This has been on my mind for a while. Today I posted at Law.SE to check on the legality, it seems a very grey area: Volunteer Labor Union in New York State

If there is interest in forming a labor union, I propose to use the Area 51 process to create a site: "SE Volunteer Labor Union".

I am in no way an expert on forming labor unions, but I believe this may be a path to restore the community we have all been working to support for years.

  • 7
    What about all the mods that are not in New York? What good would it be to them? Also, SE likly won't allow a site for that.
    – Mark Kirby
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 19:21
  • 44
    What would this union negotiate for? Better salaries?
    – user102937
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 19:21
  • 7
    @RobertHarvey I assume most moderators would at least not frown on a 25% raise.
    – xxbbcc
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 19:27
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    @RobertHarvey Better working conditions? SE could buy every mod a new house.
    – Mark Kirby
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 19:34
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    Would we have to pay union dues? Or would people be expected to volunteer to run the union too? Because I for one would not be willing to do either. Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 20:26
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    About the only real reason to form a union would be to make SE's current business model untenable. If you're looking to kill SE, sure, this'd be a great way to do it. But I doubt it would have any beneficial effect, on the off chance a pivot could be pulled off.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 20:34
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    If you create anything, it should be off-site, in case SE behaves... well, behaves like SE
    – user316129
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 21:19
  • @fbueckert: I think this union idea is silly, but I don't understand your comment. How could a union of volunteers impact the success of SE's business model one way or the other? Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 21:24
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    @JamesReinstateMonicaPolk The same way unions always do: strike. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 5:29
  • @MarkKirby I am not sure, that would all need to be explored. It would seem that SE is bound by the laws of New York, so all volunteers should be covered with their interacts by the same union. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 11:22
  • Simply stop using the site. It's the only message that will get through. If everyone completely stopped using the site for a week, good things would happen very quickly since the company would bleed money. Impossible to organize though.
    – Lundin
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 12:01
  • @Lundin the company does not get paid by users visiting, they get paid from advertising, google drives much more traffic to the sites, then all of the users who visit meta.se Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 12:41
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    I upvoted because I do think this is an interesting question, although SE may not be the ideal place for it. Reddit perhaps? (Many options like google groups and facebook are blocked for me at work, but somehow reddit is kosher.) Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:33
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    @RobertHarvey it would negotiate for a seat at the table in decision making, binding policies for moderator treatment (vs. suggestions they reserve the right to ignore), all the things people here are frustrated about.
    – De Novo
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:49
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    @DeNovosupportsGoFundMonica why would we need any sort of protection at all? We're free to organize any way we wish. We are not employees, so we don't have any obligation to "go to work". If we don't want to, we don't. So if we want to coordinate some sort of civic action, we are completely free to do so and don't need any protection since we can't be fired.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:24

7 Answers 7


Why are you bringing the law into this? A "union" for us, the SE users, would just mean that we get together and coordinate organized action. That isn't covered by any law, no more than getting together with a bunch of friends to organize a party would be. And, in any case, it couldn't be covered by any law since we're all in different countries.

So sure, if you're willing to start something like this, go for it. Just don't think of it as a labor union. We're not employees, and labor law doesn't apply. All you're talking about is some sort of (presumably) off-site organization of concerned SE users who can coordinate action in the hope of effecting change in the Stack Exchange network. I see no reason why not, it might even work.

  • Brings up another interesting point. There are laws governing who an American company can hire that have to do with citizenship and other papers. More laws SE may be in violation of.
    – Kirk
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:10
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    I understand your arguments, I happen to disagree with most of them, but they are valid considerations. The basic premise is that moderators in particular are required to be paid by New York law, SE is headquartered in New York, so they are bound by that law. If you are in another country and are working remote for their profit, you are covered by the New York law. Which of us is ultimately fully or partially correct will be learned in time. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:11
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    @JamesJenkins yeah, I don't buy that at all, I'm afraid. I do not work for SE and I would really wish people would stop trying to frame moderators as employees! I choose who I work for, nobody gets to tell me. I do not want the obligations of an employee and, therefore, I lay no claims to the rights of one either.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:14
  • @terdon-stopharmingMonica volunteer's being treated as "employees" under New York law does not necessarily mean you have to be paid and accountable as a paid employee. These laws were written to protect you, not force you to punch a clock. There is a lot of what appears to me to be misinformation in the discussion about new york laws about volunteers.
    – De Novo
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:32
  • @DeNovosupportsGoFundMonica the best way to protect me is to please, please, stop trying to make me into an employee! I don't want to be one and, if it turns out I am, I quit. Employees don't only have rights, they also have obligations. I want neither.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:36
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    @DeNovosupportsGoFundMonica Until a judge says so, we’re not employees, no matter what the armchair lawyers think. These laws weren’t written to protect people, they were written to prevent unregulated labor being used by companies in place of regulated labor. It makes it easier to figure out if, for example, someone is collecting unemployment benefits while they have a job that is paying them under the table and not contributing to social security, reporting income for tax purposes etc.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:32
  • @ColleenV yes, I agree that it's pretty murky. I was just trying to make the point that there is more to this than whether someone is getting paid or not. Labor laws may still protect a person who isn't paid and doesn't want to be paid
    – De Novo
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:35
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    @DeNovosupportsGoFundMonica Classifying us as employees does nothing but make my life more difficult. What benefit do you think I need to be given from the government that I don’t have the ability to get for myself?
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:51
  • @ColleenV you're misinterpreting my comments.
    – De Novo
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:54
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    @DeNovosupportsGoFundMonica Sorry that came across as more confrontational than I meant it - I was asking what benefits you thought that classification would give me that I need. If I don’t like how SE treats me, I stop volunteering.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:58
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    @ColleenV I don't honestly know for sure. I think it's pretty murky. With or without legal protection, though, I would like it if you had more options than "stay and suck it up" vs. "quit" :)
    – De Novo
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 19:01
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    @DeNovosupportsGoFundMonica those aren't the only options! Organizing, in the way you suggest in your answer, is a perfectly valid option as well. It just doesn't require us to be recast as employees.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 19:02
  • I think this answer is factually wrong on multiple points. It is covered by US law, as a "labor organization" (29 U.S.C. § 152) although probably not a "labor union". There is no geographical restriction there, and existing unions like LIUNA are recognized as such. "We're not employees" is not so clear for moderators due to the demanding behavior of SE Inc, although I agree that the OP likely isn't. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 19:11
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    @MSalters I am a moderator on three sites and I categorically refuse to be considered an employee. If I were working for SE, that would be a different matter, but I no more work for SE for volunteering my time and effort here than I would be working for Canonical for answering questions on the Ubuntu forums or working for Microsoft if I were active on their forums.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 19:15

I'm on the fence about whether a traditional labor union is the right call here. @Terdon makes some good points above, and there may be consequences to, e.g., getting an outside union to help us organize.

I fully support organizing in some manner, though. As much support as the community has shown, e.g., Monica, there seems to be a very strong sense among power users and moderators that we somehow have no power. Individually, we have very little power, and, as the letter states:

We recognise that Stack Exchange is in no way obliged to take our input. We know that we are guests in the home of a private company. We don’t own the platform, and while we want to help to steer the ship, we don’t have the right to determine how it is governed.

Organized, however, we do not have to settle for this. We are Stack Exchange. The software and servers are obviously important, but we own and moderate the content. Yes, there are millions of users who contribute and are unaware of the community issues, but the power users and moderators control the quality of those contributions, and quite literally control what is in public view on the software and servers that SE owns. An organized community that is willing to demonstrate our power would be a force indeed.

I'm not advocating for defacing content. I am encouraging our community to realize the extent of our power. SE cannot operate without the cooperation of the power users and moderators. They are fully dependent on us, our goodwill and support.

  • I also think that talking to someone with union experience could be beneficial. But then I'm not sure volunteer/unpaid "worker" unions exist. It'd be interesting to learn more. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:19

As soon as you start to try and collect union dues ...

... your proposed union folds like a bad hand in poker.

There are a variety of ways to gather together people of a similar inclination to act collectively. For example, political parties. Collectives. The Rotary Club. Labor unions are peculiar to a labor force, or a broad labor category with common interests. (The Teamsters, for example).

Volunteering one's time and effort with SO or SE does not fit that model, so try a different model for collective activity of like-minded people. As the gravel voiced sergeant in the cavalry once explained to a couple of greenhorns ...

I don't care how big of a shoe horn you use, that horse won't wear a pair of combat boots. Get him a horse shoe that fits!


I agree with the other answers that a "conventional" union isn't a good fit.

But then, I suggested something similar some days back. The current "status quo" seems is inappropriate.

The point is: the moderator community is "small enough" to organize itself to really talk with "one voice".

Think about it: to be a moderator, you have to convince the community to vote you in. You intend to put in your private time. And when you show up at SE Inc. there is only talk about your duties and what the company expects from you?!

That needs to change. The moderators should ask for a very clear set of mutual rights and guarantees!


Instead of a "Union" we should look to join or create an International Network of Associations of Users of Online Platforms.

Organizing by country instead of by Stack Exchange sites might be more convenient.

  1. There are many sites with very low activity in which the few active users might not be from the same country; hence, it might be difficult for them to achieve a critical mass and make synergy.
  2. There might be more chances to take advantage of other affinities and the opportunity to share resources and coordinate efforts.
  3. Some countries have organizations and laws that could help with guidance, advice, and resources. Still, they are focused on providing help or have restrictions to provide service / support to citizens or use the resources locally.

I mention the above because I found a document from the government guiding volunteer associations a few moments ago and because I have been collecting examples of successful volunteer groups. Usually, they have chapters by country, i.e., groups of civic hackers like Hacking Health.

We might follow the example of international organizations like the International Organization for Standardization, ISO. They have representatives of the Standardization bodies of each participating country. They publish different types of documents that each country publishes locally according to the local workings, aka the process with output, which are laws, regulations, agreements, etc., that the local society institutions endorse.

There are more examples of International collaboration. Not all countries should actively participate, but the organization's goal is that the outcomes benefit all countries.

The association could start with informal groups, but each local group should set as priority:

  1. Get an identity
  2. Be autonomous
  3. Have recognition of their existence according to group goals to achieve and the local circumstances, preferably at the country level. For some purposes, having an autonomous point of contact might be enough, i.e., the last Moderation Strike used GitHub to publish an open letter, then use a Discord server. In some countries, it's sufficient to have two members to get recognition, i.e., in Mexico, for specific purposes, it might be necessary to create an "Asociación Civil" to organize a conference that will have sponsors by sponsor's policies. This requires at least two members (I need to review this).

For a long time, I feared that messing with the law would make things too complicated and bureaucratic in the worst sense. Also, I used to think organizing Meta Stack Exchange users would be so complex that it might not be worth all the work this could require; however, several things are happening this year and, more recently, have happened directly to me that have made me look at things differently. So, I'm deeply reviewing my systems of beliefs and what makes me autonomous and evaluating my relations with everyone and with everything.

This is relevant because I found this post as part of my recent journey through this quest. Specifically, I'm looking at how to explain to the Stake Exchange stakeholders that, from my perspective in this personal state, I feel that my metacognition was boosted and that my fears are dimmed that the Meta Stack Exchange posts show an unhealthy condition for a network of communities of volunteers looking to build libraries of questions and answers moderated by themselves.

I feel a solid impulse to shout that we should embrace the goal of creating "this thing" to bring us, those who have at least in common to have a Stack Exchange account, a viable system in the sense that Stafford Beer defined the concept that made him develop the Viable System Model (VSM). A derived concept is Management cybernetics, which refers to using the VSM model in organizations and management.

I understand that VSM might not be accessible for people not familiar with the work of Stafford Beer and Cybernetics. Still, I'm pretty sure that this will be helpful for the analysis and design of systems as this term is understood in systems thinking, not for helping on tasks like allowing a user to write a question, and will not help to predict the return on investment. However, it would help to understand how decisions should be taken on complex systems, like the Stack Exchange Network if it wants to be perceived and handled as a system of autonomous online communities.

  • 1
    I just noticed that the "autocorrect" and lack of skills make this post require a lot of corrections. To avoid annoying the community too much, again, I will make annotations using the Meta Stack Exchange Chat / do the edits on an external tool. I might apply the corrections tonight or later this week.
    – Rubén
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 14:31
  • By the way, several years ago, I organized, IIRC, the first Stack Overflow en español user meeting in Monterrey, Mexico. I was not able to continue with those meetings. I will see if the acquaintances from that meeting might interested. Labeling as "someday". Also, I should look into whether the group codeandomexico.org in Monterrey is still active.
    – Rubén
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 14:38

In a way, we have already organized in a union of users who know and care enough about the sites that we frequent Meta, and we already have elected moderators, like we would have trade union representatives that we trust to speak for us. But the "laws" of this digital "country" (site) don't grant us as much power as actual trade unions in actual countries have. This is the "country" we live in, I don't expect we could cause the status quo to change in a reasonable time frame. It would be quicker to move to another "country".


The post currently has 16 upvotes. So there is some support for this proposal.

There is no indication that any group of paid employees or volunteer employees of Stack Exchange (SE) are excluded by the "National Labor Relations Act"

(3) The term "employee" shall include any employee, and shall not be limited to the employees of a particular employer, unless the Act [this subchapter] explicitly states otherwise,

In fact most of us would fall in the category of "professional employee", it seems self evident that all Moderators fall into this category.

(12) The term "professional employee" means--

(a) any employee engaged in work (i) predominantly intellectual and varied in character as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical, or physical work; (ii) involving the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment in its performance; (iii) of such a character that the output produced or the result accomplished cannot be standardized in relation to a given period of time; (iv) requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study in an institution of higher learning or a hospital, as distinguished from a general academic education or from an apprenticeship or from training in the performance of routine mental, manual, or physical processes; or

(b) any employee, who (i) has completed the courses of specialized intellectual instruction and study described in clause (iv) of paragraph (a), and (ii) is performing related work under the supervision of a professional person to qualify himself to become a professional employee as defined in paragraph (a).

We have the right to self organize


Sec. 7. [§ 157.] Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment as authorized in section 8(a)(3) [section 158(a)(3) of this title].

Our employer (SE) is prohibited from interfering with our attempts to organize


Sec. 8. [§ 158.] (a) [Unfair labor practices by employer] It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer--

(1) to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7 [section 157 of this title];

But it does appear that SE is also prohibited from providing support, so an Area 51 proposal to create a site, is probably not feasible. But general posts about the union, would seem to be allowed.

(2) to dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it: Provided, That subject to rules and regulations made and published by the Board pursuant to section 6 [section 156 of this title], an employer shall not be prohibited from permitting employees to confer with him during working hours without loss of time or pay;


I am in no way an expert on this topic. If you can expand on or clarify any points, please post a new answer.

I guess the next step would be to find a meeting hall.

  • 10
    We are not employees! The quotes you have here about professional employees are circular: they define professional employees as employees that.... But we aren't employees at all. We are not paid by, and have not signed any contracts with SO Inc. We are not affiliated with the company or have any relationship with it whatsoever other than using their products. SE could no more have any say in our forming another group than Facebook could object to a group of friends who are also facebook friends organizing a party.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:54
  • 2
    Except, by new York law moderators are, regardless because of the moderator agreement, the expectations, and the type of work you do. Plus SE is for profit and therefore can't say you're volunteers under any exclusions. SE owes you all back wages.
    – Kirk
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:04
  • Thought experiment: If a moderator, without authority, tell a user that they can do something that's against the rules, SE will come in and intervene. NY holds the same rights because laws are laws and there are some rights you can't sign away. There are also federal laws in place, so it's not just ny
    – Kirk
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:07
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    @Kirk I'm sorry but I don't buy that at all. I cannot be an employee and not be aware of it, for one thing. That's a two-way street. I have read the argument about that and I don't find it convincing at all. If I am an employee by virtue of being a mod, then I am also an employee of WIkipedia by virtue of editing a WP article, an employee of a newspaper because they published my letter, an employee of reddit because I posted there etc., etc.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:13
  • 1
    @terdon-stopharmingMonica If you are a moderator at Wikipedia, the New York law would not apply as it is a not for profit organization. No one is claiming that publishing makes you an employee, it is the housekeeping task that Moderators and many users perform that create the relationship. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:15
  • 4
    We chose to do that of our own free will. And I do not see it as being done for the benefit of SE. If I did, I wouldn't be here. That is done for the benefit of the communities. If some people want to make an argument that they are employees, fine, but please don't try to rope mods into it. I have yet to find a single mod who thinks of themselves as an employee. We aren't and we don't want to be.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:17
  • 2
    If there's another Q&A site that has paid moderators then you're harming it and it's employees by giving your work to SE. Technically you're harming the SE employees too. And it's not about your intention, your work benefits SE regardless and they profit off of it. A high quality site like this is the best advertisement SE could ever want, and they leverage it to sell their product. You're complicit even if you don't mean to be.
    – Kirk
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:19
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    @terdon-stopharmingMonica: Why do you think you can't be an employee? It would hardly be the first time that lawyers found that an implied contract existed, surprising both contract parties. The existing question about employee status has made it clear that NY state makes a distinction between volunteers and employees based on specific behavior. That cannot be exempted by contract. "Free will" is not relevant as NY is an at-will employment state. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 19:20
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    @MSalters quite simply because if I am, I hereby quit. But I also find the arguments supporting the idea that I could be unconvincing, as I have explained in my answer to the first post on this matter. But yes, apart from that, I simply don't want to be and I find it very hard to believe that a court would force me to be one against my will. So if people want to take SE to court for taking advantage of volunteers, fine, but not in my name and please leave me out of it.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 19:26
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    @terdon-stopharmingMonica See Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor for a Supreme Court case where they found that volunteers were employees despite the volunteers' protests that they were not. That was under a different law's definition of "employee" than the law under discussion, so it's not a binding precedent, but it does go to show that it's possible to not consider yourself an employee and yet be one. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 20:57
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    All the armchair lawyers on the Internet can cite all the case law that exists and expound upon their theories and it still doesn’t make SE volunteers employees. Until it’s tested in court, and the court finds in favor of whoever asked the court to say we are, we are not employees.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 22:19

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