OUR Walmart has been protesting working conditions at Wal-Mart on Black Friday since 2011. This year, OUR Walmart will forego protests and instead promote the WorkIt app, which uses IBM’s Watson technology to inform Wal-Mart employees about their rights at work.
Walmart is warning employees against using the app. If Walmart were to terminate an employee for downloading the app, this would likely be an unfair practice under the National Labor Relations Act, and it would likely be unlawful retaliation under Nebraska law as well.
The positives of WorkIt
WorkIt uses technology to allow workers to push back against management. Traditionally, this has been the role of labor unions. But the application essentially cuts out that middleman. Organized labor has had great difficulty organizing at Wal-Mart, but if the app serves some of the main functions of a union, it is a benefit for Wal-Mart employees.
Nebraska’s junior senator, Ben Sasse, decided that he would moonlight as an Uber driver in Nebraska a few Saturdays ago. In a press release, he touted the benefits of the “disintermediation” of the workforce. Disintermediation is a fancy term for cutting out the middleman. Uber cuts out the middleman by connecting drivers directly with those needing a ride through an app. Of course, Uber thinks that the user of the app can cut out the need for things like fair-employment protections, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation coverage for their drivers as well. Most employee advocates have concerns about this relationship. If nothing else, the WorkIt app shows that technology is a tool to expand workplace protections even as the use of technology erodes workplace protections.
Possible downsides to WorkIt
Apps and other computer programs are only as good what the programmers input into the programs. Wal-Mart employees probably do know Wal-Mart policy, but other employee-protection laws, especially workers’ compensation laws, vary from state to state. The WorkIt app may not be able to help people with state-specific questions.
Furthermore, Wal-Mart isn’t under any obligation to follow its own policies in a non-union workplace. Failure to follow those policies could be evidence of wrongful conduct, but it isn’t unlawful per se. In short, knowing company policies can be helpful, but management has wide discretion in how it interprets those policies. That’s where having a union steward or representative is helpful in a dispute with management, as the steward will have a better idea of how those policies have been interpreted in the past.
Finally, while an app is helpful, it somewhat undercuts the idea of collective or concerted activity, which forms the basis of unionization. Instead of reaching out to other employees about common concerns, just relying on an app could reinforce the strategy of taking individual grievances to Wal-Mart through what they call their “Open Door Policy.” Apps can reinforce the atomized, overly individualized relationship that people have with technology and their employers.
But in the wake of the recent elections, some veteran union organizers are calling for a radical rethinking of how to organize workers. WorkIt may be part of that new tool kit to organize workers in the 21st century. Apps are already part of workers organizing for rights. In China, workers are using the WeChat app to organize independent unions. Hopefully U.S. workers will start using apps like WorkIt and existing apps to protect themselves in the workplace.