Larry Williams – Lean Startup Conference

We spoke to the guy who’s trying to bring unions into the 21st century

“The limits of the labor movement don’t make sense to my generation”

UnionBase is being called the Facebook of the US Labor movement. A social network which is trying to bring the union movement (kicking and screaming in some cases) into the 21st century, connecting unions and helping members organize.

It was started by Larry Jr Williams, a union president in Washington DC, who started work on the platform about five years ago (and coded the whole thing himself, with a partner) after getting frustrated with the lack of digital innovation in the labor movement.

It’s a pretty tough ask. In the US, only 10 per cent of workers are members of a union – something he says has a lot to do with the lack of education on unions at school, but also to do with the anti-union message favored by government and business. He wants to use his platform to educate workers, and help the union movement survive. He’s a busy guy, but we asked him about it.


Larry with Senator Bernie Sanders

So why did you create UnionBase?

"You can get literally everything on the internet. If you want to get a six pack of beer and some pretzels, you can. But why can’t I find anything about the labor movement? Why wasn’t I taught that in school?

"The idea of pulling every single union in the entire country and the world into the same place is massive, and it’s really important. When you have people getting jobs at Uber and Lyft, for example, they might say they like the flexibility, but they’d still like some benefits, and want to be treated like an employee."

People talk a lot about the gig economy, but it’s about more than that

"What we’re doing is becoming more and more relevant because my generation – the ‘millennials’, as we’re called – are thinking, ‘Hey, this is something that our parents had, and we should have it too.’

"People talk a lot about the gig economy at the moment, but it’s about more than that. Exploitation always finds a different form."

Could the labor movement survive without going digital?

"Absolutely not. There’s a generational divide between some of the folks who run unions. I’m a union president here in DC, and I’m the youngest union president I’ve ever met, but my membership are all between the ages of 21 and late 50s.

"The younger generation have much higher expectations. ‘What do you mean, you don’t have a website?’ ‘What do you mean, I have to sign my union membership card in person?’ The limits of the labour movement in the US don’t make sense to people in my generation."

Have you faced any opposition?

"I’ve seen arguments online. People said we were taking away the work of business agents. But I think it just takes a while for an industry to accept something new. The platform has been designed in a way that takes something which can be extremely complicated, and makes it very simple.

I like to compare it to Apple Music – we’re not Napster, trying to give everything away for free; we’re giving added value to the industry.

"I like to compare it to Apple Music – we’re not Napster, trying to give everything away for free; we’re giving added value to the industry, not undermining it. I’m in the Labour movement, and I have the same goals as other Labour leaders. I’m just interested in making them more powerful."

What are the biggest challenges for the Labor movement?

"The Labor movement has been under an all out assault since the 1970s. There's been anti-union advertising, campaigns and legislation.

"There are still huge number of challenges, including some in the federal court, but they’re political problems, and we can solve them by concentrating the power of working people. We’ve proved that over the last year, with all the victories we had against Trump: politicians can’t just get away with what they want."

Workers are afraid to lose, and be fired.

"The problem is, right now only about 10 per cent of Americans are union members. It’s not that people don't want to join, but it’s a two pronged problem: one, there’s a lack of education about what a union does; and two, workers are afraid to lose, and be fired."

What's the future of UnionBase?

"I’ve had sleepless nights for five years about whether I’m doing the right thing, and suddenly it feels like the entire world is showing that the dream is a possibility. We heard from people as far as Brazil, New Zealand, Geneva, Canada. The interest in bringing back unions is way greater than people thought was possible.

"We want workers to have a solid and secure way to connect with their co-workers, to talk privately. For unions to have really clean features at their fingertips that allow them to educate workers on unions."

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  • Macrocompassion

    Look to who owns the land of Greece and why they are not using it properly!

    Discover how much the value of the land is being speculated in by holding it unused and the resulting lack of opportunity. Why can’t small scale farmers begin their own production of farm produce and the selling of it to local suppliers for domestic consumption?

    Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”,
    1776) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being
    labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that
    tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land
    is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to
    other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly
    it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature
    (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its
    site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density
    in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals,
    animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently,
    most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its
    advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its
    general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its
    value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other
    kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big
    advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be
    used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site
    becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law,
    in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an
    item of capital goods, although it is not (Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison:
    “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are
    partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes
    more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always
    benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused
    land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this
    news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information,
    speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land
    values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based
    activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company
    investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes).
    The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values
    of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial
    benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly
    socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one
    method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes
    valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their
    efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable
    due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land
    values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the
    natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will
    deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and
    development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce
    competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and
    manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the
    high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision
    of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing
    wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing
    organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently
    this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit
    opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid
    work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land
    on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord
    who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or
    charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the
    landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land
    and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an
    entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from
    lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax
    system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing
    everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by
    Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists
    seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts.
    (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and
    Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other
    kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value
    tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except
    for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land
    dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and

    Four Aspects for Government:

    1. LVT, adds to the national
    income as do other taxation systems, but it replaces them.

    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related
    taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are visible to all.

    3. Consumers pay less for their
    purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater
    satisfaction with the management of national affairs.

    4. The national economy
    stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due
    to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:

    5. LVT is progressive–owners of
    the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.

    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large
    proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result
    that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even
    when it is not used).

    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices and
    the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.

    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even
    though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites
    become available, the competition for them is less fierce.

    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent
    hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that
    come into use.

    10. With LVT, land prices will
    initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their
    mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be
    introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer
    their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased
    demand for produce (see below).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:

    11. With LVT, there is an
    incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.

    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a
    greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because
    entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because
    they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.

    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital
    goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:

    14. The collection of taxes from
    productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this extortion
    by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from
    the land owner or by the banks–LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.

    15. Bribery and corruption on information
    about land cease. Before, this was due
    to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial
    development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and
    lawyers’ bank balances).

    16. The improved use of the more
    central land reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites
    being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when
    traveling between home and workplace.

    17. Because the LVT eliminates
    the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a
    greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in
    a natural way– to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the
    value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT
    has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty and improve business