Jess Kutch, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Coworker.org
Jess Kutch leads the digital strategies and technology development for Coworker.org. She directs efforts to deepen the impact of workers using the Coworker.org platform.
Coworker.org is building civic infrastructure for today’s workforce. Launched in 2013, Coworker.org provides a global peer-based platform for workers to solve problems and advance change in the workplace. We invest in the leadership of individuals and groups of employees by providing education and training, strategic support, data analysis, and workplace advocacy tools. Coworker.org is a non-profit organization fiscally sponsored by the New Venture Fund. Contributions are tax-deductible.
Jess has managed digital programs at Change.org and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). She is an Aspen Institute Job Quality Fellow, 2019 TED Fellow, JM Kaplan Innovation Fellow, and Echoing Green Global Fellow.
A platform for collective advocacy power for workers, Season 6, Episode 5
A platform for collective advocacy and activism
Jess Kutch co-founded Coworker.org in 2013 as a platform for employees to advocate for change in the workplace. She saw the opportunity to provide digital tools to workers allowing them to launch their own campaigns and affect change in their work lives. She shares her perspectives on “the fourth industrial revolution,” or a new labor movement enabled by the internet. Jess is an advocate for giving workers economic power to counter the extremes of capitalism and rising wealth inequality.
Listen to more: Activate World
Galvanizing workers for workplace change: A platform for collective advocacy and activism
Jess Kutch, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Coworker.org
Jon Mertz: 00:02 Welcome to the Activate World Podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. Today we’re joined by Jess Kutch, co-founder and co-director of Coworker.org, a global platform for workers to solve problems and advance change in the workplace. Jess, welcome to Activate World.
Jess Kutch: 00:32 Thanks for having me.
Jon Mertz: 00:33 I’m really excited about our conversation, but first give us a sense of your background and what led you to start Coworker.org.
Jess Kutch: 00:40 Sure. So I’m a labor organizer and a digital strategist. I spent about five years working at a traditional labor union, the Service Employees International Union, where I pioneered digital strategies to support worker organizing and engagement. So that was everything from helping the union engage workers online in supportive, active organizing drives, as well as just mobilizing people in supportive broad public facing campaigns and efforts.
Jess Kutch: 01:15 I also spent some amount of time at Change.org back in 2011 and 2012, when it was just pivoting from being a blogging platform to focusing entirely on user-generated petitions, and so I was able to see the opportunities afforded to both workers and consumers who were using digital tools to get their message out, and we’re often winning these efforts. Sometimes campaigning corporations to change policies, we were able to support several workers who had started campaigns on the platform at the time, and I saw this opportunity both like having a background in the labor movement, but also as a digital strategist, that if we could provide digital tools to workers themselves and perhaps some wraparound expertise and support, that it might be possible for working people to launch their own campaigns and affect change in their own work lives, so my co-founder and I created the platform.
Jess Kutch: 02:19 We began working on it in 2012 but we launched it in 2013, and the past six years, more than half a million people have used the platform. The winds have ranged from just simple dress code changes to actual legitimate safety concerns and improvements that were made in workplaces. And those ones have impacted more than 1 million people around the world. So today, we’ve been running petition campaigns with workers for the past six years, but we’re also providing one on one coaching and support training and other kinds of digital resources to help people solve problems and advocate for change at work.
Jon Mertz: 03:01 Can you walk us through how your platform works?
Jess Kutch: 03:04 So anyone, any worker anywhere in the world can access our tools. When you visit Coworker.org, you can easily start a campaign, we walk you through the process of thinking through the basic building blocks of a campaign or a petition. So what is it that you want to change? Who has the power to change that in your workplace? And why should it matter to anyone else? What’s the elevator pitch to your co-workers or to consumers or other supporters that you might want to recruit? From there, a campaign is launched, and we can help with media outreach, with amplifying your campaign to potential co-workers who might be interested, and we also reach out and offer background support as needed.
Jess Kutch: 03:55 So if somebody wants to think through how to escalate the campaign or how to get more attention to it, oftentimes, to win on an issue like paid parental leave, for example, in your workplace, it’s going to take more than just launching an online petition campaign. So we help folks because we’re organizers and I think of us as like a bespoke consulting firm for workers that want to affect change at work. We’re here to share our expertise and what we’ve seen work in the past and serve as guides in that way.
Jon Mertz: 04:31 So one of your talks, you’ve spoken about how we’re all part of a new labor movement. What does this new movement look like and what led us to this point?
Jess Kutch: 04:38 Wow, great question. Well, I think it’s widely acknowledged and agreed upon at this point that the economy, some people call it a Fourth Industrial Revolution, but it’s certainly going through some cataclysmic change that we haven’t seen, certainly not in my lifetime and probably not since the last industrial revolution. And if you look at how we came to some agreements around what labor unions should look like and what kinds of law should govern work around the dawn of the 20th century, as our economy was turning to manufacturing, people were moving to the cities, there were these large work sites. Now in 2019, we’re seeing an increasingly fissured economy. Work is increasingly distributed, the relationships that we have to employers are becoming increasingly complex and I think it’s… we’re at a point where the labor movement has to reinvent itself again.
Jess Kutch: 05:41 And it’s done this many times. It’s just not… this always happens when the economy goes through a major change, a major cycle of change. And so I think now at this point, it’s the time for everyone to be looking at what kinds of spaces and institutions can workers affect change and have some real power in our economy so that we can guard against the worst extremes of capitalism and rising wealth inequality, so on and so forth. So it’s, we’re entering into a period right now as I see it, of a lot of experimentation. And that could be like a 20-year cycle of just people experimenting with different ways to affect change. There will be some successes and many failures, but it’s really about figuring out what kind of structure working people, both in the US but this is also happening in other parts of the world, are really going to need to be a power center in this really dynamic fast changing economy.
Jon Mertz: 06:50 Are we seeing kind of an old guard labor movement change? How do you see the labor movement evolving, especially when it comes to the internet?
Jess Kutch: 06:57 So I do think that workers have these tools and resources to be able to self-organize, which just wasn’t possible 30 years ago. You even see it, there was a strike in 2014 of more than 10,000 grocery store employees. It was a grocery store chain called Market Basket, a New England grocery store chain, it was a very large strike. I think it lasted a couple of weeks and that was not running… those folks weren’t union members. There was no union involvement. That was all done through Facebook pages, emails, social media accounts, and workers at that company, and it was both management and I guess what you’d call rank-and-file employees, were walking out in protest of the sale of the store. The CEO, Arthur, I think, T. Demoulas was is name, provided very competitive benefits and value to the employees of that company and they were very loyal to him and his leadership.
Jess Kutch: 08:00 And so when he was pushed out of the company, the workers went on strike. And I think that was an inflection point because it just showed what’s possible without any kind of official infrastructure, what work we can achieve, and they won. Indeed, it was a successful strike. They were able to bring Arthur back. So I feel like unions are adapting and some are doing it at a faster clip than others, and I don’t… I think they’re here to stay. I don’t think unions are going to go anywhere, but yes, I think that we’re seeing a lot of experimentation inside unions and that’s probably going to continue, and a lot of that experimentation is actually being driven by members themselves.
Jon Mertz: 08:43 You’ve also talked about workplace democracy. What does that mean to you?
Jess Kutch: 08:47 That’s a great question. I think in my opinion, it’s a democratic workplace is one where all workers feel valued and able to speak up to advocate for the interests of themselves and their coworkers. Now I think that can take many different forms and the jury’s out, at least in my mind. I’m like, “What are the best forms that takes?” I think in different employment structures, it looks different, in different industries, it looks different. But it’s really about the fact that we spend on average a third of our adult lives at work, and yet it’s a place most of us walk through the doors of our workplace and we lose a lot of rights that we have in the outside world.
Jess Kutch: 09:35 It seems, it’s strange to me that in our workplace, we surrender the right to be able to speak about concerns when it comes to our own wellbeing. Not necessarily like health and safety, but just our ability to do our job in a way that has dignity and provides us with meaning and purpose. And so I don’t know if that’s the answer you’re looking for. It’s not as specific as I think some would like, but I feel like that’s the experimentation part that we’re in right now. Is like figuring out what structures can hold that and allow for more worker voice in our companies.
Jon Mertz: 10:13 Do you have an example of how your platform has helped affect change within a business?
Jess Kutch: 10:16 I think it was 2013, bank tellers at Wells Fargo began sharing stories of what was happening in their retail banking locations around the country, when it came to the pressure, they were under to meet certain quotas each day. And in some of those stories that were shared publicly on our site, there were indications of fraud and illegal activity. There was some media coverage of this. Obviously, this turned into a federal investigation and the bank itself went through an internal investigation and review process, and as part of that, released a report detailing just everything that had gone on behind the scenes. And it was in that report that we learned that the chief, the bank’s chief risk officer, had been reading those stories that workers left on our site and used those stories to elevate the threat level to the board, to the bank’s board, on the issue of the sales quotas. So this was happening behind the scenes. We had no idea, but it just shows that there is great value in providing safe, independent spaces for workers to speak out and share their concerns.
Jon Mertz: 11:28 How does your platform work in the gig economy?
Jess Kutch: 11:30 For a campaign to succeed, it doesn’t matter a whole lot if you’re a traditional W2 employee or a gig worker, the needs are still the same, which is still to build a base of support, you’re going to need to recruit co-workers, whether they’re… if you’re a Rideshare driver and it’s going to be other drivers on that platform that you work for. If you’re a bank employee, it’s going to be other employees at that bank. So that challenge remains the same. Media coverage like the need to get your message out there to make sure that either customers or the public knows about your campaign is the same. It doesn’t… see our platform isn’t really designed, we were open-ended in terms of what the employment relationship looks like, and even right now, we’re in the midst of redefining what employment looks like just in terms of these platforms where people sell their goods. Like Etsy, they do actually determine and set some working conditions for these sellers, so is that an employer?
Jess Kutch: 12:37 It’s an open question but it’s certainly, our platform could be used by those sellers and vendors to push the platforms to make a change. So I really don’t see there being any impact on the way that we approach the work. Certainly that’s not the case when you start to talk about unionizing and the law which bans like contract workers for example, from being able to form a union. So, but because we operate outside the law, it’s not an issue, and we allow for workers to really experiment with different approaches outside of traditional labor law.
Jon Mertz: 13:11 I want to take a step back because you’ve talked about how you see labor unions as being early social entrepreneurs. What do you mean by that?
Jess Kutch: 13:20 I initially came up with that framing in part because I was seeing these wonderfully creative approaches to both revenue generation and power building in the late 19th, early 20th century labor movement. And it just, it fascinated me because what I had been taught in school, I just, I hadn’t learned that history. And so when you think of like actually opening a bank, a banking institution for your members, or building a summer resort for families to come, and how these places became sources of power and mutual aid for workers in a particular industry, but also became a source of income for the union, which allowed it to have some amount of security and allowed it to build its own power, it struck me as incredibly entrepreneurial. Like that… and I think as the labor movement, the modern labor movement, as we know it matured and aged into the ’50s and ’60s, as far as I can see, a lot of that experimentation faded away and became a bit ossified under the 1930s labor law.
Jess Kutch: 14:36 I’m seeing that sort of, I think we are pivoting back to, again, that time of trying different things, searching for ways to be able to generate revenue and build and express worker power in ways that we just haven’t tried before. You’re also seeing labor unions and people running for office right now talking about radical reforms to the National Labor Relations Act. So that’s exciting as well and I feel like if that were to eventually materialize as law change, which right now frankly it’s hard to imagine just based on the way things are, but should we be able to allow for minority unions for example, or sectorial bargaining, I think that will also spur a ton of innovation and experimentation. I think in creating Coworker, we’ve really tapped the imaginations and the creative enterprises of those early 20th century labor leaders. That’s where we really… that’s where we draw our inspiration.
Jon Mertz: 15:44 It seems like we’re at an interesting turning point, where Fourth Industrial Revolution might be coming.
Jess Kutch: 15:45 Yes, I certainly hope so, and I think we’re seeing signals of that. Just from the time when we launched in 2013, six years later to today, it’s just phenomenal. No one was talking about strikes in workplace organizing outside of a union context in 2013, and now we’re seeing Wayfair workers walk out generally, national media coverage, or the Google walkout, which was… as far as everyone I’ve consulted on this has said that’s that was the largest worker walkout in the history of the labor movement or the world.
Jon Mertz: 16:19 And it was organized within a week?
Jess Kutch: 16:21 Yes, by employees with no help from outside institutions. It’s certainly an exciting time and I think that there are risks though, and there are things happening that caused me to be a little concerned, and one is that as workers have more digital tools to advocate for themselves, employers also have more tools to surveil workers and suppress worker voice. And so I think that’s going to shake out in the next decade, but it’s something that we’re keeping an eye on because it’s the tools are getting increasingly sophisticated and there isn’t currently any law to protect workers from, and protect their privacy in engaging in workplace organizing beyond this 1930s labor law, which doesn’t quite keep up with technology.
Jon Mertz: 17:13 So as you look back over the last six years, what stories stand out as good examples of positive social change being driven through your platform?
Jess Kutch: 17:20 I love the story of at one company on our platform, there are more than 50 campaigns by employees at that company on issues ranging from dress code changes to scheduling improvements and expanding paid parental leave or raising wages, though that workforce, which there’s now been more than 40,000 people inside that company who’ve used our platform to push for change, and they’ve won more than half a dozen campaigns on issues. So what is exciting to me about that is that whole network on our platform started with a dress code campaign around tattoos. People wanted to be able to show their tattoos at work and the company, this global company, banned visible tattoos. Folks in my space saw that campaign and I thought it was funny but didn’t take it seriously. Like, “Oh, well, that’s not a serious workplace issue.”
Jess Kutch: 18:18 But what that campaign taught people is what they were capable of when they came together and challenged the workplace policy that they found to be unfair or not needed, and that embolden people to push for more. And it also taught… it started… people flex their organizing muscle inside that company and got a sense of how to use their voice to affect change. And so over the years, just starting with that one campaign, that workforce has won wage increases, has won improvements to the way that the company releases schedules each week, and has expanded paid parental leave benefits for employees. So those are some significant wins that started with just a simple dress code change. So I think that’s one example of what’s possible just through petitioning. I would also say that, in the last couple of years, we’ve been supporting people who work in the tech industry and this coincidentally has been a largely offline effort.
Jess Kutch: 19:20 Tech workers didn’t have as much interest in petitions as they did in person trainings and consultations. So we’ve been providing that background support, helping, conducting media trainings and know your rights trainings with tech workers, fielding questions that we then go off and research and provide that information back to them, and so that’s… supporting workers in that industry has really allowed us to see what other kinds of infrastructure and support workers might need to begin to experiment with building power, whether that’s creating their own organizations, trying to develop mutual aid funds where they could support co-workers who’ve been retaliated against for speaking out.
Jon Mertz: 20:07 It seems like storytelling is an important part of getting that type of workers social movement to take hold.
Jess Kutch: 20:12 Oh, absolutely. Yes. Just in terms of how you persuade people to support your cause and how you make an emotional connection with someone, whether it be a reporter or a consumer, sharing how a policy impacted you personally or something you personally observed, that is more powerful than any kind of any statistics in terms of compelling people to support you. And I also think it causes business leaders to maybe rethink policies when they’re hearing stories about how those policies might be impacting frontline workers. It can make a world of difference. Yeah.
Jon Mertz: 20:53 You did a TED talk recently, is that right? What did you share?
Jess Kutch: 20:54 I just shared some of my experience in running Coworker, and what I see again and again and again, is that people really care, and they want their companies to be successful. Those are the… and they often are compelled by a sense of justice for co-workers as well, if they see co-workers who can’t afford to take paid parental leave, for example. So I think that’s a… it’s a really powerful reframing that’s not considered very often. Even I’m asked all the time by folks in the political world or the consumer advocacy space like, “Oh, what companies have the most activism on your site because those are clearly the worst employers?” And I have to caution that that’s never the case, it’s actually the opposite. So I think we need to be asking different questions when it comes to what employee activism actually represents. Like what’s it an indicator of? I don’t think it’s an indicator of low morale or… Yeah, I think it should. It’s an open question, but I think we can look at whether it’s a good sign.
Jon Mertz: 22:03 What excites you most about the direction of your platform and how you see people using it?
Jess Kutch: 22:08 Well, we’re in the… in the next few months, we’ll be relaunching our platform and I’m really excited about the different tools we’re going to be offering folks moving forward. So currently, most of the tools on our site are centered around petition campaigns and that will continue to be something we offer folks, but we’re going to be making it much easier to access digital trainings, one on one coaching, being able to create surveys to survey your peer network on our platform and collect data about what’s happening in your company or work site. And yeah, I think we’re going to continue to support workers as they come to us with ideas, and I think it’s going to not always be in the form of the petition campaign, but building organizations, helping workers create mutual aid funds. I think there’s a lot for us to do in the next couple of years and I’m excited.
Jon Mertz: 23:04 And final question, for a worker who may be facing a problem or challenge at work, what’s your best advice for them in taking steps towards the solution?
Jess Kutch: 23:12 Well, obviously it depends greatly on the circumstances, but I think for the most part, don’t go it alone is the best takeaway I can offer. Talk to co-workers, talk to folks that might be experiencing something similar and can provide some support. That’s usually step one for confronting a problem that you’re dealing with. If it’s something that is specific to your circumstance, then maybe that’s time to consult an attorney. I don’t know, but for the most part, and this is why collective action is powerful, is like when we have, when there’s strength in numbers and when people can come together to advocate for a solution, you have a much higher chance of success than going it alone.
Jon Mertz: 23:56 Yep, exactly. Well, Jess, thank you so much for your time. I think your platform is a fascinating one, but it also is a very important one as changes continue to unfold within the workplace and within our society. I just really appreciate all the work that you’re doing through Workplace.org
Jess Kutch: 24:11 Thank you, Jon. Yes, and thank you for your interest in Coworker.
Jon Mertz: 24:23 Activators, let’s continue the conversation in our Activate World LinkedIn group. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives.
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Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.