‘We Still Have A Lot To Prove’: VC-Backed Union Startup Responds To Skepticism Around Its Model

from Fast Company

Jamie Earl White grew up in a rural Texas town near Uvalde where there was a clear resources divide between “the ranching class and the non-ranching class.” As an MIT student, he took careful notes during Occupy Boston and helped lead the “Justice for Janitors” campaign—a lesson in how, even with the support of the powerful Service Employees International Union, it could still take workers a year and half to win better contract terms.

So, once White found success in tech a few years later, his mind returned to the problem of workers being under-resourced. He chatted with labor leaders, and presciently in 2020, before the current union movement driven by service-industry employees exploded, launched a new startup called Unit of Work whose solution can sound pretty radical: It provides free consulting to workers trying to organize their workplaces.

If the drive is successful, it then asks the newly minted union to pay fees. In the meantime, would-be organizers get everything from an app and legal advice to tips on bargaining tactics and help filling out the mountains of paperwork. They even get access to hard-to-acquire data on stuff like their employer’s finances. But because clearly these services aren’t free, Unit of Work is doing something even more radical: It’s relying on venture capital from Silicon Valley, a move that’s gotten fist-pumps and raised eyebrows since the startup captured its second union vote victory several weeks ago.

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4 Comments

  1. The business model of Unit of Work is quite strange, raising concerns for many. The company is a digital software company that provides specialized services to aid unionizing workers with features such as paperwork aid, bargaining tips, legal advice, and access to employers’ finances (Rainey). The company is a public benefit corporation with its reliance on revenue to be generated by venture capital from Silicon Valley and dues of unionized clients. However, the company has an “exit to community” strategy which entails the use of funds collected from various unionizing clients to be utilized in the long run to buy out investors, and continue to fund more clients (Rainey).
    The concerns of this company run deep, first regarding the background of its investors. Many of the investors of Unit of Work have quite contradicting views to the mission statement of the software app. One of the most notable investors of the company is Bloomberg, which had an extensive history of neglecting unions, targeting contracts, and creating policies that worsened conditions for unions (Hirsch). While White, the founder, does claim that the Bloomberg investor is not Micheal Bloomberg himself, it still raises concern about the ulterior motives of investors possibly staying ahead of union organizers or having some sort of influence. The investors are looking to stay ahead of trends, following the unionizing movement. By following the movement and watching Unit grow, more and more workers will join the trend, creating large profits for investors. It could be speculated that some of these investors are trying to stay ahead of the unionizing efforts within their own companies, gaining influence within the company.
    The US is engulfed in a unionizing movement, with workers across numerous industries demanding proper benefits, better working conditions, and pay. This movement while crucial is not being tackled properly. Apps such as Unit of Work, fail to actually make
    substantial change. The movement should look towards systematic change rather than the bandaid efforts the app provides. It serves as a consultant throughout the process of unionization but falls short of providing the tools necessary for these workers to continue to protect their union on their own. When these workers are faced with backlash or unfair treatment, they are unaware of how to tackle these issues independently. Which raises concern, if workers are villainized and punished in the workplace, failing to make dues, how can they continue to gain support from the app? Or, how can this be sustainable in the future? Will all unionizers need to be a part of the app to get protections, and are dues demanded upon entry of an already established union? Even further, would investors want to continue aiding an app if the unionizers are continuously faced with more obstacles infringing upon profits? Personally, I cannot see the model as sustainable, especially for investors or unionizers, it seems rather, that investors profiting off of other unions rather than their own.
    Work Cited
    Laurenshirsch. “Mike Bloomberg Has a Rocky History with Unions – Here’s How It Could Affect the Democratic Primary Campaign.” CNBC, CNBC, 19 Feb. 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/19/mike-bloombergs-rocky-history-with-unions-may-not-matter-in-2020.html.
    “A New App Is Taking Labor Unions out of Union Organizing.” VICE, 12 Aug. 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/epn87m/a-new-app-is-taking-labor-unions-out-of-union-organizing.
    Rainey, Clint. “’We Still Have a Lot to Prove’: VC-Backed Union Startup Responds to Skepticism around Its Model.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 24 Aug. 2022, https://www.fastcompany.com/90781696/unit-of-work-qa?partner=feedburner&utm_source=feedly&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=feedburner%2Bfastcompany&utm_content=feedburner.

  2. In the modern-day unions are often difficult to establish due to the large amount of cash that need to be acquired to do the work that the employees need. Without this large amount of capital, it is very difficult for workers to effectively fight for their rights as workers. Unit of work is attempting to change that by instead of working as a union itself it is instead doing more consulting work to help the workers instead. This difference between consulting and being an actual union helps keep the cost down for the otherwise union workers who would be paying union fees otherwise. It is weird to think that unions are basically a way for workers to have to pay in order to be treated fairly, however that ends up being the case most of the time. Now however, they have the option of working with Unit of Work of the basis of venture capital in order to receive their benefits more easily. I believe that this is a good model as those that are investing in it are not only looking for a return on their investment, as almost everyone is, but are also looking for a positive societal impact. I think the model of allowing an investor to feel good about the investments they are making both in a financial and a societal sense is incredibly effective. People always want to feel like they are doing something good for the world and if they can do that while making money, I believe they always will. Increased access to increased employee to employer relations will always be an important aspect of bettering people’s lives as work is a huge part of a person’s life. So, if Unit of Work can have any kind of positive impact on this relationship, then I believe it is a win for everyone involved with it.

    • I definitely agree with you; as an employee myself, the most important thing is feeling valued and being shown that we are valued. I do think the aspect or thought about being good for the world and making that difference, is something that motivates employees to feel important. I do feel that without the Union it is hard to protect employees and it’s easier to lose your job at the hands of maybe a manager or person in leadership, due to something minor.

  3. Due to the substantial amount of money required to be collected to complete the tasks that employees desire, it is sometimes problematic to establish organizations in today’s society. It is incredibly tough for employees to adequately fight for their entitlements as employees without it substantial level of funding. Unit of Employment is taking steps to change that by performing more consultancy work to empower the workers instead of engaging as a union. This distinction between assisting and being a recognized union reduces the cost for the workers who would otherwise be union members and pay union dues. While it may seem uncommon to think of unions as a technique for employees to be obligated to contribute to receive treatment fairly, that is commonly the case. Nevertheless, they are now allowed to collaborate with venture capital’s Unit of Activity of the Basis to more quickly collect their benefits. In my view, this is a great model since the participants in it are seeking not only a financial return, as almost everyone does, but also a healthy social influence. In my perspective, the methodology that permits an investor to feel optimistic about the assets in both an economic and ethical sense is very efficient. Individuals continually desire to feel as if they’re participating in the collective good, and if they can do so while also earning an income, I feel they will always do so. Since work occupies a substantial chunk of a person’s life, providing opportunities to boost employee interactions will always be crucial. Therefore, if the Work Unit can have any beneficial effect on this connection, I think everyone involved will benefit from it.

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