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Labour + Industry

Taking Unionization Drives Online

A union-backed BC startup hopes to make it easier and safer for today’s workers to organize with a new, anonymous web tool.

Zak Vescera 24 Jan

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

A pair of B.C. unions have put cash behind a homegrown tech platform that hopes to make it easier and safer for workers to unionize.

Conley Mosterd, the founder of YouIn?, says the new online platform, based in B.C., allows workers to anonymously ask colleagues if they are interested in organizing, safe from the prying eyes of employers and managers.

If 60 per cent say yes, “the platform sends digital certification cards that can be signed and sent back to the union,” the company said in a news release last week.

The BC Labour Relations Code allows unions to be certified automatically if at least 55 per cent of prospective members sign cards. If 45 to 55 per cent support, the BC Labour Relations Board holds a secret ballot.

The app has yet to be used to certify a workplace and it’s not known if the labour board would accept digital certification cards.

YouIn? has received financial backing from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213 and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 891, who each chipped in $9,000 to help fund the app’s creation and to become the first unions to use it.

“Ultimately, I do think there is excitement,” Mosterd said. “I think they see the power of technology being leveraged in these campaigns.”

Traditionally, unions organize workplaces by soliciting interested workers and connecting them with organizers, who then try to convince enough people at that workplace to sign union cards.

That process can be labour intensive for private sector unions, whose overall membership has fallen drastically since their peak in the 1960s and 1970s. Some employees also fear repercussions if management learns they are involved in organizing efforts.

It can be particularly difficult in modern workplaces, where employees may be based in separate locations or may have precarious working conditions that make organizing difficult.

“There’s only so much organizers can do. There’s only so many locations organizers can get to,” said Dustin Brecht, an organizer with IBEW 213.

“This kind of gives the ability to anybody to click on to something that is anonymous and safe and it really seems to be going with the trend of things.”

Brecht said it could also be very useful in canvassing a broad number of workplaces all at once or trying to recruit a large number of people in a given industry, something union organizers call “blitzing.”

“YouIn? is what we kind of look at as a big blitzing tool,” Brecht said. “That’s what we’re hoping for — that it’s going to get us to people that don’t know we exist.”

Mosterd said he had the idea for the app in the summer of 2021, 18 months into the pandemic, which he noticed had transformed working conditions. He recruited a friend and two developers to build the platform, which is collectively owned by all four of them.

Mosterd said a user can choose to send a prompt to colleagues anonymously to ask about their interest in forming a union. Only the website staff, Mosterd said, would know who had used the product unless a user specifically asked to be connected with a union organizer.

He said a key test for the platform will be making sure employees can still contact organizers directly and have the ability to decide which union should represent them.

“The onus is still on the union partners to formulate these connections,” he said.

Mosterd, 29, said he intends to charge participating unions a fee to subscribe to and use the platform. But he says his main objective is to support people his age who may not be familiar with the benefits of unionization.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I think there’s a business opportunity here. I think it’s inevitable. I think the next wave is coming,” he said.

Mosterd said his partners are behind the idea. But many unions still have questions about just how effective the platform will be in real life.

Many potential partners, Mosterd said, are reasonably concerned about the privacy of potential members’ data and how well it will be protected, something he says his group takes seriously.

The BC Labour Relations Board told The Tyee it hasn’t taken a position on using online tools for a certification campaign.

It added the board may eventually develop a more formal policy around the use of such platforms. That could be decided when a union certification based on digital signups comes before the board and is challenged by the employer.

Brecht notes an online platform can’t replace all the pieces of traditional union drives, which often hinge on trusting relationships between organizers and prospective members. He believes YouIn? will need to be used in conjunction with such outreach, assuming users consent to communicating directly with the union.

“Those are the kinks I think we have to iron out,” Brecht said. “It is very important to have that face-to-face, especially at the beginning.”

App-based employment and changing work patterns have been a challenge for the labour movement. Organizers have struggled, for example, to unionize workers for companies such as Uber and Lyft that do not share a common workspace or manager. And remote work, while a boon for many employees, has made organizing that much more difficult.

Mosterd hopes his team’s digital tool can flip the script.

“I do think that the next generation is starting to realize what’s going on here,” he said.  [Tyee]

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