Organizing a Union? Yes, There’s an App for That.

We are rightly skeptical of apps because the tech industry has plundered the commons, but a new app for union organizing should be given the opportunity to demonstrate proof of concept. Anything that makes union organizing easier has the potential to do good.

A construction worker uses his phone while on break. (Anthony Wallace / AFP via Getty Images)

Among the most irritating words to mark the digital era is “There’s an app for that.” Yes, indeed there is. There’s an app for that. For whatever it is. It’s on the fourth page of your iPhone library, buried just below Bejeweled and above OpenTable. It gets updated regularly and automatically, which is good, because you never use it. You tried once; you took three minutes to fiddle with it while watching reruns of The Office. Then you forgot you’d downloaded it. But at least the subscription is set to autorenew after the free trial ends, and you’ll never remember to cancel it, so at least you’re doing your part to enrich our era’s aristocratic overlords.

Our collective cynicism about the offerings of the tech bro intelligentsia is now such that, whenever there’s an app release, a new tool to solve an old problem, we are wary of it. The drive to app-ify every last bit of contemporary life is a toxic mix of techno-solutionism and ever-creeping capitalist takeover of every facet of existence. We are now wise to the bargain. It’s never free, the cost is the collecting and selling of our data, tracking, and oversubscribing us at every twist and turn. Distrust of the capitalist class has been amplified by tech capitalists, who often border on cartoonishly evil.

Eyeing the latest app, YouIn?, designed to anonymously facilitate unionization, I was as skeptical as ever. Unionization is the last area of working life we ought to allow the capitalist tech class to exploit. Indeed, unions ought to serve as a bulwark against the pathologies of contemporary finance and techno-solutionism. And yet, the tool could have some promise and it ought to be given a chance to show it. Every so often, an app serves a great purpose and lives up to its advertising as, if you’ll indulge the built-for-purpose phrase, a game changer.

YouIn?, which is now in beta, allows workers to send an anonymous email invite to their coworkers, asking if they wish to join a union. As Sarah Anderson explains for Daily Hive:

Each person gets a single vote. If 60 percent or more of a workplace vote in favour of unionizing, the platform sends digital certification cards from the union they choose to represent them. Once signed, the cards are sent to that union.

The Vancouver-based startup behind the app has partnered with a handful of British Columbia (BC) unions and is looking to expand by adding others. Currently, YouIn? is tailor-made for jurisdictions with card check laws — like BC. At its best, YouIn? has the potential to aid in pushing back against anti-union resistance from owners and bosses. It could be efficient and effective, provided it is and remains, first and foremost, a tool for workers and not an investment instrument. At first blush, the app appears to be exactly what it claims to be and not one of Silicon Valley’s usual offerings of tools that extract lucre from the commons.

The company’s founder, Conley Mosterd, talks about YouIn? as a “retaliation” against workplaces hostile to unionization efforts. And its goal is a better deal and life for workers. As he told Anderson, “We believe our platform will make unionization more accessible to the younger generation in the ongoing fight for higher wages, benefits, pensions, safer working conditions, and an end to unfair workplace discrimination.”

The potential of YouIn? is significant, but its capacity to execute its goals is what matters most. If Mosterd and the app’s team build and maintain robust relationships with unions, put workers first, and treat the tool as a tool above all, with the interest of workers top of mind, then YouIn? could facilitate more unionization in BC and other provinces — and even outside Canada.

As I’ve written before, unions have made gains in recent years in Canada and the United States, even while private sector unionization rates — and thus overall rates — remain low. Unionizing workers need all the help they can get. The anonymity of YouIn? is promising but with an important caveat. Unionization ought to be a public and communal undertaking. It should not be driven underground any more than it must be. Conversations and debates within workplaces are key to building solidarity and support, which can’t be done — or are unlikely to be done as effectively — through anonymous emails. But if an app can get the process started, or test the waters, particularly in spaces where employees are worried about retaliation from bosses — especially the threat of termination — then it ought to be given a fair shot.

The essence of unionization is workers organizing to collectively empower themselves and one another to secure a fair deal against owners and bosses who, as a rule, share a different set of competing, mutually nonexclusive interests. These are relations of power and they are inherently antagonistic. An app can either facilitate union wins or work against them. There is nothing inherently anti-union about an app, and YouIn? shouldn’t be judged out of the gate. But the proof of its usefulness will be in how it functions as a tool, the behavior of those who control it, and the material outcomes that prove who it ultimately serves. YouIn? ought to be given a chance to serve workers. If it does, it could help do a lot of good.