by Brett Johnson
Social media can be for more than just sharing cat pictures. A group of UC Davis students are using it as a new way of voicing concerns about one’s workplace.
Their idea for an online application earned them an invitation from the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to a quadrennial conference in Los Angeles on Sept. 8-11. They had a central position at the high-profile convention, which initially included President Obama as a keynote speaker.
Drew explained the theme of the symposium, which took place last year at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center: ”We were looking at how to help laborers in the low-wage, precarious work force communicate and organize to improve conditions. We thought that social media could be of some assistance to those people, the working poor.”
Before the symposium, the professors pulled together students from UCD’s design and computer science departments to build a thematically appropriate application from scratch and present it there.
The “hack-a-thon,” as it was referred to, had students from both UCD and UCLA huddled into a room for 24 hours straight on the eve of the conference, in a rush to conceptualize and create a workable prototype.
Katherine Fukui, a recent UCD grad who was involved in crafting the app, said the design was focused on using a type of social media that is often forgotten about: forwarding texts to large groups of people.
“We wanted to use that to reach people,” Fukui said. “You can share your story from the workplace by submitting a text, because a lot of the workers we’re concentrating on don’t have smartphones or steady Internet.”
She further explained that such stories will be placed on an interactive map of the United States, which can be explored like one would with Google Maps. The database contains stories both new and old, but can be filtered.
“Labor organizations can look at these stories and see where they’re coming from,” Fukui said. “Let’s say there’s a large concentration of stories in Stockton, they can look through that area and see what the problems are.
“You can also browse by time. Let’s say some new legislation was passed; you can go through stories before and after and see how that had an effect. Those are the ways we’re hoping people can use it to build solidarity.”
Users of the application also can sort the stories by key words to better isolate specific industries; such as “farming,” “retail” or “fast food.” Those who want to post stories can choose to have their identity protected.
One anonymous Stockton farm worker’s account describes driving out to his blueberry-picking job in a van without air conditioning, and nearly passing out after overheating from hours of uninterrupted work in the sun.
He recounted quickly returning to the field after cooling down, and said, “I didn’t ask for help, because I wanted to continue to work and make money.”
Another laborer related a horror story from his time as a freight carrier, in which he and his co-workers were regularly bitten by spiders in an employer’s infested warehouse.
Fukui said the anecdotes that appear on the website, which can be visited at storiesofsolidarity.org, were gathered at the labor convention and from OUR Walmart, an organization that advocates for Walmart workers.
The goal for the four UCD students who have devoted themselves to continuing work on the application is to have it be more than an experiment. The team has plans for expanded functionality and a mobile app in the long term.
“It’s been crazy how much support we’ve gotten so far,” Fukui said. “And it’s validation for the endless nights we’ve stayed up working on the prototype.”