Opera Singers and Coworkers Begin Chatbot Union Election

10 May 2022

Today is the start of elections for LOU (LISA Operators United), the workers behind AppFolio’s award-winning property management chatbot. While many were recruited from opera and classical music, a white, middle-class culture that can be more cut-throat than tech, the LOU crew has worked hard to overcome that background – as well as AppFolio’s management. If you have the means, consider supporting LOU’s mutual aid fund.

A black and white photo of Micah, smiling and wearing stars on her cheek

AppFolio might have you believe Micah is a bot, but she is not. She is a multilingual singer, conductor, and chatbot operator. / Source

The Worker’s Perspective

By LOU, LISA Operators United

As we begin voting for a union today, we’re proud of our organizing so far. We have clear majority support and don’t necessarily need fence-sitters to join us, but we do want to build a strong, worker-led union for everyone in our unit of 75 operators. The story of how and why we got here might be enough to change some hearts and minds.

From Opera Class to Chatbot Operator

In 2019, AppFolio acquired a company called Dynasty, which created LISA. As it so happens, Dynasty recruited students in opera, classical music, and creative writing graduate programs, paying $25/hr. Many of us have been operating LISA for two or three years. Our tenure at the company comes with perspective. We know how we got here, both as coworkers and as students from opera and classical music programs either moonlighting or working full-time in tech.

People tend to imagine people behind chatbots in a desperate socio-economic position, not as opera singers. We imagine ourselves a certain way, too. LISA wasn’t always our main job and it may not be in the future. We are singers, conductors, stage managers, and more, with hopes and dreams and career ambitions.

To build our union, we’ve had to unlearn a lot of biases. Many of us come from a culture in opera and classical music that can be just as individualistic and cut-throat as we’ve come to find in tech. We aim to do things differently. What’s more, many performing arts unions charge initiation fees in the thousands of dollars, and folks feel like they may not benefit enough relative to the gig work they receive in certain times in their lives. One of us used to be super involved in that scene as a musician and continually reminds our group, “We are our own union, and we’re doing it better.” We might even do a learning club on the book Class, Control, and Classical Music to discuss why classical music is predominantly white and middle-class but also has stark race and class differences that show up in our workplace – and in our organizing, too.

Not a Bot

In many ways, it doesn’t really matter what AppFolio does as a company. We run LISA, a chatbot for leasing and property management. Landlords and real estate professionals occupy a very different position in our society and economy compared to most other workers, and we toil away behind the award-winning “AI solution” that powers their work, for example, helping them schedule appointments with prospective residents.

Ironically, our own schedules are a mess. For three years, management has made minimum hours worse and worse. We used to get an average of at least 10 hours per week. Due to our studies and other odd jobs, many of us go through bouts of needing to work less, then needing to work a lot more. Some weeks we could work very little, and all we had to do was make it up another week. Then management changed it to 20 hours each and every week, NOT an average, with 20-24hrs/week during peak season or 16-20hrs/week during off season (since the pandemic, no one really knows when the “season” begins or ends). As of six months ago, we wanted at least 5-10 hours per week and were struggling to get any hours at all, and now some of us are drowning. If management can’t guarantee us hours, why do they get to demand hours from us when it’s beneficial for them?

We’ve tried bringing up issues but management dismisses, delays, and gaslights us. They claim that we only want to know how much money we’re going to get for the holidays. The truth is, we need work to survive. That’s why we’re organizing. While we’ve observed management make our schedules more erratic while walking back on guaranteed hours, we’ve collected evidence of changes — every day, for months — to show the trends.

Our organizing has yielded some results so far, at least with sick leave. One of us was facing a particularly traumatic domestic violence situation, and worked right through it all. Yet AppFolio avoided providing paid sick leave to them and other workers who qualify by state law. For months, we emailed requests for the company to comply with state law and were promised time and time again that there would be a meeting with legal. Finally, after one of us took legal action, the company decided to make up for lost sick time, and many, many workers who deserved overdue sick time made requests on the company HR platform. Merely complying with state benefits like paid sick leave is just one of the concerns we’ve raised in our union vision statement. Our list grows as the struggle continues.

Our Union Campaign

From scheduling to sick leave, it’s almost comical how management makes changes fast, sporadic, and without warning. One fence-sitting coworker who was skeptical about a union read our vision statement and said, “This part doesn’t seem accurate” – we replied, “You’re right! The company changed our job expectations overnight!” We agreed it was ridiculous.

Several of us have experience in unions and do our best to live up to our abolitionist politics, but we didn’t ever think it was possible to organize in a tech company full of musicians with a double dose of competition and individualism.

But one day, one of us who had helped with past union campaigns got a message from a coworker about meeting to discuss grievances after work, and thought, “This is it! It’s happening! We’re going to organize and make this company better for ourselves and for people who depend on us” – not landlords, but our families and community members.

The company response to our vision statement might have been predictable. Instead of voluntary recognition, our CEO responded with a nine-page rebuttal, but this only happened after they asked for time to respond, which we gave. Management then started info sessions with non-supporters first, and then later with supporters separately, which was obviously strategic on their part.

Our director of AI hosts a series of captive audience meetings titled “intros to unions and elections” and “unions as businesses” and so on. She’s not making it clear these are 100% optional – in fact, she DMs everyone with reminders to make sure they see the invitation. But many of our supporters attended to management’s slides and talking points.

One of us ended up the only person in attendance in a meeting with the host, and said to her, “You’ve never been part of a union campaign but have been at the company for seven years and I’ve been an organizer for seven years. Maybe the roles should be reversed?” So that’s what we did. She said she wouldn’t do the presentation and for the first 20 minutes I explained how all the things she was bringing up were false or fake. She had been “devastated” she got our letter and “nobody came to me with these problems” – but no, we’ve tried, we’ve DM’d, and we’ve been shot down. After hearing that, the host seemed upset and abruptly decided to do the presentation anyway.

Management’s questions seem to either misunderstand or misrepresent what our union might become, likely to delegitimize our organizing, demands, and unity in our bargaining unit. “What exactly is going to be in the contract?” “Why are you paying union dues?” We can only say, “This is a collaborative process,” “We pay dues but we’re also hopefully getting raises and better schedules.” Even without management’s influence, some of our coworkers have no or negative exposure to unions – and not just from opera school. One operator asked, “What exactly does it mean to ‘win’ a union?” We thought this person was not on board, but she went to a training, loved it, joined our organizing committee, and comes to every meeting! Another operator posted in our company Slack the same questions presented in captive audience meetings, and people called them “brave” for speaking up. Meanwhile, we’ve watched our Slack admin delete pro-union posts and replies, saying they were “unethical.”

We don’t want to be reactive or get bogged down. We need to keep up a positive approach. For years, we’ve been very supportive of one another. We have a mutual aid fund, but we hesitate to dip into it. We sought the backing of CWA, and the biggest reason we’re not an independent union is because we assumed AppFolio is going to hire a union-busting firm. We need to get work done while we organize, and we’re exhausted. Many of us don’t have the wherewithal to set up a 1-on-1 conversation with a coworker, but we’ve figured out logistics to scale our efforts. After all, we come mainly from opera and work in tech.

Our Election Begins

Today, union ballots go out to LISA coworkers. We’ve done so much to get to this point. We’ve put in a ton of unpaid time and effort, above and beyond our jobs. As a group, and soon a union, we’ve worked through a lot of skepticism and cultural doubts that come from music and tech and society at large. We’re optimistic about this election, our power as a group, and our vision for an industry that puts the most vulnerable workers first.

The vote count is scheduled for June 7. In the meantime, we’re here to discuss anything with our coworkers who might be on the fence – you can email us any time. To our fellow workers and community allies, please support our mutual aid fund if you can.

And finally, please remember to be kind to your chatbots.

The LOU crew wants to thank our friends and allies in TWC for helping us think through our strategy and story.