How online tools helped turbocharge workers’ efforts to organise

From Amazon workers in the US to Australian pharmacists, how online tools helped turbocharge workers efforts to organise 

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        26/06/2020 - Paul Doughty                   

Innovation Series Workshop report 

From Amazon workers in the US to Australian pharmacists, how online tools helped turbocharge workers efforts to organise 

Participants in the ACTU’s Innovations Series heard from experienced campaign and organising strategist Adam Kerslake from Professionals Australiaalong with frequent visitor to Australia well known for his work with Walmart and low-paid workers, Dan Schlademan from United for Respect, on how digital and online tools had enabled thousands of workers to be organised in areas of low union density. 

Presenting from New Jersey in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests across the US, Dan began his presentation reflecting on their significance. 

“We’re finally getting to the problem of structural racism in this country.  Structural racism is what protects white supremacy.  It is really the original sin which is the foundation of the US”.  He connected this to disadvantage and hyper inequality that is a feature of modern US and the subject of post GFC campaigns. “Structural racism is the foundation of how Jeff Bezos gets as rich as he is. 

Dan’s presentation available here [link] focussed on how Organisation United for Respect has been working with Amazon workers for a little over a year, which has placed them in a position to rapidly scale up around the massive issues facing workers in Amazon facilities since the pandemic hit. 

They had started spending time doing basic research and seeing how Amazon workers gathered online.  As they started creating Facebook pages, groups and content they would analyse what kind of posts were actually doing the best. 

One thing we learned he said, “billionaire solidarity is real.  You can’t target Amazon workers on Facebook.  You can with Walmart, others but not amazon – that function had been disabled. Its clear a deal has been done. So we had to do this organically”. 

In his presentation he talked through an incredibly powerful organising pathway they had developed for online organisingList building > Reach out > Connect > Engage > Activate > Lead. 

He says that connecting with people is the crucial step, before trying to engage. 

If you try to engage with them too early, that’s how people ghost on you” he said. 

Early after COVID hit this organised led to walkouts -strikes at three facilities. This grew to a tactic of “sickouts” at 50 facilities. 

Amazon workers used other tactics including painting black lives matter out the front of Jeff Bezos’s house.    United for Respect built a tracking mechanism because the company was refusing to reveal where there were cases of COVID.  At, they created a way for workers to tell what was happening in these sites.  This enabled them to build political support. 

The campaign’s impact was felt: Amazon’s responses included heavy television advertising trying to reframe their treatment of workers. 

With just 2 organisers, 1 fulltime organiser and a contract organiser, they were able to move in a four week window – strikes at 3 facilities sickouts at 45-50 facilities and moved the company’s position on a range of matters and provide important coronavirus protections that otherwise would not have been in place. 

From Dan’s experience and model of organising they have developed he had numerous points to make: 

  • The beauty of private groups on Facebook is that they’re free, you can create as many of you want. 
  • The way we know we’re creating content that workers enjoy is that they are tagging their friends and colleagues.  
  • They use a 60-40, or 70-30 ratio of humour to our messaging.  People come online because they want to escape life. The importance of the ratio is that organisers and leaders who watch the 30% to see what resonates. 
  • To engage people, someone who is a moderator of a page can enter into a conversation. Then say hi, we have a secret group of people”. Don’t underestimate the value of offering people to be part of a secret group”. 
  • As people get engaged you can move people into leadership structures and into issue-based groups.   
  • They are careful to manage the presence of management or other people who might disrupt organising, and move people out who are not complying with the community rules.   Make sure you’re only letting people into that group who are 100% vetted and trusted. 
  • Dan had formed a view on building a team to work on this area. “When we’re hiring someone to be a digital organiser, we make people do a Relay (the P2P platform) test.  We have leaders who know how to put people through their paces.  We look at how they’re able to translate what they do as an in-person organiser.  If people can’t do those basic things – run a basic conversation through SMS – they have a hard time to make the shift. 
  • Overly professional content will undermine the ability to work with people.  “Our stuff is grainy, its borrowed from other workers. We find content that feels normal and authentic.   
  • You need someone who can do data.  Someone whose job it is and to cut SMS lists for your team, and manage the incoming data; the most important thing your data persons going to do is that it will protect your engagement window.  (You have a short window to engage). 

The webinar identified a level of digital literacy that must be achieved more broadly if we are to integrate online and field effectively. If you designed the organising skills of the future – what do we need? A greater understanding will remove barriers and resistance to tools that can help organising. 

Adam Kerslake described a campaign in pharmacies which led to significant growth in a low-density environmentalmost tripling their membership in pharmacyThis combined different methods including differentiated member packages, facebook pages and groups and list-building and a campaign on core pay conditions against employers represented by the Pharmacy Guild.  We did the list building  

Adam highlighted the important of having an “action worthy cause: 

“When you do the list building combined with the member packages, it brings a whole lot of people into your organisation. But you still need to take on moneyed interests - capital.  That’s where things get really interesting and require more resources” he said. 

Equally important was leadership identification, development and constantly building and testing structures.  

“In the past we had leaders who would turn up – but they didn’t have any followers.  When we started to identify the real leaders through structured tests, we were able to bring the whole site. Moving from disorganisation to organisation through the pathway of leadership.  We ran training on the frameworks, shared story, building into training modules, bite size, off the job.  It’s about organising with limited resources by building those leaders up through a structured process. 

Adam again came back to the importance of equipping people with the skills they need. “One of the big challenges is – how can you skill your organisers up?” 

Adam uses model for how you get sustainable growth, consistently, which has five elements: 

  • Strategic Practice 
  • Leadership 
  • Digital  
  • Field 
  • Membership and membership packages 

It is important to integrate digital with field.  “If we do all of the elements properly, we’re usually growing by 50% in those workplaces” Adam says.  Its possible to grow and possible to grow consistently, but those certain elements have to be in place. 

An area which is a new challenge for Professionals Australia is hospital pharmacy A new business model has emerged where labour hire companies come in and offer cost savings to hospital management through outsourcing their pharmacy.