Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch
Coworker.org is a non-profit platform that advocates for freelancers, independent contractors, and others in today’s gig-based workforce. Across America, according to the Freelancers Union, jobs are increasingly becoming independent, contingent, and short-term, with half the national workforce expected to fill nontraditional roles by 2020. Yet the old systems to support workers don’t fit the new economy: traditional worker advocacy models rely on time-intensive and procedure-heavy unions, worker centers, or legislative campaigns, while the agencies protecting labor standards, wages, and worker rights are underfunded or outmoded. Seeking a new way to advance worker well-being, Coworker.org’s Co-founders Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch set out to harness online tools that could connect far-flung workers in advocacy campaigns—15,000 Starbucks baristas from 17 countries fighting a ban on visible tattoos; more than 1,000 Uber drivers seeking to add customer tipping to the company’s app—allowing them to collectively negotiate and improve their employment conditions. In addition, by aggregating and analyzing data gathered through its work, Coworker.org can leverage that knowledge to help employees become more informed advocates, support workers in similar industries, and create flourishing networks of collaboration and innovation. Ultimately, the organization aspires to create a “new kind of civic space” where employees come together as agents of a democratic workplace.
Five Questions for Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch
1. What needs does Coworker.org address and how?
Coworker.org is a platform for people to advocate for change in the workplace. We’re building the digital infrastructure to support workplace democracy in a twenty-first-century economy.
2. Tell us about a moment that inspired your project.
We were inspired by workers in various parts of the economy—including people working in the on-demand economy—who were leveraging popular technology like Reddit and Facebook to advocate for improvements on the job.
3. What is the biggest challenge you face?
The economy is in the midst of a historic transition not seen since the Industrial Revolution. The laws and institutions that were created in the twentieth century to protect workers and stabilize the economy are not equipped to handle the demands of this rapidly changing workforce. We must create solutions for this new economy.
4. What other leaders have informed your work?
We’re inspired by Sara Horowitz and the Freelancers Union for building a national organization of independent workers and offering the kinds of benefits and support that freelancers can’t get through employers. We’re also inspired by Ai-jen Poo and Palak Shah of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. They recently put forward the “Good Work Code” to establish employment best practices in the on-demand economy. Both of these groups are pioneering new strategies to support twenty-first-century workers.
5. Describe someone who highlights what your project is all about.
A twenty-something barista named Kristie Williams used our platform to mobilize 15,000 of her Starbucks co-workers in support of ending the company’s ban on visible tattoos—and they won! Starbucks ended the ban and baristas now proudly show off their ink at work.