The first time Olga Fitzroy heard of Organise, a platform that provides tools for people who want to run campaigns on workers rights, was just after she had set up a Twitter page for her campaign for shared parental leave for the self-employed.
Fitzroy, a recording engineer who went freelance in 2013 to work on Coldplay’s sixth album Ghost Stories, discovered after she had her son that she was not eligible to share her pay with her partner under the Shared Parental Leave regulations introduced in 2015.
As a self-employed woman with no job security other than the loyalty of her clients, she feared taking 39 weeks off with only 10 "keeping in touch" days to maintain client relationships. When she was awarded MPG recording engineer of the year in 2016, she decided to use her position to do something about it.
Fitzroy started with a Twitter page for a new campaign she called Parental Pay Equality. The page was in its infancy, with just 20 followers, when she got a message from Nat Whalley asking her if she’d like to run the campaign on Organise. The two women went for coffee, where Whalley explained that Organise provides tools for people to raise the profile of work issues, including petitions, open letters and surveys.
Though Government petitions had been popular for some time, Fitzroy recognised that Organise could give her campaign the edge: “The thing that swung it for me was the fact that we would be able to keep in touch with all the petition signers and let them know about new developments in the campaign, and ask them to take further actions.”
Through Organise, Fitzroy started a petition that now has over 9000 signatures. The platform has also facilitated surveys that have helped Fitzroy shape the direction of the campaign. “The last one we did was on self-employed mothers returning to work,” she says. “We found that by the time their child is 2 only one-fifth of self-employed women are back to their pre-baby earnings, compared to 26 per cent amongst employees.”
Whalley launched Organise a year ago. The platform has since helped workers organise anonymous campaigns at McDonald’s, Amazon, Uber and Deliveroo, decentralising the means of direct action away from trade unions. It has had funding from the Resolution Foundation and Bethnal Green Ventures to offer tools to workers with no charge. Whalley and lead campaigner Usman Mohammed believe that rather than being a threat to the union model, Organise can work alongside unions to give workers more power.
“The nature of work is changing quite dramatically and the ways that workers are communicating is changing too,” Mohammed says. “We want to be working alongside unions with more legal rights and can organise strikes to help them, but we also want to operate in a contemporary space to give people the tools to do things in their workplace without relying on an external power.”
Almost five million people in the UK are self-employed, while an increasing number are employed on precarious or zero-hours contracts that do not guarantee a set wage. Mohammed says Organise is helpful in sectors like the music industry where workers are atomised, providing a digital space to come together and set demands.
“The classic workforce is disappearing. People aren’t talking over the watercooler because there isn’t a watercooler. So creating a digital space for this means that people realise the systemic nature of their problems and feel more confident to step forward.”
Organise also offers its users anonymity, making those in precarious work less afraid of speaking out against injustices. “It’s a process of decentralising power as much as possible,” Mohammed says. “Organise means you can represent yourself, there’s nothing wrong with you asking co-workers if you have shared problems. The problem is anonymity. Our platform gives people the opportunity to be anonymous, so people can take action against their employers without their identity being known.”
The idea for Organise came to Whalley when she was working at 38 Degrees, a not-for-profit activism organisation. Enraged when a friend was made redundant after she fell pregnant, Whalley decided to set up a Crowdfunder campaign to help. The threat of the Crowdfunder got her friend her job back within 24 hours.
After a period working as a consultant, Whalley set up Organise in 2017 and Mohammed joined as lead campaigner in November. While it’s still just the two of them, Organise has quickly by approaching workers, especially off the back of news stories about malpractice and poor working conditions. The team send out a weekly poll to take the temperature of workplace issues and can help workers Organise action around shared problems. The tools have been used by 21,000 people since the site has been live.
Through Organise, Fitzroy has asked supporters to donate to a Crowdfunder for a protest outside parliament, to Tweet along with a TV appearance and to find people willing to share their stories with the press.
“I think if we'd done it through the government site we wouldn't have been able to do that,” she says. “It’s not the sort of issue that we expect to get 100,000 signers on overnight, which is the number you need to secure a debate from the government petitions site.”
As a result of their campaign, Parental Pay Equality has a 10-minute rule bill going through parliament, sponsored by Tracy Brabin MP.
Fitzroy says Organise is useful for those who wouldn't necessarily join a trade union. “I think some people who don't come from a traditional trade union background may be hesitant to join, and those who are in insecure employment may also not want the financial commitment of a union,” she says. “I don't think Organise replaces the trade union movement, but there is potential for unions to work with more agile digital companies like Organise to reach those people who aren't traditional members.”
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