HR Policy Global

BEERG Perspective - “Apptivism” and...

Published on: November 14, 2019

Authors: Tom Hayes

Topics: Technology, The UK and European Union


About ten years ago (though it could have been longer) a young barista, named Daniel Gross, was making waves in Manhattan. Gross was trying to get fellow Starbucks baristas to unionise through the IWW, the International Workers of the World, better known as they were known back in the early years of the 20th century, the Wobblies.

Gross never did get far with his organising efforts and was eventually terminated by Starbucks. After his time as a barista Gross studied and trained to become a lawyer. He now works as an organiser with the IWW, as well as running a non-profit advocacy group, Brandworkers International. I knew about Gross because of some discussions I had with Starbucks at the time. 

A little while ago I was sent this article from the New York Times about a small booklet, Labor Law for the Rank and Filer. The NYT was writing about a somewhat obscure booklet on US labor law because of the impact it has had on activists at Google and other companies who have recently been involved in social media organised stoppages and walkouts. When I learned that Gross was one of the authors, I decided to order a copy.

Reading the booklet, it occurred to me that the sort of “pop-up protests” we have seen in Google and elsewhere are nothing new. They are simply the type of labor organising that Gross has been articulating, but with a social media age makeover.

Gross´s co-author is Staughton Lynd. Now ninety years old, Lynd has a history in the labor and civil rights movement that stretches back to the 1960s. I first came across Lynd in the early 1970s when I bought a copy of his book, the Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. It examines the contribution a group of 18th century thinkers, of whom the best known is Thomas Paine, has had on radical thought in the US down the years. 

Lynd was dismissed from academia and effectively blackballed after he visited North Vietnam, with Tom Hayden, at the height of the Vietnam war. Hayden was one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, which was very influential on US campuses during the 1960s. However, he is better known for being married to Jane Fonda for seventeen years.

Lynd wrote a first version of Labor Law for the Rank and Filer back in 1978. The version co-authored with Gross was published in 2011.

The booklet comes in two parts. Part One sets out labour and trade union rights as found in US law such as the National Labor Relations Act (1935), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), as the provisions of these acts have been interpreted by the courts down the years.

The heart of the book, however, is to be found in Chapter Five – Practising Solidarity Unionism. Lynd and Gross are largely dismissive of mainstream US labor unionism, which they describe as “ ‘business’ or ‘service-provider’ unionism: the idea that a worker joins a union to obtain material benefits in exchange for monthly dues payments, much as the work might buy an insurance policy.”

“Business unionism” is seen as being based on the premise that:

  1. The union is controlled from the top down by officers and staff (usually white males) who are not regularly employed at the workplace; 
  2. Direct action is avoided or used only when it can be choreographed and tightly controlled from above; 
  3. Membership is lost when the worker leaves a unionised bargaining unit

Solidarity unionism, argue Lynd and Gross, offers an alternative in which workers themselves “carry out their own organising.” There are three fundamental principles underpinning solidarity unionism: 

  1. Rank-and-file control; 
  2. Direct action; 
  3. Members carry their union membership with them, regardless of majority status, when they move on to other jobs (particularly important in high turnover sectors like retail or food service).

Lynd and Gross believe that because solidarity unionism “rejects the accommodation with capital inherent in the business union model,” a solidarity union is well situated to take part in the worldwide movement against corporate “globalization” and “neo-liberalism”. 

Solidarity unionism is not about incremental change. It is about changing the world. In this it inherits the tradition of radical US thought that Lynd wrote about back in the 1960s. In the Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, he sets out what he believes to be the core tenets of 18th century American radicalism. These, in brief, are:

  • That the proper foundation for government is a universal law of right and wrong self-evident to the intuitive common sense of every man; 
  • That freedom is a power of personal self-direction which no man can delegate to another; 
  • That the purpose of society is not the protection of property but the fulfilment of the needs of living human beings: 
  • That good citizens have the right and duty not only to overthrow incurably oppressive governments but - before that point is reached - to break particular oppressive laws, and 
  • That we owe our ultimate allegiance not to this or that nation, but to the whole family of man. 

Lynd describes this package of ideas as “existential radicalism” which he contrasts with more prosaic “deterministic radicalism”. While Lynd does not summarise “deterministic radicalism” in the same way as he does “existential radicalism”, I take it to mean the 18th century American constitutional radicalism which resulted in the abolition of monarchy and the founding of the Republic. The sort of radicalism that delivers material benefits rather than frees the soul.

For our purposes it is possible to see how “existential radicalism” becomes “solidarity unionism”, while concern with structures, administration and due process, “deterministic radicalism”, is mirrored in “business unionism”.  

“Existential radicalism/solidarity unionism” is concerned with the creation of “authentically free”, spontaneous, pro-active workers/citizens. It is the “act of acting” that is important, probably more so than the result. “Deterministic radicalism/business unionism” is about results; extra dollars in the pay cheque, an hour off the working week, a better health plan. Prosaic, day-to-day slogging. 

Not that there is no overlap between the two. There is… but the political and intellectual drivers are different. Solidarity unionism, acting collectively with fellow workers, can be enormously emotionally satisfying. It may not bump up your pay cheque, but it can make you feel good.

Which is why, it seems to me, that as a model for collective action, it appeals to Googlers and others in Silicon Valley.  For the most part, Googlers and other full-time Silicone Valley workers are not, to the best of my knowledge, on the bottom rungs of Maslow´s motivational ladder. Money is not the name of the game. The issues that move them can best be described as, in Lynd´s word: “existential”. 

First, are those issues touching on behavioural concerns, such as the #MeToo movement with its focus on sexual harassment and assault in the workplace by hierarchically powerful men.   Abuses that were hidden away for far too long. Building inclusive, safe and secure workplaces is an issue that should be of concern to us all. Workplaces full of hidden fears are not good places to work.

Second, is corporate involvement in what activists consider to be ethically unacceptable and questionable work, such as projects for the intrusive Chinese “social credit” system, or for ICE, the US government agency with responsibility for immigration oversight. 

Here, they are taking a leaf out of Alinsky´s Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, a 1971 book by community activist and writer, Saul D. Alinsky, about how to successfully run a movement for change. Alinsky´s Rule 4 says: Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." "You can kill them with this”, he writes, “for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity." 

“Do no Evil” gives a lot of hostages to fortune.

Interestingly, in the 1970s Lynd went to work with Alinsky when he could no longer find university employment. Lynd’s solidarity unionism echoes Alinsky’s community activism.

Alan Wild and I have previously drawn attention to the concept of “emocracy”, as described by the UK historian, Niall Ferguson. In an article in the Sunday Times, Ferguson writes:

 “… we no longer live in a democracy. We live in an “emocracy”, where emotions rather than majorities rule and feelings matter more than reason. The stronger your feelings — the better you are at working yourself into a fit of indignation — the more influence you have. And never use words where emojis will do.”

As Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days says, the decision to “do something” is the defining mark of millennial employees who prioritize their personal values over the business interests of their employer.

“Do something” is increasingly social media driven. 

Some of this “do something” activity has been criticised for being either clicktivism or slacktivismoften derided as nothing more than “virtue signalling” by keyboard warriors. 

Underlying such criticism is the conceit that unless you have spent countless hours in cold, wet halls on winter nights listening to never-ending speeches by sour Stalinists or rethreaded Trots you haven´t paid your dues. You simply haven´t suffered enough to be listened to.

It is probably more appropriate to see these social media-triggered protests as “Apptivism”, groups of concerned employees organising through WhatsApp or some other, closed online discussion forum. Out of such discussion come calls for action, such as globally coordinated walkouts on specified days for a couple of hours.

Apptivism, then, is a mix of discreet, on-line discussions blended with attention-grabbing “media stoppages”. “Media-stoppages”, as the name suggests, are crafted to “frame the narrative” rather than to apply economic pressure as old-line strikes sought to do. Those who manage to frame the narrative generally also get to set the terms of the debate.

And yet, for all of that, Apptivism, coupled as it is with the emotional appeal of “existential solidarity unionism,” appears to lack staying power. It is action “for the moment”, not for the long-term. Writing on social media organised demonstrations and protests, Zeynep Tufekci, the author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, says:

In a networked era, a large, organized march or protest should not be seen as the chief outcome of previous capacity building by a movement; rather it should be looked at as the initial moment of the movement’s bursting onto the scene, but only the first stage.

Except there is no evidence that such emotionally driven movements can be sustained. Tufekci identifies a number of reasons for this lack of “stayability”: 

  • Unity can emerge around hashtags, but networked movements have few means of dealing with the inevitable internal political conflicts, as well as the natural jockeying for status and attention. Social media does not change human nature. Someone always wants to be in charge. 
  • Adhocracy” – allows for the organization of big protests or major online campaigns with minimal effort and advance work but can come with a seemingly paradoxical weakness. If the target of the campaign is government or an employer who are they to talk to? How do you negotiate with Twitter? How does a “leaderless” movement move forward?
  • “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” – “an informal and seemingly horizontal style of organization can lead to the tyranny of a few who jockey informally to exercise power without accountability.” Power vacuums are soon filled. If they are not filled in a transparent manner, then they will be filled by those who can seize the moment. 

As Wilma B. Liebman, former Chairman and Member, National Labor Relations Board (1997-2011) and now an adjunct professor, New York University School of Law, recently noted at a BEERG meeting:

some horizontal and anti-authoritarian movements have evolved – now engaging in the electoral-institutional sphere (previously avoided) -- using digital tools to leverage influence in that sphere.  E.g., Black Lives Matter.

Wilma added that it takes sustained, hard work, often unrewarding, to turn what were initially social media protests into organised campaigns that can deliver results. She instanced the #RedforEd: Raising our Voices, Protecting Public Schools” campaign which saw hundreds of thousands of striking teachers in Southern US states marry Facebook activism with old-fashion union structures to win pay increases and increased school funding. 

The teachers involved “created a Facebook group ‘to work across different unions to try to make some changes and fix things…’” “But…”, she quotes one activist as saying: 

“…Facebook pages are great for mobilizing people but they’re not great for long-term organizing.”  [For that] “…unions are vital. We need to make the union what it can be… we need to grow it, and make sure it reflects what the people want… The Facebook page was important to put up photos and show people you’re not alone.  That was the key to overcoming the fear factor.”

Facebook only gets you so far. You need structures to take you further. The #RedforEd campaign saw activists use Facebook to reenergize already existing structures. To good effect.

Existential “emocracy” may offer moments of “authenticity”. Nothing wrong with that. And it fits within a long American tradition of existential radicalism. Old wine in a new, social media bottle.

But can it build those sustaining structures that result in workplace change in any real sense of the meaning? I have my doubts.

After a hundred years, there is little evidence that the solidarity unionism of the IWW works. But, I have been in labour relations for too many years not to know the wisdom of the old adage: “Never say Never”.



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