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Online Petitions: A way forward for unions?

Earlier this year, Unions 21 launched a partnership project with US based workplace petition site called WorksForUs. CoWorker have been at the forefront of identifying modern workplace issues and support worker led campaigns which have resulted in victories for thousands of non-unionised, private sector workers such as the 25,000 Starbucks partners changing dress codes and visible tattoo policies, as well as, Uber adding driver tipping to the app after pressure from their employees via a petition.

We sought to work with Coworker to look at how we can support unions to initiate change for the better for similar workers in the UK. We have learnt a lot so far and we hope by sharing these experiences, we can identify our next steps and generate even more worker led campaigns with just as significant outcomes as our US partners.

So, what have we learnt?

(1) Getting people to open up about their workplace issues is not easy…

Knowing that we were targeting workers who were likely to be younger and in insecure work we had to experiment with how best we engaged them. We tested advertising strategies, built up the WorksForUs brand via a landing page and social media content, but we still found it difficult to locate and encourage our audience into starting petitions on the workplace issues they faced. We worried that this approach of trying to engage such a general audience meant we were in effect, not seeing the forest for the trees.

It was through these exercises that we learned two key lessons early on. If we were going to have worker-led petitions we needed to hear from the workers themselves on the issues they faced so we could structure WorksForUs to more adequately address these issues. To do so, we needed to focus our search on specific groups of workers and the very specific issues they faced in order to get petitions on the board.

(2) You just have to ask what the problems are…

In order to tackle the problem of our audience being too general we got creative. We narrowed down our search to specific companies and their online communities, away from trying to locate characteristics of our audience and toward identifying issues shared with in a specific group of workers.

Inspired by Coworker’s success, we chose to focus on Starbucks UK. We first combed through sub-reddits, employment review sites and social media groups to identify standout issues, we then distributed anonymous surveys and contacted Reddit users who shared concerns via the online community. We received an overwhelming response, gaining valuable data on what the key issues were and what UK Starbucks workers wanted to do to change them.

(3) Waiting for a bite…

In the midst of all our efforts and in talking to the Coworker US team, it was often remarked that getting these petitions off the ground can be a bit like going fishing. Somewhere in the middle we got our first big bite. A petition to stop food waste at Starbucks UK started by an employee.

We identified early on that Starbucks workers were particularly concerned about the amount of food waste in their stores. In the UK, Starbucks policy is a number of stores donate half of last hour proceeds of fresh food sales to the charity Action Against Hunger. This sounds all well and good except that any leftover food not sold has to be put by their employees straight in the bin at the end of the day. As food bank use soars in the UK and other coffee chains do far more on waste, you can see why we agree with many food charities that this is unacceptable. The partner-led petition to stop food waste at Starbucks U reflected these concerns. Eventually, our patience paid off.

With currently over 3,700 signatures on the stop food waste at Starbucks petition we have reached a huge audience for a project of our size and it can only progress from here.

(4) Where next?

Since starting the project, both Reddit and Twitter have banned political advertising. This will make it hard for unions to copy our particular route for engaging hard to reach workers but there is still a lot to learn.

Our research shows that the decline in union youth membership is not because young people do not support or value unions (in fact the inverse is true), it is because many young workers are simply unaware of them. The truth is many harder to reach workers like young people need to be engaged on the issues that matter to them, even if they are traditionally non-union issues.

By focusing on a specific group of workers, communicating directly and listening to them, we discovered a common workplace issue shared across the workforce that has spurred on a campaign.

Unions also need to identify where these non-unionised workers communicate on the issues they share. Though the landscape of political advertising on particular sites is changing, identifying where these workers communicate with each other and the language they use to discuss issues was vital in our ability to reach these workers. Overall, as our Executive Director Becky Wright has said, organise them where they work on the issues that matter to them.

Now, we want to hear from union members on what our next steps should be, how do we engage other hard to reach workers? How can we improve our methods of communication to encourage discussion of workplace issues? What role can unions play in supporting and organising these workers? Let us know what you think as we take our next steps in engaging non-unionised workers.

It’s easy to get started on your WorksForUs campaign. Just click here. WorksForUs is here to help you and your colleagues find your voice at work. You can start your own campaign about changes you want to see in your workplace here— or contact if you would like to discuss a workplace issue with our team.