Building Worker Power: Our Updated Strategy & Learnings
By Tracy Williams, Director and John Joanino, Associate, Reimagining Capitalism
At Omidyar Network, we know that a more inclusive economy is only possible when working people have greater power and voice. Power allows working people to advocate for better wages, policies, benefits, training, job opportunities, and working conditions — and critically, it provides an essential counterweight to rising corporate dominance and outsized corporate influence in our political system. We can only have a healthier economy when working people have power and voice in the economy, democracy, and society as a whole. These truths led us to our initial investment of $8 million in 20 organizations and initiatives since we launched this effort two years ago.
We recognize that righting power imbalances endemic to our economic system is deeply complex work. We believe that this level of system change requires us to take an emergent learning approach. As part of our ongoing effort to continuously gather feedback and test our assumptions, we conducted a comprehensive review of our Worker Power strategy with the Center for Evaluation Innovation (CEI) last year. We drew on 41 conversations with grantees and others in our network, including worker centers, unions, think tanks, grassroots organizing coalitions, co-funders, labor beat journalists, and labor law experts. Twenty-seven of these conversations were conducted by CEI to collect fully confidential feedback on our original strategy and impact. We spoke directly with 14 other organizations focused on forward-looking strategy options. Across these conversations, we worked to stretch beyond testing our original strategy to explore new areas of focus, including specific sectors (e.g., gig), engagement mechanisms (e.g., narrative change) and target audiences (e.g., BIPOC communities, women).
The insights surfaced through the evaluation process shaped our new strategy, which includes a commitment to invest an additional $16 million over the next four years.
Our initial strategy
The first was to identify and test innovations in alternative worker organizing and power building models, particularly those that had potential for financial sustainability and scale. We hypothesized that tech-enabled worker organizing could complement the base building work of unions and offer hard-to-reach workers — such as those in more fragmented and “fissured” industries — a platform to exercise their voice.
Our second strategy was to engage in state policy fights with the goal of winning structural changes that increase worker voice and representation. We believed that states could use policy to enact new structures for workers to exercise power, such as sectoral standard setting mechanisms, and we hoped that such models could set a blueprint for other states or even at the federal level.
Finally, our third strategy was to soften the ground for federal labor law reform. Though we launched the workstream during a federal environment that was not receptive to expanding worker power, we aimed to find ways to engage in longer-term work to enable future federal labor law reforms, such as through narrative change, relationship building, and policy development.
All of our work was guided by a focus on supporting low- and mid-wage workers, and recognizing that working people of color and women are disproportionately trapped in low quality jobs, due to a long history of discrimination and the resulting structural imbalances in our labor markets.
The pandemic was a major shock to our strategy. Worker power became a critically salient issue almost overnight, as stakeholders and decision makers were suddenly concerned about the working conditions of newly deemed “essential workers.” COVID also amplified the contrast between high-wage workers in mostly remote, professional industries who were able to weather the pandemic in safety, versus lower-wage, service-oriented workers — largely women and people of color — who put their lives in danger every day.
Lessons from our strategic review
In general, our conversations validated our original strategic choices, although they did indicate that we should reprioritize our focus across these choices. We anchored our new strategy on five key pieces of feedback:
● State and local policy is a promising area of focus in the near term. There is energy and momentum in states and cities across the country, where working people are fighting for and winning new models to exercise power, such as the Harris County Essential Workers Board in Texas and the FAST Recovery Act in California,which passed the Assembly in January and is in motion in the state Senate. If it becomes law, it will create a standard-setting board for the fast-food sector. States with progressive leaders could be especially well-positioned to develop and implement cutting edge models that could serve as demonstrations for others, including federal policymakers.
● Organizing and policy are power-building mechanisms. While we’ve held an implicit assumption that durable organizing is critical to achieve policy wins, we agree with feedback we received from some partners that we need to be more explicit in seeing both effective, long term organizing and power-centered policy as critical parts of the work, as they support and reinforce each other.
● Cross-racial organizing can support workers of color while also broadening solidarity. We asked whether we should have a specific focus on people of color, white working class, or other constituencies (e.g., higher-wage, women, or gig workers). While we heard a variety of perspectives, a number of partners noted the value of cross-racial organizing in particular — bringing together BIPOC and white working communities in pursuit of common goals — which could enable the broader solidarity necessary for a healthy labor movement.
● Narrative and storytelling integrated into our strategy. We heard that it would be valuable to better integrate narrative change and storytelling across our portfolio, and that narratives and stories should be driven by people with lived experience, conscious of racial dynamics in the workforce, focused on wins (and not just losses), and done in coordination with partners so we can shape a shared narrative together.
● Given limitations to our resources and the current landscape, we should de-emphasize some areas of work. The most consistent feedback we heard was to scale back on federal policy (particularly vis-à-vis state and local policy), given that other partners already expend significant resources in this area. Additionally, the Senate filibuster, the courts, and corporate power are currently major obstacles limiting our ability to drive change. We were also cautioned not to focus too narrowly on “new organizing models,” given both their limited traction to date and the dangers of chasing after “new” for the sake of newness. Finally, we heard a mix of perspectives as to whether engaging with business is a feasible and fruitful strategy to build support for worker power.
Where We Are Going
Coming out of our review process and the rich feedback we received, we will be anchoring our efforts on state and local policy and organizing, while integrating narrative work and supporting cross-racial solidarity.
We will still aim to focus on policies that advance worker power, versus worker rights and conditions. We will continue to look for and help develop transformative organizing approaches that build power to enact policy change, especially if they include durable coalitions that have a wide range of stakeholders at the table (e.g., unions, worker centers, academics, advocates, community groups) and can set longer term, power-building strategies together. While we plan to select some target areas to work in, we also want to leave space to be opportunistic across a range of geographies and sectors, especially in the early phase of our strategy.
In addition to state and local policy and organizing, we remain open to four additional areas of work:
- We will continue to track federal policy, inspired by the pro-worker stance of the Biden Administration. Given the feedback noted above, federal legislative efforts will be largely out of scope, although we will look for ways to support partners in and around the Administration advancing worker power on other fronts, such as through data collection and research, or other executive actions.
- We will consider supporting promising organizing models, primarily ones with a strong track record and a compelling plan for growth and scale.
- We will integrate narrative work across our portfolio while leaving space for targeted narrative initiatives that could include research, innovative storytelling, or engaging target audiences through new media platforms. This will be done in partnership and coordination with field partners.
- Finally, we will more intentionally look for ways to work in partnership with unions and business. We aim to better understand and coordinate with unions in ways we know are critical to impact. Coming from business, we want to leverage Omidyar Network’s unique history to explore how we might be able to engage the business community — whether small or large businesses, or socially-minded or union businesses — on a range of issues that can build worker power.
We are enormously thankful to our grantees and partners for their generous time, knowledge, and learning throughout our engagement with them, and to everyone who participated in our review process to challenge our assumptions, share new ideas, and help shape our strategy moving forward. We hope our new strategy does justice to the feedback we heard while also setting boundaries that will help us make the best use of our resources and capabilities. We look forward to continuing to learn and evolve in partnership with our allies, and we are grateful for the immense privilege we have to do this work.
· David Madland, Center for American Progress
· Erica Smiley, Jobs with Justice
· Alexandra Suh, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance
· Alison Omens, JUST Capital
· Veena Dubal, University of California Hastings
· Naomi Walker, Economic Policy Institute
· Neidi Dominguez, Unemployed Workers United
· Elissa McBride, AFSCME
· Michael Podhorzer, AFL-CIO
· Emily Martin, National Women’s Law Center
· Kathryn Bach, Brookings Institution
· Annette Bernhardt PhD, UC Berkeley Labor Center
· Jennifer Sherer, Economic Analysis and Research Network
· Andrew Kassoy, B Lab
· Veronica Mendez, CTUL
· Mary Beth Maxwell, Open Society Foundations
· Carmen Rojas PhD, Marguerite Casey Foundation
· Steven Greenhouse, Journalist
· Bill Dempsey
· Shehryar Kaoosji, Warehouse Worker Resource Center
· Arun Ivatury, SEIU
· David Rolf, Founder and President Emeritus, SEIU 775