The job is very different today than it was a year ago. In the realm of technology, every element of the workplace has been altered to accommodate our new, remote world. From scaling up accountability and onboarding remotely to determining old benefits that can be made socially distant, a myriad of decisions have been made in the hands of employers.
A startup startup thinks it’s time to give some of that decision-making power back to employees as well. So Unit, a New York-based company, is tackling perhaps the most elusive and controversial subject in consumer technology today: unions.
Numerous studies show that union members earn significantly higher wages and get better benefits than non-union workers. At the same time, many companies are anti-union because it impacts bottom lines, or puts more autonomy in the hands of their workers and limits control.
Unit wants to make it easier for employees to virtually organize and manage unions to protect them from their employers. The unit itself is not a union, but rather helps worker-organizers to create, affiliate and manage a union with a mix of software and human resources.
Entrepreneurship in janitorial
Unit founder and CEO James White watched Occupy Wall Street take place in real time while he was a graduate student. He helped a cohort of housekeeping workers from MIT and Harvard who were organizing with the SEIU, or International Union of Service Employees, a union of about 2 million people in the service industry.
“During the day, I worked in the MIT bio-instrumentation lab on medical injection devices, and at night and on weekends, we would organize students to support these janitors in their offer of better wages and working conditions. “, did he declare. “[Volunteer organizing] felt very manual and ineffective, but they won some things. It took a few years, but they won.
White spent most of the next decade choosing the day job and worked at a company in the medical device industry. But after acquiring business and commercial skills, he left to start his own business. He couldn’t stop thinking about unions.
“The technology-based organization kept coming to the fore [of my ideas], and being both the most exciting for me personally, but also I think the most impactful in the way I wanted to see the world change in terms of income inequality and individual empowerment, ”he said. declared.
A turnkey solution for unions
Unit offers a range of services to regulate the organizing process, which begins with education. The startup has a step by step process how to virtually unionize a workplace that it offers for free for public use on its website.
Once a worker-organizer decides to unionize, Unit helps start the process. Employees can access the website, complete an eligibility survey, and start inviting colleagues to the organization platform. Interested employees will complete paperwork and a small cohort will begin to form within an organization.
Behind the scenes, the Unit begins to manage the legal automation process needed before a team approaches a national union, such as the National Labor Relations Board, or a local union with their business case. . The startup is working with a Boston law firm that files petitions on behalf of employees.
“So far the biggest feedback we’ve gotten from our organizing app is, ‘I chose you over calling a union organizer from a national union or contacting volunteers to come. help us, because that seemed like the fastest way to start, ”White says.
After (and if) a trade union is approved, the Unit assumes the role of a labor advisory service. The startup uses a combination of digital and human services to create a “turnkey solution” for union management.
The startup will help conduct the voting and poll, provide consensus tools, and oversee the process of drafting and revising the charter, otherwise known as union governance, on behalf of workers. It will also assist with negotiation, such as negotiation surveys, contract drafting and review, compensation and strategic analysis. Beyond this, the Unit focuses on ongoing organization, such as training new members and planning the strike, as well as maintaining contracts. Another company in the space, UnionWare, helps with membership management, while Unit is aiming for the full suite.
“We plan to try and reduce the time commitment a bit by automating a lot of it,” he said. “So that people can vote on software, they can get software updates, appoint new leaders, or run for office in these small unions through software.” A Shopify for union organizers, in a way.
Similar to how an employee pays fees only after the union is approved, the Unit only charges a fee after the training process is complete. The typical cost of national union dues is 1.5% of salary, the company said, meaning that an employee who earns $ 40,000 a year would pay around $ 50 a month. The unit charges 0.8% of these monthly earnings.
The “no strings attached” business model means Unit could lose 90% of its customers once the union is approved, White said. The startup is forging partnerships with large national unions in order to get paid every time a Unity-approved union that goes through one of its networks is affiliated – with the idea that it saves money. time and resources to unions thanks to its software.
Clients include software developers, digital media companies, fast food franchises, and mental health businesses, with a particular focus on helping small business organize.
“It’s not a technical problem that we have to solve”
Arianna Jimenez, who was a union organizer for 20 years at SEIU, expressed her caution over oversimplifying the organizing process, which she said could give workers false hope. In his experience, the bargaining process is the most controversial part of organizing, which lasts from six months to 10 years.
“Once you have signed the cards and are technically a union in the eyes of the law, that in itself does not bring about a change in the material living conditions of the workers,” she said. “What is driving the change is for workers to enter into a legally protected process with the employer to formally change the contract, such as increased benefits, health care and pensions.”
While unity and union organizers across the country contribute to the bargaining process, oppressive and fear tactics led by employers can often force employees to worry about their livelihoods and therefore to vote against forming a union. For example, earlier this year, Amazon conducted an anti-union campaign pressure employees to vote against organizing efforts. The society defeated the union attempts, a setback for the largest organizing campaign in Amazon’s 27-year history.
Jimenez doesn’t think that organizing can ever have a fully turnkey solution because “the fundamental transformation for workers between having a union and not having a union is not a legal threshold. It really is a more intangible transformation of a group of people who feel helpless and disenfranchised not to do so. “
Jimenez says reaching the ladder for Unit would mean rewriting US labor laws.
“It is not a technical problem that we have to solve, it is a problem of values,” she said.
When adventure is the elephant in the room
To evolve, the Unit will have to rely on VC, by White. In July 2020, Unit closed a $ 1.4 million financing, from investors such as Bloomberg Beta, Draper Associates, Schlaf Angel Fund, Haystack, E14 and Gutter Capital.
And that’s where the crux of the tension is with Unit, according to White: He needs to raise VC to reach the ladder, but getting into bed with that same asset class can seem counter-productive. intuitive.
For example, what if Unit helps employees of existing investor holding companies to form unions? Is there a conflict of interest, or can the Unit not prioritize these clients in order to keep its ceiling table satisfied?
California voters last year adopted proposal 22, essentially supporting Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates that concert workers should not be entitled to the same labor rights as employees, remaining as independent contractors. The move was a blow to the efforts workers’ organizers around the world, and a reminder that venture-backed companies can be pressured to act against wider access to worker benefits and protection.
While White says the company was the best option for speed and scale, he admitted to worrying about some of these concerns, especially the influence investors might try to have in subsequent cycles. if the founding team is unable to keep the majority of the business. He hopes Unit can operate with little venture capital for as long as possible to delay or avoid such interest altogether.
Siri Srinivas, an investor at Draper, sees Unit as a service that builds a better tool for a regulated and complex process. In other words, ignoring politics, it’s a SaaS tool that makes sense.
“Frankly, as a VC, we invest in the technologies that people want. As a team, we make an effort not to engage with certain products (e.g. tobacco) that we think are negative for the world, but we don’t see it as any different from investing in other companies developing software products in regulated sectors ”mentioned. “Unity enables a form of worker equity and can unlock a lot of value for its users and in that our incentives are completely aligned.”
For now, White is hoping that the general interest in rebuilding workplaces will keep the unit occupied and income-generating.
“We could never have predicted that COVID would have the impact it has had and spark even more conversations about work and safety,” he said. “I think when we are faced with these issues at the national level, sometimes they hit everyone at the same time and people are thinking about the same things at the same time.”