TED 2019: The online campaign that ended a beard ban

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

  • Published
Man with beardImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Workers wanted the right to have "a neatly trimmed beard"

Three years ago workers at US grocery chain Publix began an online campaign to reverse a ban on facial hair.

Seventeen-year-old Brandon Wesley started his Let Us Have Beards campaign on coworker.org, a platform aimed at giving workers who might not be in a union a way to express grievances.

Some 12,000 fellow employees, about 4% of the workforce, joined the campaign.

Following widespread media coverage, the ban was overturned. Now shop staff can work with a neatly trimmed beard.

"You might not expect that to be a serious labour issue but it impacted a lot of people, including those with sensitive skin conditions and their stories were very moving," said website founder Jess Kutch.

She spoke at the latest TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference about her desire to build "a labour movement for the 21st century".

The US has seen a rapid decline in labour union participation, with 93% of private sector workers currently not enrolled in a union, according to Ms Kutch.

At the same time, new ways of working are making it harder for workers to organise and connect with each other, while working conditions are deteriorating.

"Uber and Lyft workers report to work on a platform and are managed by an algorithm. It is getting harder to find co-workers, there are no break rooms," said Ms Kutch.

Tech workers

Thousands of Uber drivers turned to coworker.org to highlight their desire to have tipping built into the app used to order and pay for rides.

They shared stories about how the lack of a tipping infrastructure affected their lives and incomes.

Ms Kutch does not think the campaign on her platform was the only reason that Uber decided to incorporate tips on to the app but is sure that it played a role, by allowing workers to "share struggles and advocate for a solution".

Image source, TED
Image caption,
Jess Kutch wants to build "a labour movement for the 21st century"

Google power

Many of the campaigns on coworker.org come from the tech industry, with at least "a dozen inquiries from tech workers" each week, said Ms Kutch.

Issues range from the desire to create a strike fund, to helping with discrimination issues to helping employees highlight ethical issues about technology being developed.

Google employees have set a powerful precedent, with a series of worker-led protests about some of the firm's more controversial policies.

In November 2018, 20,000 workers at the search giant staged a walk-out in protest over the firm's handling of alleged sexual assault.

Others have lobbied successfully for the firm to abandon AI projects it planned to partner with the military and - most recently - an open letter called for the removal of Kay Coles James from a newly formed ethics board over anti-LGBT comments.

Google shut down the advisory council shortly afterwards.

Ms Kutch described the Google staff walkout as a "historic moment" for the modern workforce.

"That was something organised by Google employees just using Google spreadsheets and email. Others in the tech industry saw that and it has inspired them to act."

And she expects to see many more campaigns on her platform from the tech industry.

"Increasingly tech workers are signing user agreements that bar them from their basic labour rights. There are a lot of issues in this workforce," she said.