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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.
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. 

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.

Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee

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