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The rise of employee activists

Employee activists are changing the way companies operate.

Published
Illustration by Thomas White
A new chapter for labor organizing.
  • The big idea

    Employee activists are transforming the workplace—and making companies better in the process.

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  • Brief history

    Labor organizing has existed in the US for centuries. What’s different about the “new” employee activism is that it’s mostly happening in non-unionized workplaces, and in industries like tech and retail where employees have rarely leveraged their collective power.

    Image copyright: Reuters/Lindsey Wasson
    Workers at a Seattle Whole Foods protest against store management not allowing workers to wear Black Lives Matter apparel in June, 2020.

    The goal is the same: Employees want a say in a company’s operations and ethics, both in how employees are treated and in where and how a company’s products are used. In the process, this activism is redefining the employer-employee social contract and modernizing the labor movement in a power struggle of epic proportions.

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  • Quotable

    “These companies started with this radical transparency—’Everything is on the table, we listen to everyone’—and it bounced up and hit them in the ass. They opened up a space they didn’t intend.”

    Alison Taylor, executive director of Ethical Systems, a research group at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

    Employees didn’t suddenly wake up one day and decide their companies needed to be better—the companies themselves opened up space for employee feedback. Creating mechanisms for employee voice and giving them some real power could actually be an asset for companies by attracting talent and can make a company stronger in the process.

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  • Moment in time

    Image copyright: Reuters/Stephen Lam
    People participate in The Google Walkout in November 2018, to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints and other forms of biases.

    Claire Stapleton, a rising star in Google’s marketing department, and Meredith Whittaker, a research scientist and founder of Google Open Research, co-organized what became known as The Google Walkout, to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints and other forms of biases, including structural racism, and the unfair treatment of Google’s contracted workforce.

    The organizers had expected a few hundred employees to show up to its protest on Nov. 1, 2018; instead an estimated 20,000 Googlers in 40 countries joined the show of force. Stapleton has compared calling for the walkout to “waving a lit match in front of a powder keg.” Read a timeline of events in the rise of new employee activism, from first-person accounts of harassment to “Google doc activism.”

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  • Toolkit

    Quartz asked six employee activists at Whole Foods, Google, Facebook, and McDonald’s for their best advice for people who are considering becoming organizers themselves. Activists are sharing their best practices with burgeoning organizers, suggesting a wide range of practices such as:

    💪 Hit employers where it hurts

    🤝 Let employees come in on their own terms

    ⏰ Consider the timing

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  • Big question

    Are digital tools more effective at organizing workplace activists than actions like walkouts and pamphlets?

    Online petition forms, anonymous Google docs, encrypted messaging apps—the tools for organizing look different today than they once did. But, while digital tools are useful for finding and communicating with people, that’s just the first step, says Phela Townsend, who researches technology in labor organizing at the policy think tank Next100. Organizers have to build deeper interpersonal relationships to create a lasting labor movement.

    While it’s not yet clear if digitally-fueled activism is as effective or inclusive as the old school methods, for a labor force fragmented by the gig economy and a pandemic-fueled shift toward remote work, they’re vital for workers to harness their collective power.

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  • Keep reading

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