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Front-Line Workers Use Online Tools And Public Shaming To Fight For Fairer Workplace

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The tools of the Internet and a bit of public embarrassment can go a long way in drawing attention to a cause. Front-line workers at grocery and retail stores have used them effectively during the pandemic. Most of those workers aren't unionized, so they've been flocking to a nonprofit website to fight for a fair workplace. NPR's Reflect America fellow Ashish Valentine has more.

ASHISH VALENTINE, BYLINE: Takaya Elzey (ph) works at a New Seasons organic grocery store in Portland, Ore. When the coronavirus pandemic hit back in March, employees petitioned New Seasons for better wages. They did it on a website called coworker.org, and it worked. They got thank-you pay for coming back to work during a pandemic as well as discounts on anything they bought at the store. But those ended in June.

TAKAYA ELZEY: It's not OK to see how disheartened and upset, like, everybody is every day.

VALENTINE: The pandemic was still raging, and employees felt neglected.

ELZEY: When they ended our pay, I texted some people and was like, I think I'm going to start another petition.

VALENTINE: Elzey went back to coworker.org to try to get their hazard pay back. The site has become an effective tool for workers across the country from baristas at Starbucks to salespeople at REI. Three hundred and sixteen thousand people have joined Coworker since March, and it's hosted over 250 new campaigns. Most of them are related to COVID. Laila Noor (ph) is a campaign specialist at Coworker. She says a petition works in two ways. First, it can...

LAILA NOOR: Really help to make this more of a public shaming and public conversation.

VALENTINE: Then second, it's online, so it brings together workers who are separated across different shifts and different stores.

NOOR: The petition is really there, actually, for workers to be able to talk to other workers, for workers to be able to start these conversations and move these conversations and ignite that fire.

VALENTINE: Coworker has taken off during the pandemic, but it's been around for seven years. It's similar to change.org in that anyone can start a petition. The difference is that Coworker staff help make those petitions become reality. Throughout the process, though, the workers are totally in control. Here's co-founder Jess Kutch.

JESS KUTCH: I think it's incredibly important for people to experience wins, to experience their own power.

VALENTINE: She says even small changes can be empowering. Baristas at Starbucks first used the site six years ago to be able to display their tattoos at work.

KUTCH: Baristas kept returning to the site and returning to use our services and support to go after bigger wins, bigger gains.

VALENTINE: Over 50,000 current and former Starbucks employees have now used the site for other demands. When the pandemic hit, baristas successfully pushed Starbucks to require masks in all of its stores. But workers don't always get what they ask for. At New Seasons, the organic grocery store chain, over 7,000 people signed that petition to bring back hazard pay. But the company says that wouldn't be financially sustainable. Coworker's Noor says even when campaigns don't end with clear victories, they're all part of a bigger picture.

NOOR: Whether the demands were met or not from the employer, what did happen is that these petitions coming from thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands of essential workers really helped to shape and push the national conversation, you know, around who is or is not valuable.

VALENTINE: Regardless of the outcome, Noor and Kutch say workers across the country are learning that they have power, and they're no longer afraid to use it.

Ashish Valentine, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "EXPLORE, BE CURIOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.