Michelle Miller headshot

Michelle Miller, co-founder of Coworker.org, is creating a 21st century labor movement.


Across the U.S., from urban centers to rural communities, many people feel as though the scales are tipped against them. Coworker.org co-founder Michelle Miller’s childhood in the coalfields of West Virginia showed her the promise of economic security brought by a strong labor movement as well as the scarcity communities experience when industry leaves. Ashoka’s Michael Zakaras spoke with Michelle to learn more about her vision for creating a 21st century labor movement and why forward-looking companies are getting onboard.

Michelle, some say we are living in a second gilded age, referring to historic wealth imbalance — is this a starting off point for your work? 

Yes and no. Wealth inequality and wage stagnation are definitely markers of our times. But what else is going on here? We think it has to do with agency, voice, people feeling powerless in their workplaces. Most Americans, 94% of the private sector workforce, have no easy access to representation in their workplaces or the ability to pursue collective advocacy. So when they come up against an issue they want to see change – paid family leave, wage transparency, much more – there aren’t a lot of effective levers.

How are you addressing this? 

We are trying to rebuild the infrastructure for worker voice in the economy. We believe that when people have a say, and their bosses have accountability back to them, they are able to improve conditions for everybody. This goes beyond one workplace — it’s about an entire workforce or a region or economy starting to think about work and money and economics as something that all of us should have an equal say in instead of something that should be controlled by very few for the benefit of very few. 

You started Coworker as an online platform in 2013. Tell us how it works. 

People who work in companies start and run campaigns on our online platform. So for example, our Starbucks network, now 15% of the company’s global workforce, grew out of a campaign about dress codes and visible tattoos. The network has gone on to address wages, change the company’s scheduling practices, and do things like get drop boxes placed in customer bathrooms to deal with needles from the opioid epidemic. How have they been able to identify and solve those problems? Because they are the experts about what needs to change. They are the ones in charge of building out their own strategies — and we are supporting them.  

Management teams and CEOs must have reservations — what do you tell them? 

We tell them what we know to be true: the people who do this organizing work inside their companies really want to solve a problem. They have found something that is not meeting what they expect out of the company. That’s actually a very powerful thing. Sure, many business owners and those in management have a knee jerk fear when dissent rises. But you can learn so much from dissent — and we are showing that it doesn’t have to be destructive as long as both parties show up with a commitment to solving the problem.

Coworker is not just a platform. What else do you do?

 We are taking our experience in the labor movement and making it available to anybody who wants to put it to use. That means that when  people come together in online networks and we make sure they can find one another. We help them think through their strategies. We run polls to track the issues that come up again and again — across companies, industries, and issues. We can start to see — and help build — the infrastructure for worker power and labor policy in the future. 

Why is now an especially important moment? 

How Americans work is changing fast. Over the past 30 years, workers have moved into part-time, contracted, subcontracted freelance gigs. This has been aided by deregulation and the opening of opportunities for people to shift into independent work models. The advent of technology made it much easier to manage large complex systems of independent workers. But firms that gained a competitive advantage partially did so by shifting people into models that required fewer benefits like workers’ compensation, disability, unemployment insurance — putting workers at greater risk.

Isn’t this where unions step in?  

Some unions have done and continue to do innovative and thoughtful work. What we’re thinking about is what if there are multiple models for people to have power inside the economy or inside their workplaces that take into account how the economy may change in the future. That way, we’re tying what the labor movement is to what the economy is at a very specific moment. 

Looking ahead, what will be different in 10 years? 

Frontline employees, especially folks in lower wage professions, will have more of a sense of agency in their workplaces. They will be paid a living wage and won’t have to work two or three jobs. This means they will have more time — time to really show up for their families and communities, participate in democracy, and take that democratic participation into their workplaces to change the ways companies exist in our economy.

What about your work most energizes you?

Meeting the people who come through to the platform. I sometimes go into the back end of the website and read all the comments just so I can hear from workers who are talking about what’s going on in their jobs and what they envision for themselves and their coworkers, and their companies and industries. Right now, I’m following a truck driver, Desiree Wood, who’s been campaigning for months on our site, building a national network of women in trucking. They met last week with with the head of the Federal Motor Safety Administration. Watching the ways these women support each other and build the way for everyone else is incredibly inspiring.

Michelle Miller is a 2019 Ashoka Fellow. You can read more about her and her work here, and about the other Ashoka Fellows here. This interview was condensed by Ashoka.

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