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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