Coworker is an organization that helps workers build power by providing strategic and technical support for their organizing campaigns — whether they are seeking to address sexual harrassment, fight for better wages and benefits, or form a union. Each campaign is often someone’s first campaign, so Coworker meets workers where they’re at and develops leaders for the long haul. The organization’s work is helping to seed the skills and confidence workers need to rebuild and diversify the labor movement — building a movement that can take on the challenges of organizing in the 21st century. 

The Forge's Lindsay Zafir sat down with Michelle Miller, the co-founder and co-director of Coworker, and Tim Newman, the organization's Director of Worker Impact, to talk about the organization’s approach to worker organizing, the recent victories among Starbucks and Amazon workers, and how the labor movement needs to change to meet the demands of this moment. The conversation has been edited and condensed. 


Tell us about Coworker and where it sits in the labor movement. How is your power analysis different from others in labor?

Michelle Miller: We started Coworker in 2012 before this recent surge in interest in labor unions and labor organizing. We had this sense that the only way to rebuild the labor movement was to invite as many people as possible in and to not be really literal about the shape of the door, essentially.

Our analysis is that the more people you get to engage in this idea of collective advocacy in your workplace and to build that collective muscle around what it means to stand up as a group and make demands of your employer, the bigger the community you have to start to reimagine what the structure of the labor movement can be.

We're much more interested in thinking about what the design of a movement is for the 21st century than getting people into whatever pre-existing institution might be around. Our theory is rooted in this idea of, it doesn't necessarily matter if the thing you're campaigning for is a traditional workplace issue like wages; it doesn't necessarily matter what form it takes. What matters is this experience that people have around building their leadership in their own workplace, around acting as a collective, and around building a different relationship and connection to what the future of the labor movement can be.

In the trade union movement — which I think is extremely valuable and I don't think we exist without that — there needs to be more than one form. But in the trade union movement, the future is staked on the preservation of the institution and getting more people into the institution over broader, multi-faceted movement building.


How do you develop leaders?

Miller: Our vision for leadership development has always been that if someone shows potential and interest in leading and there's demonstrated support from their coworkers, they are worth investing in over time and building up their leadership, even if it's not with Coworker. We believe that if you have an experience in your workplace where you start to understand yourself as a leader, you develop a power analysis, you start to think about what it means for people to come together and push for something. And if the next thing you take that to is a tenant union or a democracy fight or something else — we've still done the work of contributing to the future of an economic justice or a working-class movement and that is good enough for us.


How do you support workers’ organizing efforts?

Miller: We have a campaign staff and then we have leadership development staff, and those are the two main groups of staff who interact with workers. Our position, especially when people start campaigns on the site, is to just reach out and say, "Hey, we're here if you need anything." If people want to reply, then we work with them on a question/answer period around what they’re trying to get done and what we can do to help.

If we don't get a reply but it seems like a really resonant campaign, we certainly share it. If there's a group of workers that are already on the site, then we share the campaign with them. If we notice that there are workers talking about an issue that seems like it would be good to campaign on, we will reply in the thread and be like, "Hey, there's this platform, if you ever want to use it." It’s about presenting it as an option but not being overly directive or pushy. We also provide technical and media support. 

Then on our leadership development side, that's a lot more intensive. That's helping manage group dynamics. There's a lot of conflict mediation. It's late-night calls and some therapy. There's a ton of work that's just about making people feel safe and okay while they're doing it and listening to them — people who are dealing with awful things and all kinds of traumas all the time. We don't really live in a culture where it's considered polite to talk about work.


How are you supporting workers over the long haul? 

Miller: We’ve built a leadership development department to support workers who don’t want to run traditional online campaigns or because they have different sets of needs or are building on existing networks. We’ve seen this with trans workers and Muslim workers in tech and Black women who have been working in the gig economy often as a result of losing their jobs during COVID. 

We're still struggling with figuring out what leadership development training looks like for a group of workers who have never talked to each other before but are trying to do this kind of thing together. You need to create a space for people to imagine how the interlocking systems of the economy created the situation they're in and how they would actually change them.


Are folks involved beyond one petition? Or are people coming through and then staying involved in different campaigns over time? 

Newman: People usually get in touch with us by joining through a specific petition, often at their employer, and then go on to join other ones. There is definitely some moving around. It all goes back to our hope that people have a first experience with workplace organizing that then changes their outlook on how they're going to address these issues moving forward. That is the hope and the goal and I do see little seeds of that happening. One of the helpful roles Coworker plays is that we're able to provide some of the continuity between different campaigns and efforts that workers have tried or have success or learned something from at different companies over time, especially when there isn’t another institution in place. 


Tell me about the work you’ve done around Starbucks. 

Newman: It really started in 2014, right around the time when Center for Popular Democracy and other organizations released a big report about clopenings. A barista in Atlanta signed a petition that had been referenced in the New York Times coverage and then was like, "Well, I care about the issue of scheduling, but also I really want to see the company change its dress code to allow us to have visible tattoos."

This barista started a petition and it took off like wildfire among baristas. Once she went out there with a specific demand, the petition became this organizing point for all kinds of people who were concerned about this issue. I think a lot of people also had a sense that this was something winnable, that they could actually get the company to change. Eventually they did win that campaign. From there, we saw baristas starting all kinds of different petitions on different issues on Coworker — from scheduling to pay to parental leave, all this kind of stuff.

Through each campaign we're growing the universe of baristas who were active on Coworker and taking action and winning things. Not always winning things, but definitely learning about how to organize the company and get management to do something that they want to do.


What do you think the relationship is between these campaigns and the union drives at places like Starbucks and REI?

Miller: This has been the thing we've been examining internally. What impact did we have? Or I should say, what impact did the workers who were doing this early organizing have? There is some overlap between the workers involved in those campaigns and those who signed on to Coworker petitions. 

I think this is something that we all in the labor movement can get a bit more sophisticated about, that there has been culture change and culture shift. That actually takes a really long time because you were talking about people's feelings about themselves and their workplace, their sense of possibility inside a workplace. Even campaigns that don’t result in unions increase workers' sense of possibility slowly over time as you're able to see, if I engage in collective action, I can actually win. Because if you only ever see workers losing in your own workplace, you're not going to keep trying.

Newman: One interesting anecdote related to this is at Starbucks. Howard Schultz, in making a case against unionizing, highlighted that one of the benefits the company offers is paid parental leave, but baristas actually won expanded paid parental leave through petitioning. It just shows you that the things that Starbucks was relying on to show that the company is benevolent and listens to baristas, some of those benefits only came about through collective action. 


What do you think it will take to build sufficient power over time to counter the power of mega-corporations?

Newman: I really appreciated Lauren Jacob's article on this topic for The Forge, and I agree that there is not one right answer. Every successful campaign is really just people trying things out and building iteratively on what we're learning and sharing and contributing to a movement. Mega-corporations were built over years of a lot of different policy choices and you don't just take them down. We as humans are not just born with the knowledge of how to take down these really complicated systems. Most people have not had the experience of running and winning a campaign against a company, and we need to bring people along the journey. This isn't an overnight situation.

Miller: We can’t pretend that mega-corporations don't impact every single aspect of every single life and it is actually only through intersectional, overlapping work that we are able to take on mega-corporations. It’s anti-monopoly work. It's absolutely climate work because what is climate change but the result of endless growth and the orthodoxy of endless growth? It is work around racial equity and addressing the ways in which capitalism, as it functions right now, was built to subjugate and oppress people based on race and identity. It is addressing these multifaceted issues and doing it in partnership. 


Workers just successfully organized the first Amazon workplace in the country. What are your takeaways from this victory?

Michelle: There was a lot of commentary among labor people that this upends everything we thought we knew about organizing. I imagine there will be a move to understand the mechanics of what the ALU [Amazon Labor Union] did that was successful and to attempt to replicate it in the future. But the lesson of this win, as far as I'm concerned, isn't about a series of well-deployed tactics. Of course the workers knew how to organize each other, what mattered to each other, and how to talk to each other. Institutional labor (in both the form of trade unions and some of the bigger labor non-profits) acts from the assumption that their primary value is in the ability to architect Big Campaigns, then deploy organizers in service of an overall strategy. But what if, instead, their value could be genuinely resourcing and following the lead of workers? Even when the choices the workers make aren't the ones that align with conventional wisdom? What if we let go of the supremacy of strategic organizing and corporate campaigning in exchange for a period of really following groups of workers wherever they lead? I think we're seeing that in the way Workers United is approaching the Starbucks campaign. And my hope with the ALU win is that what labor learns is that they must deploy resources as a means to support the leadership of workers instead of as a means to control their campaigns. If there's one thing we've learned from ten years of doing this is that we never know the right thing to do with a given group of workers who come to us until they tell us. 


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