The anti union US retailer Wal-Mart is trying to stop its workers downloading a smartphone app designed by OUR Wal-mart, an organisation that is campaigning for higher pay and better working conditions for non unionised workers. It marks another development in the use of social media in union organising campaigns. Wal-Mart is the USA’s largest private employer.
The app released on Android phones allows Wal-Mart workers to chat among themselves and receive advice on workplace policies and legal rights, said leaders from OUR Walmart who have not divulged the numbers of workers are using the app. It was tested on 200 users.
Wal-Mart said that OUR Wal-Mart was trying to get ‘associates’ to turn over personal information by using ‘deceptive and slick looking social media and mobile apps’.
OUR Walmart has staged Black Friday protests at Wal-Mart locations. This year it plans to encourage workers to download the new app over the holiday shopping weekend.
The app, called WorkIt, invites users to register by providing a name, email, telephone number and ZIP Code. Users can also share their job title and Wal-Mart store number. The app doesn’t access a user’s location or smartphone contacts, and lets users opt out of photo access.
Wal-Mart has a long history of fighting unions – but it recently increased the starting wage of its 1.3 million U.S. employees to $9 per hour last year.
While other activist groups and unions have created apps to broadcast news, the WorkIt app allows users to chat with each other and solicit personal workplace advice.
“This is a battle for the hearts and minds of the workers,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. In the future “human resource management will be on people’s telephones.”
Employers and unions are increasingly using social media and mobile devices to contact workers directly. Employers are launching mobile work scheduling apps and finding ways to push ‘human resource messages’ out through social media or digital advertising.
Wal-Mart is testing of its own mobile app to communicate with workers, as a way to quickly give employees access to their work schedules.
There is already a Facebook group for Wal-Mart workers with more than 20,000 members. However, the conversations can be disorganised or inaccurate, driving the need for an app with curated responses, said OUR Walmart leaders.
OUR Walmart developed the WorkIt app with Quadrant 2, a New York City-based software development company that has designed products for companies and activist organisations including the American Civil Liberties Union.
The app uses International Business Machines Corp’s Watson artificial-intelligence technology to build a set of answers to employee questions over time, said Jason Van Anden, founder of Quadrant 2. If Watson is stumped “there is a peer network of experts that will interact with the users,” said Mr. Van Anden.