race.”

“We are clear that the law prohibits us from discriminating on the basis of race,” Microsoft wrote in a blog post. “We also have affirmative obligations as a company that serves the federal government to continue to increase the diversity of our workforce, and we take those obligations very seriously. We have decades of experience and know full well how to appropriately create opportunities for people without taking away opportunities from others. Furthermore, we know that we need to focus on creating more opportunity, including through specific programs designed to cast a wide net for talent for whom we can provide careers with Microsoft.”

This comes shortly after the Trump administration expanded its ban on diversity and anti-racism training to include federal contractors. While this does not fall into the scope of that ban, it’s alarming to see the DOL going after tech company for trying to increase diversity. However, it does seem that the effects of the ban are making its way into the tech industry.

Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of diversity training service Paradigm, says she lost her first client as a result of the executive order. While it’s not clear which client it was, many of Paradigm’s clients are tech companies.

Crunchbase report sheds light on VC funding to Black and Latinx founders

It’s widely understood that Black and Latinx founders receive not nearly as much funding as their white counterparts. Now, Crunchbase has shed some additional light on the situation. Here are some highlights from its 2020 Diversity Spotlight report.

Image Credits: Crunchbase

  • Since 2015, Black and Latinx founders have raised more than $15 billion, which represents just 2.4% of the total venture capital raised 
  • In 2020, Black and Latinx founders have raised $2.3 billion, which represents 2.6% of all VC funding through August 31, 2020.
  • Since 2015, the top 10 leading VC firms in the U.S. have invested in around 70 startups founded by Black or Latinx people.
  • Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund are the two firms with the highest count of new investments in Black or Latinx-founded companies since 2015.

Gig Work

Uber engineer encourages people to vote no on Uber-backed Prop 22

Going against his employer, Uber engineer Kurt Nelson penned an op-ed on TechCrunch about why he’s voting against Prop 22. Prop 22 is a ballot measure in California that seeks to keep rideshare drivers and delivery workers classified as independent contractors. I caught up with Nelson after he published his op-ed to learn more about what brought him to the point of speaking out against Prop 22. 

“It was a combination of COVID affecting unemployment and health insurance for a bunch of people, getting close to the election and not having seen anyone who is really former Uber or Uber or former any gig companies saying anything,” Nelson told me. 

Plus, Nelson is on his way out from Uber — something that he’s been forthcoming about with his manager. He had already been feeling frustrated about the way Uber handled its rounds of layoffs this year, but the company’s push for Prop 22 was “the final nail in the coffin.”

Uber’s big arguments around why drivers should remain independent contractors is that it’s what drivers want and that it’d be costly to make them employees. Uber has said it also doesn’t see a way to offer flexibility to drivers while also employing them.

“I think it’d be really challenging,” Uber Director of Policy, Cities and Transportation Shin-pei Tsay told me at TC Sessions: Mobility this week. “We would have to start to ensure that there’s coverage to ensure that there’s the necessary number of drivers to meet demand. That would be this forecasting that needs to happen. We would only be able to offer a certain number of jobs to meet that demand because people will be working in set amounts of time. I think there would be quite fewer work opportunities, especially the ones that people really have said that they like.”

But, as Nelson notes, Silicon Valley prides itself on tackling difficult problems. 

“We’re a tech company and we solve hard problems — that’s what we do,” he said.

In response to his op-ed, Nelson said some of his co-workers have reached out to him — some thanking him for saying something. Even prior to his op-ed, Nelson said he was one of the only people who would talk about Prop 22 in any negative way in Uber’s internal Slack channels. And it’s no wonder why, given the atmosphere Uber has created around Prop 22. 

During all-hands meetings, Nelson described how the executive team wears Yes on 22 shirts or has a Yes on 22 Zoom background. Uber has also offered employees free Yes on 22 car decals and shirts, Nelson said.

As for Nelson’s next job, he knows he doesn’t “want to touch the gig economy ever again,” he said. “I know that for a fact. I’m done with the gig economy.”

Union Life

Kickstarter settles with NLRB over firing of union organizer

Kickstarter agreed to pay $36,598.63 in backpay to Taylor Moore, a former Kickstarter employee who was fired last year, Vice reported. Moore was active in organizing the company’s union, which was officially recognized earlier this year. As part of the settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, Kickstarter also agreed to post a notice to employees about the settlement on its intranet and at its physical office whenever they reopen. 

In September 2019, Kickstarter fired two people who were actively organizing a union. About a year later, the Labor Board found merit that Kickstarter unlawfully fired a union organizer.

NLRB files complaint against Google contractor HCL America

It’s been about a year since 80 Google contractors voted to form a union with US Steelworkers. But those contractors, who are officially employed by HCL America, have not been able to engage in collective bargaining, according to a new complaint from the National Labor Relations Board, obtained by Vice.

The complaint states HCL has failed to bargain with the union and has even transferred the work of members of the bargaining unit to non-union members based in Poland. The NLRB alleges HCL has done that “because employees formed, joined and assisted the Union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees from engaging in these activities.”

News bites

#coinbase, #diversity, #human-capital, #kickstarter, #labor, #microsoft, #prop-22, #tc, #unions


Amazon deletes anti-union listing, watches workers’ “secret” social groups

An Amazon Flex driver delivers an armload of packages in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 18, 2018.

Enlarge / An Amazon Flex driver delivers an armload of packages in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 18, 2018. (credit: Pat Greenhouse | The Boston Globe | Getty Images)

Amazon is working extremely hard to counter both internal unionization efforts and external bad press even as working conditions for its Flex drivers seem to get ever more desperate amid the persistent pandemic, a set of new reports reveals.

The Internet’s biggest everything store has been busy during the COVID-19 pandemic. As in-person retail bottomed out, online retail skyrocketed and Amazon hired an additional 175,000 warehouse, grocery, and delivery workers to keep up with the sharply increased demand this year provided.

One of the ways Amazon gets packages to your doorstep is through Amazon Flex. The program is basically like Uber, but for Amazon: drivers use Amazon’s app and their own cars to collect packages from Amazon facilities and deliver them to local homes. Typically, drivers sign up for a scheduled two-to-four-hour delivery block or shift, but Flex also makes “Instant Offers,” which are immediate, on-demand deliveries drivers can pick up like an Uber or Lyft fare.

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#amazon, #amazon-com-inc, #biz-it, #labor, #organized-labor, #policy, #unions, #workplace-issues


NY attorney general calls out Amazon’s ‘inadequate’ COVID-19 measures and ‘chilling’ labor policies

The New York attorney general’s office reportedly sent a sternly-worded letter to Amazon telling the company that the measures it has taken regarding the COVID-19 pandemic “are so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” and firing outspoken workers sends “a threatening message to other employees.”

The letter, not yet published but obtained by NPR (I’ve asked the NY AG for confirmation of the contents), is only informational and does not amount to legal action. But the wording is strong enough to suggest that legal action may be the next step.

While we continue to investigate, the information so far available to us raises concerns that Amazon’s health and safety measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

These are precisely the concerns brought up by many warehouse workers over the last two months, including Chris Smalls, who was fired in March after protesting the conditions at the facility where he worked.

Amazon says Smalls was not fired for riling up the workers. Yet reportedly at a meeting attended by Jeff Bezos, the company’s General Counsel suggested making him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement” before following with “our usual talking points about worker safety.”

(Amazon would not confirm or deny those comments took place when TechCrunch asked about them at the time, but did provide a quoted apology by the person who may or may not have said them.)

Two more outspoken employees were fired two weeks later for “repeatedly violating internal policies.” Naturally the usual talking points followed.

The NY AG’s letter said the office is looking into “cases of potential illegal retaliation,” and addresses this pattern as follows:

This Office has learned that many workers are fearful about speaking out about their concerns following the termination of Mr. Smalls’ employment. This is a particularly dangerous message to send during a pandemic, when chilling worker speech about health and safety practices could literally be a matter of life and death.

Amazon routinely protests that it is a paragon when it comes to labor, but is just as routinely contradicted by workers, like Smalls, who have experienced the reality of working at its warehouses.

Amazon issued its “usual talking points” to NPR as a response to the story, saying: “We encourage anyone to compare the health and safety measures Amazon has taken, and the speed of their implementation, during this crisis with other retailers.” The attorney general seems prepared to take the company up on that invitation.

#amazon, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #government, #labor, #unions