The organized labor movement has a new ally: venture capitalists

Sam Dean, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The staff at PEN America made the announcement in June: They were forming a union.

Like their fellow workers at Starbucks stores and Amazon warehouses around the country, the employees of PEN, a literary and human rights nonprofit, decided to form an independent union, unaffiliated with any of the dozens of major labor unions across the country. But in this case, there was a twist.

"We're so grateful to have been supported by @UnitUnionizing throughout this drive," the union drive leaders tweeted. "We've learned so much from their organizers, legal advisers, and comms experts!"

A startup backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Unit of Work is an unlikely candidate for the role of labor-movement champion. Its outside investors have made fortunes backing technologies such as artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies and video games. One is among California's foremost critics of public-sector labor unions.

But these people used to multi-billion-dollar exits see a big opportunity in the atomized, restive condition of America's workforce and the possibility of transforming it through a new era of unionization. "We only invest in areas where we think we can get a return," said Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta, the venture arm of billionaire Mike Bloomberg's media empire.

Unit's business model works like this: The startup's organizers provide free consulting to groups of workers organizing unions within their own workplaces — helping them build support to win elections, advising them on strategy in contract-bargaining sessions, guiding them through paperwork filings and around legal obstacles. Once a contract is in place, members of the new union can decide to pay Unit a monthly fee — similar to traditional union dues — to keep providing support.


Jamie Earl White, Unit's founder, got his first taste of labor organizing as a grad student at MIT, helping organize a solidarity campaign with campus janitors pushing for better pay and working conditions.

After MIT, he co-founded and ran a medical device startup called Common Sensing. After stepping down as president in 2018, he considered his next move.

"There were a couple areas I was interested in, like education and direct-to-consumer healthcare, where I thought we could subvert the perverse incentives of the healthcare industry," White said. "But what I kept coming back to was bringing my tech and organizational skills to the labor movement."

The movement could use the help. Only 10.3% of U.S. workers (nearly 16% in California) are in a union, down from a peak of nearly 35% in 1954. In the private sector, only 6.1% of U.S. workers are union members.


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