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How a beloved orange tabby cat became a voice for America’s union workers

By Allison Morrow, CNN Business

An orange tabby cat named Jorts has become something of a mascot of the labor movement in America.

And if none of that charms you, you might as well stop reading now.

For the uninitiated: Jorts, along with his feline comrade Jean, became internet famous in December when an anonymous author posted a very sweet story on Reddit about the two workplace cats.

In the post, the author jokes about how Jorts is cute but, well, kind of dumb. At least compared with Jean, a tortoiseshell cat who can open doors and doesn’t fall into the trash bin all the time like Jorts does. Jean is clearly the brains of the operation, in the author’s telling. The story evolves into a dispute with a co-worker who accuses the author of “perpetuating ethnic stereotypes by saying orange cats are dumb.”

Like so much on the internet, the post took on a life of its own. Battle lines were drawn, pro-Jorts alliances formed, and Jorts got his own Twitter account. (Or mostly his own, anyway — Jean helps him.) It now has nearly 139,000 followers.

“The explosion of fan art and memes was so entertaining and really touching,” said the human behind the Jorts Twitter account, who asked to remain anonymous.

“I think we were in a collective moment of needing something tender to gather around,” the person said of the cats’ sudden fame. “It was also one of those rare stories where there was no villain. Life is full of these stories but they don’t often explode online.”

It didn’t take long for Jorts to reveal himself as a union cat. A prolific tweeter, Jorts has devoted himself to propping up pro-labor accounts, pushing back against inequality and decrying corporate greed. Also, birds. And naps. And knocking over glasses of water.

“I really wasn’t expecting that ‘Jorts’ would take that moment of virality and turn it into an utterly charming, militantly pro-union feed,” tweeted the political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow.

Jorts’ mix of practical organizing advice and pure goofiness seizes on America’s renewed fervor for unionization and the internet’s enduring love of cat memes.

Earlier this month, Jorts and Jean tweeted out their “Four Steps to Form a Union” — one for each of their paws.

Organized labor in the United States is enjoying a renaissance under Joe Biden, the most pro-union president since at least Lyndon Johnson, or perhaps ever, depending upon whom you ask. A survey by Gallup last fall found that 68% of respondents have a positive view of unions — the best reading for that question dating back to 1965, and up from only 48% in 2009.

Younger workers are even bigger backers of unions, with 77% of those 34 and younger having a positive view.

Over the past year, unionization efforts and strikes (and managers’ efforts to quash them) have captured national attention. In December, a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, became the first US location to unionize despite the company’s deployment of a phalanx of executives trying to dissuade the workers. Since then, dozens of Starbucks stores across the country have begun their own efforts.

Meanwhile, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have renewed their organizing efforts following a defeat last spring, and Target is openly advising its managers on how to prevent employees from unionizing.

Against that backdrop, Jorts is at once a purely cute presence and a staunch pro-labor advocate, armed with practical advice and links to resources at the National Labor Relations Board, among others. In a thread posted in January, Jorts offered up a cute photo of himself alongside a sober thread about what can and cannot be talked about in the workplace.

“It’s against the law for your boss to prohibit you from discussing your wages with your coworkers, and also remember there are more workers than there are bosses,” one tweet reads.

In some ways, Jorts is reminiscent of another ginger icon of leftist Twitter: the Philadelphia Flyers’ mascot, Gritty. That 7-foot googly-eyed monster is also an internet sensation who became the star of countless anti-fascist and anti-capitalist memes since he was introduced in 2018. The key difference, apart from their obvious size disparity, is that Gritty himself is apolitical — his big dopey face just happens to work really well in liberal memes, for reasons that don’t make any logical sense but need no explanation on social media.

Both Jorts and Jean live full-time at a workplace that is staffed 24/7, the person behind the Twitter account told CNN Business. “If a cat is sick they will come home with someone…They live at work but there is always someone on site.”

The person said they’d like to think the cats are unaware of their sudden fame, but “I almost swear Jean knows. She has gotten extra elusive about spending time anywhere she can be photographed.”

Ah, Jean.

One of the most endearing elements of Jorts’ Twitter presence is his tenderness and affection for Jean, a kind of wise elder sibling who is guiding Jorts on their journey toward justice and equality.

In one particularly tender post, Jorts tweets a photo of Jean with the statement: “A lot of things are stacked up real unfair right now. Jean says once we name the unfairness the next step is planning how we fight it.”

Despite Jorts’ articulate messaging and progressive views on workers’ rights, he’s not interested in political office at this time, according to the person behind the account.

“Jorts is too young to run for office,” the person said. “Also, Jorts and Jean both agree that running for office that would impact human law is best left to someone who has direct experience with being a human.”

— CNN Business’ Chris Isidore contributed to this article.

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