Employees have been unhappy with their employers since the invention of wages 5,000 years ago. While workers have traditionally looked to unions to address their grievances, a new generation is trusting in the power of petitions to force changes.
At the Wall Street Journal, 160 reporters and editors, delivered a letter to their managers protesting the lack of women and minorities running the organization, Business Insider reported yesterday (March 28). “Nearly all the people at high levels at the paper deciding what we cover and how are white men,” the letter read.
IBM employees are circulating an online petition objecting to the tone of CEO Ginni Rometty’s letter to US president Donald Trump, and calling on her affirm what they call the company’s progressive values. The employees also asking her to allow them to opt out of government contracts they feel violate civil liberties, such as surveillance projects, and restoring benefits that had been cut for laid off workers. So far, 2,140 have signed the petition, although it’s not clear how many are IBM employees. (IBM employs around 380,000 people.)
Other employee petitions call for Oracle to oppose US president Donald Trump’s second travel ban, and to let men who work at US regional supermarket Publix grow beards. Employee petitions are now so popular there’s a website, coworker.org, devoted to hosting them. In some cases, the campaigns work: Starbuck’s relaxed its rules about visible tattoos and unnatural hair color for baristas after thousands signed petitions asking for a change. Sometimes, they fail disastrously. Interns at one (unnamed) company described in a blog about being fired en masse after signing a petition asking for a more relaxed dress code.
While a growing number of employers see the value of involving workers in decision making—giving rise to “holacracy” and other decentralized business models—for most, labor remains a cost to be managed and reduced. Outsourcing and offshoring of American jobs has made employment less certain—The Wall Street Journal is cutting newsroom jobs and IBM is both laying off thousands and demanding its workers who telecommuted to return to offices, sometimes in new cities.
And automation looms as a threat over many industries. Companies have become more sophisticated about shutting down unions, and only 6.4% of US private-sector workers are organized. Petitions only work if employers are willing to entertain them, but for many employees, they’re the only way to be heard.