Will your boss read your Slack DMs? (And what are the implications for workplace organizing?)

By: Jess Kutch and Michelle Miller, co-founders of Coworker.org

Slack, a popular platform for workplace collaboration, recently released a new version of its privacy policy and tools that raises real concerns for employee rights and privacy. Fast Company summarizes one of the changes: “Under the new rules, Slack customers who pay for certain premium services will be able to download all the data from their workspace–both public and private–apparently without informing members of the community. Which is to say: Information from both private messages (DMs) and room chats are fair game if the owner of the Slack wants it.” As a New York Magazine headline reads: “It’s Now Really Easy for Your Boss to Read Your Slack DMs.”

Employees are concerned that a digital tool many use to share workplace concerns and receive support for issues like sexual harassment — could be under increased surveillance by their employers.

Recently, there have been a number of prominent examples of employees using Slack to improve workplace conditions or otherwise connect in a private space about their workplace concerns:

  • Employees at Vox used the platform and held a “Slack strike” to push for recognition of their union
  • Before DNAinfo shut down, women journalists started a private Slack channel to share their “deepest, most intimate experiences, sources of humiliation and shame and hurt, in a place void of judgement or the need for explanations”
  • The Washington Post invited readers into a Slack-based community that “quickly become home to discussions about the male-female wage gap, salary negotiation tactics, and news about job openings”
  • Employees at GitHub set up a private channel to discuss fears they had about the company’s commitment to social impact and perceived changes to the internal culture

The debate around Slack’s new policies points to a larger conversation around how employees can exercise their right to speak about the issues affecting them and take collective action in the modern workplace and with access to rapidly evolving digital tools. A recent paper by Coworker.org’s co-founder Michelle Miller published with the Roosevelt Institute’s Eric Bernstein illustrates the importance of private online tools for communication can be for employees:

“Though it can often be taken for granted, previous generations of workplace organizing rested simply on the centralizing force of the firm itself. But workers at franchises or within a supply chain layered with multiple levels of sub-contractors may only ever see a small fraction of their coworkers, and an even smaller percentage of fellow employees facing similar circumstances. Meanwhile, digital contractors, temp workers, and freelancers perform tasks in near isolation. In this context, establishing new pathways through which workers could connect with one another to share concerns would be a precursor to any attempts at organizing.”

That dynamic is especially critical in workspaces where the primary means of communication is a digital platform (like Slack), which replaces the centralizing force of the firm. Michelle’s paper goes on to argue:

“As the internet and independent worker-led digital platforms will provide the most natural gathering place for distributed workforces, corporate control of internet access must continue to be held at bay…

“This also means that workers should be assured their digital organizing activities will not be exposed by one employer to another, or to government entities with an interest in the suppression of more general protest activity. Tech platforms sharing and selling data to one another is already a contentious issue in the privacy space, but government regulators should also protect workers’ privacy when it comes to preserving labor rights. This may include levying penalties on companies that infiltrate protected online spaces through the use of agitators or employee espionage.”

Whether you’re using Slack or not, it is important for all employees to know their rights in the workplace so that they can protect themselves against employee retaliation. In the U.S., under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), “supervisors and managers cannot spy on you (or make it appear that they are doing so), coercively question you, threaten you or bribe you regarding your union activity or the union activities of your co-workers. You can’t be fired, disciplined, demoted, or penalized in any way for engaging in these activities.” Read more about the NLRA and employee surveillance here.

Furthermore, under the NLRA, “your employer cannot prohibit you from talking about the union during working time if it permits you to talk about other non-work-related matters during working time.” That is to say, if an employer allows its workers to talk about their new puppy or their daughter’s graduation during working hours, the employer cannot stop employees from talking with their coworkers about their working conditions, using their voices to better their jobs, or forming or joining a union while working. Lastly, employees using employer’s email lists to discuss working conditions have also been protected.

Despite these protections, the law as currently written falls short in shielding employees from employers spying during the digital age. According to an FAQ on employee surveillance by Workplace Fairness, a comprehensive online resource for employees about their workplace rights, “employers can legally monitor almost anything an employee does at work as long as the reason for monitoring is important enough to the business. Employers may install video cameras, read postal mail and e-mail, monitor phone and computer usage, use GPS tracking, and more.”

An employee who has used a company Slack to organize questions about employment contract changes said, “It’s very difficult to have to use multiple platforms, and especially to convince other people to do it. And that doesn’t just impact organizing, but also basic everyday navigation of office politics and forming workplace relationships.

As a tool that has become central to communication in many workplaces around the world, Slack can and should do more to ensure that the rights of employees to discuss workplace issues — and not generate revenue by charging employers to surveil their employees. Data transparency should not come at the expense of employee privacy and workplace rights.

Coworker.org is a global platform to advance change in the workplace. Our technology makes it easy for individuals or groups of employees to launch, join and win campaigns to improve their jobs and workplaces. You can start your own campaign about changes you want to see in your workplace on Coworker.org here — or contact us at info@coworker.org if you would like to discuss a workplace issue with our team.

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