The Yellow Vest protests have been rocking France every Saturday for the past three months as tens of thousands of workers take to the streets to demand change.
What kind of change exactly? It’s hard to be precise. The movement started as a protest against an increase in gas taxes and quickly grew into a much broader fight for improvements to workers’ lives, encompassing everything from immigration to the environment and housing.
What distinguishes the Yellow Vests in France’s long history of social movements is how they’re organizing—organically, across industry and ideology, outside of politics or formal institutions. By wearing the “hi-vis” yellow vests all drivers in France are required to keep in their cars, they’ve turned a state-mandated obligation into a powerful symbol of protest. They’ve been able to grow and sustain their protest into a full-fledged movement by connecting issues they once fought for separately, arguing all workers suffer from the same economic and social struggles
Similar shifts in activism can be seen in the US too. Teachers demonstrating at Red for Ed rallies are fighting not just for better pay and resources, but also for racial and economic justice in their communities. And young activists from the Sunrise Movement have been pushing for a Green New Deal (recently introduced in Congress by newly-elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), which connects issues of climate change and the environment back to the struggles of workers and the health of the economy.
A broad message can appeal to a lot of people, but it can make it hard to understand what these activist movements are really fighting for.
But these shifts in activism can be seen as a reflection of the changing nature of work. Changes in global trade, technology, and other forces like automation make it lot more difficult to find long-term employment. And the workplace has become more nebulous—increasingly made up of gig economy workers, freelancers, sub-contractors, and service employees—which makes it a lot harder for workers to organize and ask for specific improvements.
So activists are taking the fight for worker rights outside of work and bringing it to roundabouts, tollbooths, capitals, and public squares to argue that many things beyond wages and working conditions affect the lives of workers. Because the workplace is becoming more complex, so the conversation around labor needs to as well.
Watch the video above as Quartz News travels from France to the US to discover what the changing nature of activism tells us about the future of labor movements.
Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.
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