Late last year, Erni Poché took a temporary job with the petition website Change.org. The gig involved scouring the Internet for grassroots campaigns with the best chances of going viral then tapping the company's resources to boost their reach.
"During the pandemic, I was just grateful to have a job," said Poché, who is 23 and lives in Manhattan. Her job was eventually made permanent. She now works full time, earning just under $50,000 a year.
"I live in New York City," she said. "That doesn't go a long way."
She had swapped stories with other colleagues who were at Change.org on short-term contracts. They, too, felt like their jobs were precarious and underpaid, she said.
There was one more thing that bothered her: Poché, who is a Black Latina, kept getting assigned to online petitions about race.
"Hiring BIPOC staff, we are not diversity, equity and inclusion specialists," she said, using the acronym for Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
These frustrations led Poché to join her colleagues in forming a union. This week, those efforts paid off. She and more than 70 others at Change.org became members of the Communications Workers of America's CODE-CWA Project, the same union that Google employees joined earlier this year.
"The workers at Change.org are part of a growing movement in the tech sector," said Tom Smith, the union's organizing director. "Workers want a voice in decisions that their employers are making about things like wages and benefits and how diversity, equity and inclusion programs are being implemented."
From Google to lesser-known companies Glitch and Mapbox, the tech sector has seen a surge of union activism that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. While many tech workers enjoy generous pay and benefits, workers increasingly view organized labor as a way to advocate for contractors in riskier positions, improve workplace conditions and speak publicly, without fear of retaliation, about their employers' policies and decisions.
Change.org workers' 'drawing inspiration' from online petitions
Change.org, a San Francisco startup founded in 2007, became one of the best known petition websites by harnessing the power of the Internet to drive social change.
It is a dot-org website, but it is a for-profit company that has been assisted mightily by Silicon Valley investors, like LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Bill Gates and Twitter co-founder Ev Williams.
In just the past couple months, its petitions have had major victories.
Activist Opal Lee has turned to the site to help make Juneteenth a national holiday; a fifth grader in New Jersey convinced her local board of education to add the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr to the district's calendar after a Change.org petition; and a campaign from a transgender student in Ontario led to new policies at a Catholic school district there.
These kinds of tangible wins around social justice causes motivate Change.org employees like Sriya Sarkar, 30, a senior content producer there. She said the company's workers devote so much energy to problems around the world that it has taken them until now to apply the same critical lens to their own situations.
"Nobody at Change is trying to become Daddy Warbucks. Clearly we're here because we deeply care about the mission," Sarkar said. "It's almost like we were drawing inspiration from the very people who come to our platform to create change in their communities. We're drawing inspiration from them by speaking up for the change we want to see internally."
Management at Change.org agreed not to fight the union after a majority of its workers in the U.S. showed their support, avoiding the need for the vote to be recorded in an election.
Change.org has 217 employees, and about half of them are in the U.S. About 23% of its workers are contractors, statistics provided by the company show.
Bec Wilson, the acting chief operating officer at Change.org, told NPR that the organization is the largest tech company to voluntarily recognize an employee union.
"We were committed from the beginning to support a union if a majority of relevant and eligible staff did, and they did," Wilson said. "It makes sense to me in these times of uncertainty that employees, including in tech, would seek the security and protection of unionization."
The next step is for both management and the union to negotiate their first contract, which is expected to start some time this fall.
'Leadership is overwhelmingly white .... It's time to change that'
Change.org is a $260 million company, according to a 2017 valuation provided by data analytics firm PitchBook. But both entry-level workers who support petitions and engineers, designers and others who work on the website say they are underpaid compared to peers at similar firms.
Radha Nath, 30, a product designer at the company, said she is paid $16,000 less than she was at her last employer. The union will fight to bring wages across the company to the industry standard, she said.
"Even the most well-intentioned companies have challenges," Nath said. "Workers need to be equally part of those conversations and sometimes that takes protection and legally binding contracts."
Through organizing, Poché learned that the average salary for a support employee was about $50,000, even in expensive cities like New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Poché works a second job as an interpreter to make ends meet in Manhattan.
Sarkar, the senior producer, said while she would like to earn more money, she was motivated to join the union to fight for better compensation for colleagues who are not paid as well, like Poché.
"We are a social impact, mission-driven company. We're not a Google or a Facebook," Sarkar added. "But I want to make sure everybody is getting paid a wage that will allow them to live comfortably."
A staff survey from earlier this year found that about 40% of Change.org's staff identify as people of color. The company told NPR that two of its six top executives are people of color: Ismael Savadogo, its chief financial officer, is a Black man; and Elaine Zhou, Change's chief technology officer, is a woman of Chinese descent.
When the police killing of George Floyd set off a national conversation about racial inequality last year, Change.org was among many companies that pledged to its workers to be more inclusive. Committees were formed and recommendations handed down, but workers of color say the company's culture does not always reflect its stated values.
Poché believes she was assigned to certain petitions because of her race. For instance, she was brought on to help with online campaigns involving clemencies and pardons. To her, the debate over the criminal justice system, which disproportionately affects people of color, was not an abstract one. Her cousin had been incarcerated and she was bothered that her employer had not considered her own personal connection to the issue before relying on her to do some of the heavy lifting.
"There comes a point when you sort of check out a little bit. You're dealing with this in your every day life, and you're also dealing with it at work," Poché said.
And, Nath adds, rank-and-file employees of color still carry the burden of educating leadership about diversity and inclusion.
"It can only be resolved by having diverse leaders at the table," she said. "We can't just keep saying we're going to do it. We need to hold management accountable."
While Change.org has made strides in hiring a more diverse workforce, Sarkar said c-suite shakeups are still in order.
"As with most companies, let alone tech companies, our leadership is overwhelmingly white," she said. "And it's 2021 and it's time to change that."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Change.org's online petitions draw attention to social issues around the world. But now the company's staff are turning the focus on themselves. Workers there have formed a union over issues like wages and racial inclusion, and labor activists working on the tech industry are hailing it as a victory. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Erni Poche started as a temporary contractor at Change.org during the pandemic. Poche's job involved scouring the internet for campaigns that could go viral and providing resources to petition-creators. She was eventually hired full time, her salary just under $50,000 a year.
ERNI POCHE: I live in New York City. That doesn't go a long way.
ALLYN: To make ends meet, she also works as a part-time interpreter. Poche got to talking to others who had experience as contractors at the company. Everybody wanted better pay and more stability.
POCHE: I definitely believe that Change.org can contribute to an equitable workplace, and that starts with paying folks a living wage.
ALLYN: This push led Poche and about 70 of her colleagues to form a union under a unit of the Communications Workers of America, focused on people in media and tech. Sriya Sarkar is a content producer at Change.
SRIYA SARKAR: We're drawing inspiration from the very people who come to our platform to create change in their communities. We're drawing inspiration from them by speaking up for the change we want to see internally.
ALLYN: Sarkar says it took talking to more junior and lower-paid employees that there was a role for a union at Change.org.
SARKAR: Unions, to me, honestly, were - I had always thought of them as something that, like, factory workers are involved with, and then the Pinkertons are sent in to bust kneecaps. I didn't think that unions were a relevant solution for tech companies.
ALLYN: There has been a surge in employee activism in Silicon Valley in recent months. It's been driven by a desire to stand up for contractors in risky positions and employees wanting to speak out publicly about their company's role in society. That's resulted in a small union at Google and a handful of others at smaller tech companies. But this is how unionization at Change.org stands out - it has just around 200 employees, but it's now the largest tech company to not fight an employee union. The company instead agreed to voluntarily recognize it. That's according to Bec Wilson, a top executive at Change.
BEC WILSON: It makes sense to me in these times of uncertainty that employees, including in tech and including our team, would seek the security and protection of unionization.
ALLYN: The union says they will fight for a fair wage, especially for the more than 20% of its staff who are contractors. Another top priority for the union, something less traditional than pay and benefits - changing how the company handles race and diversity issues. Poche, who is a Black Latina, says the company has made strides recently in making diverse hires. But then, Poche says, they were the ones who took on online petitions involving race and the ones who had to educate the company's leadership about race.
POCHE: We are not diversity, equity and inclusion specialists.
ALLYN: Workers say they want to see more people of color in management positions. Though two of Change's six top executives are people of color, Sarkar says across management, Change has more work to do.
SARKAR: Our leadership is overwhelmingly white. And it's 2021, and it's time to change that.
ALLYN: Union officials and management will begin negotiating their first contract sometime this fall.
Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.
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