Labeling Public Repo PRs with GitHub Actions

In this post, I’m going to outline a simple way for public repositories to label the pull requests based on files changed that has been enabled by a new event recently shipped in GitHub Actions.

A very commonly-used workflow in GitHub Actions is one in which a repository maintainer wants to apply a specific label to a pull request based on any paths changed in that pull request. Until recently, this was relatively difficult to pull off in a public repository, because workflows running from pull requests coming from forks of public repositories do not get tokens that have write access to the base repository. We do this for security reasons—any user could fork a public repository and gain write access to it by changing the contents of any workflow file in it.

Currently, many users solve this with actions like paulfantom/periodic-labeler, an extremely clever action that is meant to run in a scheduled workflow. On a schedule, this action looks for any unlabeled pull requests and labels them according to a configuration file provided by the repository maintainer. This approach works, but it wastes a good deal of users’ Actions minutes, especially if the rate of incoming pull requests is significantly lower than the configured schedule’s frequency.

Recently, a new event called pull_request_target was added to GitHub Actions. This event runs in the same circumstances as the existing pull_request event, except that it runs in the context of the base repository. This means that it ignores any changes made to the workflow file in the pull request, and that the actions/checkout action will also by default clone from the base branch instead of the pull request’s merge commit. Since this means that there is no “untrusted” code in the workflow context, we provide a GITHUB_TOKEN to workflows run from pull_request_target that has write access to the repository.

Let’s write a workflow that runs on pull_request_target and labels the PR according to a configuration file:

on: pull_request_target
runs-on: ubuntu-latest
- uses: actions/labeler@v2
repo-token: ${{ secrets.GITHUB_TOKEN }}

That’s all there is to it! Since pull_request_target was added, we can use the existing actions/labeler action with the same label configuration format shared by it and paulfantom/periodic-labeler in order to label our PRs!

Now, we have a labeling workflow that runs only when we need it to, so hopefully some Actions users can use this knowledge to save on some of their Actions usage.