By Dan Jones and Shamika Goddard
OUR Walmart is an organization of Walmart workers — current and former — fighting for fair wages, fair treatment, and the right to speak up without retaliation. Over the past years they’ve led national protests and strikes on Black Friday, protested the company’s owners and administration at their shareholder meetings and their Manhattan penthouses. This Black Friday, they’re doing something different: They’re organizing a “Black Friday Blitz” to get a new app, called WorkIt, that they’ve developed into the hands of as many workers as possible. WorkIt uses artificial intelligence in combination with OUR Walmart’s members to help workers get answers to their questions about their rights and the company’s policies.
You can adopt a store from now though Black Friday to help let workers know about WorkIt. And on Thanksgiving, you can share this prayer in support of OUR Walmart and the struggle for dignity with your family.
Shamika: Could you all please introduce yourselves?
Catherine: I’m Cat Huang. I’m the Chief Technology Officer at the Organization United for Respect (OUR) and I came on board in May to help spearhead and drive the development of this new platform we call WorkIt.
Andrea: And I’m Andrea Dehlendorf. I’ve been doing worker organizing, originally in labor union contexts for just about 20 years, which is hard to fathom. And then five years ago I became a part of the effort to build a new strategy and a new organization of, by, and for Walmart workers.
Tyfani: My name’s Tyfani Faulkner. I’m in Sacremento, California, and I became a member of OUR Walmart almost 5 years ago, when I was working at a Walmart here. I’ve been on three or four strikes; I’ve been in front of [Walmart CEO] Doug McMillon at the shareholder’s meeting; I’ve been in a sit in in southern California in November 2014; I’ve been in almost anything you can think of. I was terminated from Walmart last year, but I continue to be active in this movement because I feel it is important for not only the current associates but future associates.
Dan: Tell us about the history of OUR Walmart.
Andrea: About five years ago there was a group of Walmart workers from a place called Laurel, Maryland who came together, and these workers really felt that what was most important was building an authentic organization of, by, and for Walmart workers. That they were the ones who were determining the values, the priorities, the principles of the organization.
That was really where the founding of OUR Walmart came from. And so the first thing that the organization did was a mass listening project: Really listening to the hopes, dreams, needs of Walmart workers across the country. Then we assembled a hundred leaders together who built the Declaration for Respect. We put that out, took it to Walmart, put it online. And then thousands – first tens, then hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands – of people started coming to and getting involved in the organization.
They were calling on Walmart principally to start respecting associates which is the birth and origin of the name [Organization United for Respect at Walmart/OUR Walmart]: To publicly commit to a set of policy proposals that would really address some of the biggest problems in terms of low wages, irregular and erratic scheduling and other problems. And then Walmart very soon started retaliating against people, firing people, discriminating against them, once they had gotten involved, so workers started engaging in strikes as a way to protest what was happening.
Dan: And Tyfani, how did you get involved with the organization?
Tyfani: I learned about OUR Walmart through supporters who were leafleting outside of the store. Then one of the online organizers who lives in Sacramento reached out to me. And I just believed in what they were fighting for. I have friends who are still working at Walmart who’ve worked there for 10 plus years and are still living paycheck to paycheck. And that is so unfair when you think that they are working for the #1 richest employer of the US. Your workers shouldn’t be going hungry and struggling to live day to day.
Shamika: Why did you all decide to develop WorkIt?
Andrea: What happened in this last period is that people really started using social media as a way not to just get news from the organization – which is what a lot of movement work on social media can be – but to actually start using the tools and use the existing forums as a way to connect with each other and support each other and to build communities of support that then became communities of action around a whole range of issues.
We’ve learned really quickly that it is much easier and quicker and more effective to find and connect people to each other through on-the-ground and digital organizing than through just on-the-ground organizing. So our members built this substantial national network of both current and former Walmart workers who are standing up for change, and also with supporters and activists who are also using distributed tools to get involved and support workers as they fight for change. So it’s been very exciting. And really it was watching and observing that that led us to realize that we needed to find a tech solution to get people more efficiently and more effectively the support and information they need.
Tyfani: WorkIt’s going to be great because we already use Facebook a lot to have these conversations. But it will be even better for the workers to have an app that they can go to to just focus on what they need. There are so many times somebody asks a question and a million people will answer it. Most of it might be the same answer, some of them might be different, but with the app they’ll be able to know: “Okay I’m going to ask a question and I’m going to get the right answer.”
Walmart doesn’t give their associates an employee handbook so they know the dos and the donts. They only have access to what they call “The Wire” while they are on the clock. And they rarely have time to actually get on it to look up policies and that is why a lot of times they go on Facebook to ask questions.
Andrea: And so we decided that we needed to hire a technologist – which is very unusual for our labor sector – who could actually figure out how to find a technological solution to the problem. A solution that could support the theory of change we had on how to help and support people and how to get people into communities of support and action. And so we hired this brilliant technician Cat who has come onto the team to lead the development of the project.
Shamika: And how exactly does the platform work?
Catherine: There are two user aspects to WorkIt. One is a service where you can ask a question through a mobile app and get an instant answer. And the way that it works in real-time is that we are integrating augmented AI [Artificial Intelligence] into it. And so we are harnessing all of the knowledge that our workers have amassed over the years and that is stored in our robot’s brain. Our users are asking the question and our robot is sitting on the front lines. And if the robot has seen that question before and understands that question and has seen it, it will serve up the answer because it knows. And if not, it will pass it through to one of our trained peer experts. And then Watson – the robot we are using is IBM’s Watson – Watson will be listening to that conversation so that it knows the answer the next time it sees a similar question. So that’s how it scales. Right now we actually have quite a big number of trained volunteers, but we just want to be sure that we are building on top of the knowledge all the time.
The question and answer piece is one of the initial ways that people can come into the service. The other thing is that it’s not always enough to have the information at hand. You can have a piece of legislation, you can know the law, but it’s another thing entirely to apply the law. To figure out the strategy to get what you need. Whether it’s working with a manager, whether it’s working with corporate to actually get them to say: “What we’re doing is wrong, what you’re saying is right.” There’s a whole sort of community aspect to that. So part of what WorkIt is also trying to do is find connections with people who have experienced similar issues and then make those connections and have people come together to problem-solve. And so there is a community building aspect within WorkIt.
Dan: What was the process of developing WorkIt like?
Catherine: One of the first things we did before we started development on the platform was to really take a look and see what kinds of conversations were already happening on social media because that was really the centralizing community space, the town hall. It was where a lot of our members and associates were already going to. Not only to build community and exchange stories around shared experiences and get basic support, but also, as Andrea and Tyfani mentioned, to find information.
There were central themes in the questions people were asking: Around discrimination, compensation, store experiences, – and that includes anything from closures, to understaffing, to managerial favoritism and discrimination – paid time off, sick leave, and leaves of absence.
They were general themes. We did our own analysis and came up with about twelve and then we took it to the Content Hackathon.
Shamika: What’s that?
Catherine: For the Content Hackathon, fourteen us met in Los Angeles and we spent two days together. The first part of it was: “Let’s just put all the issues that we are facing up on the whiteboard.” From there, we listed all the questions that we’ve seen come up the most around those issues. What are the most common questions around termination that come up? Which is like: “Can I be fired for no reason?” or, “When do I get fired, and paid time off?”, “Do they accept doctor’s notes?”, “What is the difference between paid time off versus leaves of absence versus FMLA?” So we had literally 200 questions after that first day.
And then we spent the evening and the second day answering those questions. It was actually really remarkable how hard it was to understand what the right ways to work in certain positions were at Walmart. Even for folks who had been there for 12, 20 years. The way that [Walmart policy] is communicated is not consistent and you have the managerial layer. There’s a lot of layers of nuance and obscurity in there that make it really hard to actually just be a good employee. And if you’re a native Spanish speaker, you have a whole other pool of problems in terms of actually not having access to the information.
So after the second day we had almost a hundred questions and answers, which was the foundation for Watson.
Dan: You mentioned that this isn’t just a neat idea but it relates to OUR Walmart’s theory of change. And I can already see the critiques like: “This isn’t really organizing. Why aren’t they just hiring more people to go out there and be on the streets talking to people?” And you also said that you’ve seen from your experience that there’s a unique way of combining on-the-ground and digital organizing that’s really helped OUR Walmart survive and grow. Could say a little bit more about what that theory of change is, about what you have learned about the relationship between on-the-ground and online organizing and how this platform fits into all that?
Andrea: The first thing I would say is if you asked one of our members or our leaders that question, they would literally not understand what you were talking about. Because they would say, “What do you mean? We get together in person. When we are not together in person, we are connected to each other online.” When we meet somebody new, our members bring them into the network. It’s like the coolest thing in the world that I’m in California talking to a worker in Oklahoma and helping them figure out how to do it. And it’s even cooler the next time we do, you know we all go to Bentonville, that person is coming too to participate in the direct action. It’s all integrated.
I think that a lot of people mistakenly separate those two things and it’s not how people relate and communicate and engage with each other anymore. And so, I think our theory of change is that this is a way to find and connect and reach people. This isn’t about just telling them about who we are and what we’re about. This is about creating pathways for people to talk to each other and realize that their experiences are not theirs alone. And really much in the same way that if you organize a house meeting on the ground, it’s those same kinds of connections and consciousness that is developing when people start to say, “Oh my God I got written up for being sick too when my kid was in the hospital. Why is this happening to both of us? I thought it was just my manager was a jerk.” Or, “I thought it’s just that I’m not a good worker.”
And those are the exact same kinds of things that happen when you do on the ground organizing, but this just allows us to do it at such a different scale. And I talked to someone just now at a meeting, and they said that they spent months going out to every single work site in a group of workers they were organizing to talk to them in person and they got nowhere. And they met with us, we trained them on our model, and then they built and they ended up with a hundred thousand people on the petition calling the employer to do something. And you know those people are doing real things on the ground. People think it’s just clicktivism and online stuff but it’s not. It’s an ecosystem. It’s a support and organizing ecosystem.
People aren’t just waiting around ready to be an advocate or an activist, right? People crave community and support and they need that. People are isolated. People have shame. People blame themselves. People individualize their circumstances. And this creates a huge avenue for people to see the way they are interconnected and their experiences are interconnected that for me is a precursor and a precondition of being able to move into action.
Tyfani: Face-to-face and being in the store is a slower process because you are building relationships, you are building trust, with the people you work with. It took me a year to get people to join with me. The difference between face-to-face and online is that we have this [online] community: People can see more of what we are doing and it’s not like” “Oh it’s just you.”
In my store I was the only person, and so it bridged that gap of: “Okay you are saying all of these people are involved but all I see is you.” Whereas with the online community, we have a private Facebook group. When you reach out to people and you bring them into this community they realize it’s not just you, it’s a larger group of people. I think also the more people we can get, whether through online or face-to-face, will bridge that gap between online and face-to face. So as we gain members and gain supporters through Facebook, a lot of them are taking the information back to their co-workers face-to-face. And that is building it up more, so it’s all looped together.
Shamika: How is it going so far with the app?
Tyfani: I’m one of the experts, so not only can I ask questions but I am one of the ones that answers them. And it’s great: It’s really simple for the user. When you open up the screen it goes straight to what questions you have. So when somebody is doing this on their break, they can quickly type in their question and then hopefully we will be able to answer it right away. If it is a tough question, if the experts who are working that time may not know the answers and may have to confer with the others, but usually we get our answers out pretty quickly. Most of our questions are on sick time and paid time off and other polices, like the policy on sexual harassment.
Answering questions on the platform makes me feel so useful for the movement. Because there’s a difference between when I was in the store and now that I’m out. This is a great way that I as a former can support the current workers and also learn what is currently going on in these stores.
Catherine: Some of the experts, like Tyfani, are people who have been in our family for a long time and this is an extension of their work. And their natural desire to be helpful. The really surprising thing is there are also brand new folks, who we never really had a relationship with. There is something about the experience of going in there and helping their co-workers who they don’t know but knowing their answers will scale. It’s not just one-to-one, it’s one-to-many that is incredibly empowering.
That piece is not about technology at all, right? That piece is around leadership building. It’s about community building and it’s about individual empowerment. So they know what they are creating is going to touch potentially hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. We are seeing some of our newest experts who we didn’t really have a relationship with before really taking to the platform and being in there and answering questions and being incredibly helpful.
Andrea: This is what folks do every day and in a sense we built technology to mirror and to make better and faster and more effective to help people do what they were trying to do but having a hard time because they were using a system that was just not set up for it. So people want to help each other. People have that inherent desire, need, drive and so that was really the first thing was finding the people who were already online, who were already trying to do this for each other in the Facebook ecosystem and then bringing them into a more formal relationship with more training and more access to resources to be able to do it better.
Dan: I want to make a comparison that might not seem totally obvious, but I think there’s a relation. We at the Kairos Center have this history coming out of the National Union of the Homeless and at its height, what that really became was a nationally coordinated housing take over drive where homeless individuals and families were organizing takeovers of HUD housing, federally owned housing. The parallel I see here is that was something that homeless people were already doing anyway individually just to survive. But what the National Union of the Homeless was able to do that was different was to put that into collectivity and politicize it and make it into something larger than just what individuals were doing. So I see a significant parallel here with what you were saying about this kind of support being things that people were already doing on an individual basis. But this being a way to build on that and make it collective and to politicize it.
Andrea: Absolutely. There’s lots of experiments that we’re running here and what you just articulated is exactly one of the big things we are testing. One thing is: Is the access to information enough to bring people into community? Is bringing people into community enough to bring momentum around change? And change, in those small units, is it going to lead to bigger movements?
Dan: What are you anticipating the blow-back or response from Walmart might be for taking this step?
Tyfani: I think they are already doing their offensive, telling workers: “Don’t use this because it might try to get all your contact information.” They’re afraid that workers will know what they can and cannot do. Because if you look at the way their system is now, there is really no way there’s time to look up the policies and your rights. But if you can access them while you’re at home, you are more armed with what you can and cannot do while you are at work. I think they are afraid that workers will be able to stand up for themselves more.
Andrea: If they were smart, they would welcome the opportunity for their workers to have their associates to have access and get support around improving their lives and dealing with daily inequities and things that go wrong with their supervisors. But in reality they’re likely to try to discourage people from using it which is why it’s so important that we are able to mobilize broad outreach that gets this in the hands of as many people as possible before they start a campaign to discourage people not to use it.
Shamika: How can we and other people support you all in getting the app out there and in the hands of workers?
Tyfani: We’re going to be launching next week over the next few weeks leading up to Black Friday we are going to let the workers know about the app, show them how useful it is. Walmart is already trying to tell them not to download it but I think that’s going to help us because it’s going to pique the worker’s interest because they’ll wonder: “Why don’t you want us to download this?”
So our main focus over the next few weeks, is going to be letting the workers know about the app. We’re going to all the stores we can and handing out palm cards about it. On Black Friday this year we are taking a shift from going on strike and protesting and really just trying to get this app out to workers so that they know that they have a voice and so they’ll have the tools to know what to do while they are at work.
Community supporters can sign up on the website to adopt a store and pass out palm cards letting the workers know about the app. We need the support because there are a lot of members and supporters that are within the organization, but it’s still hard for us to reach every store so the more support we get from the outside, the more workers will know about WorkIt.