The Workers Lab: the union-backed accelerator helping to disrupt capitalism

Co-directors Ebele Ifedigbo (centre) and Lanese Martin (right) pose with fellow Biseat Horning (left) at the offices of The Hood Incubator in Oakland, California. The Oakland-based non-profit, which provides training and mentoring to minority cannabis entrepreneurs, was one of the winners of The Workers Lab 2018 Innovation Fund. (AP/Eric Risberg)

“Last month the first 800 workers started out, and these are people who will have access to healthcare for the first time ever,” explains Carmen Rojas proudly. The 800 workers she is talking about are part of the California Harvesters, a ‘labour trust’ through which farmworkers in California can, as a cooperative, negotiate with farm companies for higher wages and better working standards. Right now it’s the biggest labour cooperative in the United States and it was convened by The Workers Lab, the organisation of which Rojas is CEO.

The Workers Lab is, however, not a traditional trade union. It is more comparable to a tech incubator than anything currently associated with organised labour. In true start-up fashion, The Workers Lab funds, mentors and sometimes initiates projects such as the California Harvesters; it even runs innovation workshops inspired by Google’s design sprints. All of this is done to support a new, worker-oriented economy based on cooperatives, social enterprises and worker participation.

“Scientists have labs to create new medicines; we are a lab where workers can build power. Our core mission is to fund experimentation and innovation to build power for working people in this country,” explains Rojas. “Essentially we are seeking new inventions that bring working people economic power, challenging systems within capitalism that have constrained workers historically.”

And building this worker-oriented economy is an urgent challenge in the US. Inflation-adjusted wages have stagnatedsince the recession of 2008, and in 2015 8.6 million US workers were classified as “working poor” by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Workers Lab hopes to change that.

The Workers Lab recently announced the winners of its 2018 Innovation Fund, in which 334 organisations from 13 countries pitched their projects in the hope of winning one of three open spots. Each of the three winners received US$150,000 in funding, combined with mentorship, training and support.

One of those winners is The Hood Incubator, an organisation focused on building businesses in poor communities focused on the legal cannabis industry. Their mission involves “creating a healthy and sustainable ecosystem of industry access, resources, and support that allows Black communities to benefit from the rising cannabis industry.”

As Rojas explains: “We offer a set of tools to founders and organisations. We have a variety of ways to fund projects, and our programmes offer projects real insights that we hope can help them to scale.”

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When The Workers Lab launched four years ago, it started out using the model of a regular Silicon Valley accelerator, before moving away from it. Accelerators and incubators often have a linear path for companies to pass through. One of the most well-known examples is probably the Y Combinator which processes two “batches” of start-ups each year, and guides them through an intensive programme lasting a few months. “We adapted our model in favour of more continuous and individualised support. People often need different things,” says Rojas.

Union support

The Workers Lab has close links to the trade union movement. It was co-founded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and it is still partly funded by the union. In a 2015 article, then SEIU vice-president David Rolf explained his rationale. Posing the question, “What if we treated labor like a startup?” he called on the labour movement to “stop investing the bulk of its funds in an infrastructure that has failed us and take a cue from an unlikely place: Silicon Valley.” The Workers Lab is what it looks like when unions take a cue from Silicon Valley.

However, many of the recent successes of the US trade union movement have been due to increased organising, not startup methods. “Nissan, the union-backed Fight for $15 campaign for minimum wage workers and now the teachers have shown that after years of attack from anti-union powers, organized labor can still make a difference,” labour reporter Mike Elk recently wrote for the Guardian.

So isn’t investing in an accelerator just a distraction for trade unions? Not for Rojas. The Workers Lab also collaborates with organisers, although mainly in the field of civil rights and anti-racism. Rojas sees her work as complementary to more traditional forms of labour organising, and not as a replacement.

“Traditional labour organising is very important, yet there is a whole universe of ways to build worker power beyond collective bargaining and organising,” she states.

Interestingly for a union-backed initiative, The Workers Lab adopts much of the language and thinking of the tech world. It originally described itself as an ‘accelerator’, it hosts design sprints and talks about disruption. Between the world of unions, and the world of tech, however, a major rift exists. Silicon Valley is notoriously anti-union, and unions so far have had little success in organising people in the technology sector.

“People on the worker side often ask why we don’t just invest in organising, and people on the tech side often ask why we don’t just invest in startups and make a billion dollars,” explains Rojas. “Yet we use the organising structures and the languages of these two worlds in order to keep a presence in both spaces, and to act as a translator between the two.”

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Race matters

Since its founding in 2014 The Workers Lab has been led by Rojas, who has a PhD in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and spent 20 years in the philanthropic and non-profit sector before joining The Workers Lab. When asked about the most important lessons from the last four years, she talks about the issue of race in the US: “In the US context race matters, and I feel that it has been a huge blind spot in the labour movement,” she explains. “The organising that has taken place in Black and Latino communities has been so paramount in shifting the cultural and political narrative.”

And this also extends into the work carried out at The Workers Lab. It supports organising in Black and Latino communities, for example, through the Black Lives Matter movement, and many of the people involved in the California Harvesters (and California farmwork in general) are Latino.

This overlap of startup thinking and trade unions is still relatively rare across the world, but similar initiatives do exist. In the UK, the TUC Digital arm of the Trades Union Congress has been tasked with digitising its activities, as well as interfacing with the UK tech scene on issues such as the gig economy and blockchain.

Research into what technology will mean for the world of work is also speeding up. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) are both looking at what measures need to be taken to ensure that the future of work centres around decent work, while the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has adopted a resolution on digitalisation.

In the meantime, The Workers Lab will keep striving to build a new economy, says Rojas: “What is sad in the US is that many working people feel that there is nobody fighting for them. And we want to change that. Every year we want to be able to point to a large group of workers whose life is better because we exist.”

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