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Can an app save the American labor movement?

(The Century Foundation)

(The Century Foundation)

What if the crisis of American labor is just a design flaw? That’s the premise of a new report released this week by the Century Foundation. Asking “Could technology help reduce income inequality,” the study explores the possibilities of virtual labor organizing for expanding unions’ ranks. Authors Mark Zuckerman, Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit argue that, “it is a good bet that many [workers] would join a union, if signing up were easier for workers to do, and harder for employers to stop.” The answer? More apps.

“[L]abor organizing,” they wrote, “is more challenging and complex than it has to be.” Thanks to recent changes in National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, law that include beefed up protections for online communication, unions are now more free to explore new technologies for bolstering their locals — technologies that, they say, could “transform the way in which the nation’s top labor unions deploy their organizing capabilities.” Citing a Pew Research poll that found 55 percent of millennials support labor unions, the authors call on web developers to team up with unions and ease the path to representation, even eliminating the need for organizers on the ground.

The study’s authors are clearly very excited about unions, calling the ability to join one “the single largest unclaimed legal right to additional personal wealth in America today.” Much of the report, in fact, is spent outlining the economic benefits of unionization on wages and workplace protections, an approach that makes a certain amount of sense if the goal of the report — as it may well be — is to coax libertarian Silicon Valley programmers into creating a new platform for workplace organizing.

It’s not as if, however, more workers aren’t unionized because they simply don’t have the right apps. There is a concerted, highly organized effort to dismantle the house of labor. While Republican governors such as Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have been leading the charge as of late, they’re building on the foundation of over 40 years of coordinated attacks on the public sphere and the organized bases of workers — in teachers’ unions, nurses’ unions and elsewhere — fighting to defend it. As longtime movement strategist and labor organizer Jane McAlevey wrote of the situation in Illinois, “Rauner is methodically manufacturing an economic crisis for his state, one that will let him do what he has long been set on doing: shrink the government and squeeze the 99 percent.”

Relying on “Labr,” as Buzzfeed called the potential app, to fix the American labor movement is like relying on Uber to revolutionize the country’s public transportation system, or Air BNB to solve the housing crisis. Many of the digital innovations the Century Foundation suggest are genuinely that — innovative. Providing worker-organizers with up-to-date information, surveying the shop, and making it easier to schedule NLRB elections are much-needed tools, but wholly inadequate for taking on austerity.

As Nichole Aschoff argued in Jacobin, the smartphone has redefined life in the 21st century. “If the automobile was fundamental to grasping the last century,” she wrote, “the smartphone is the defining commodity of our era.” We now turn to our “hand machines” to connect with everything from old friends, to dinner to casual sex. But technology is no substitute for skilled organizers, strategic campaigns, and, ultimately, a shift in the political weather that allows Rauner, Walker and company to strip away both workers’ rights and public goods. The transformation needed to reclaim worker power can’t be programmed into a smartphone; it will demand a deep reorientation on the part of major unions around the changing nature of work in 2015, and a broader shift in the technology of movement building itself.