Employee activism is great—until it pits colleagues against each other

What form of protest can we call agree on?
What form of protest can we call agree on?
Image: Reuters/Chris Aluka Berry
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There’s no question that we’ve entered a golden era of employee activism. Workers at Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have all led movements to change their employers’ positions on hot-button societal issues, with varying degrees of success.

Experts including Judith Samuelson, director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, believe this trend is only going to deepen. If ’80s and ’90s-era activism belonged to consumers, the future belongs predominantly to workers, she feels. Last year she predicted that in 2019, “companies will begin to embrace employees as an early warning system on risk and reputation.”

That’s exactly what appeared to happen this week when Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, commented on how his company would respond to Georgia’s controversial “heartbeat” abortion law.  The legislation—signed this month and set to go into effect in 2019, if isn’t shot down by a legal challenge—would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, or about six weeks into a pregnancy. It has galvanized progressives and women’s rights activists within the state and elsewhere to condemn the new law and campaign against its political supporters.

Netflix had already said, before Iger spoke out, that it would reconsider its business in Georgia if the law is put into effect. NBC Universal, Warner Media, AMC, Showtime, and others have all made similar statements.

Iger, however, was one of few who directly pointed to employee sentiment as part of his thought process. “I think many people who work for us will not want to work there, and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard,” he told Reuters. Was this another victory of sorts for employee activism before employees even acted?

Actually, it gets more complicated than that.

Boycotting Georgia isn’t an option for all employees

To outsiders, the studios’ responses to the abortion law was an eye-opener, revealing a little-recognized but booming film and TV production industry in Georgia. Since 2008, when the state began offering generous tax incentives for production companies, it has quietly developed into Hollywood’s South Campus, as Time magazine once put it. In 2016, it outpaced California as the home for feature film productions. Just a handful of the recent films made there include Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and The Hunger Games.

Stranger Things, the hit Netflix series, is almost exclusively shot in Georgia, and the Walking Dead’s  production apparently resurrected the economy of an entire town. (Let’s not forget Donald Glover’s Atlanta, but that’s an obvious one.) Across film and television, the industry claims it was responsible for nearly 92,000 local jobs in 2018.

But none of this is news to those tens of thousands of people who live in Georgia and work in costume, set design, or any number of roles on the hundreds of shows filmed there annually, or to the restaurant and hotel employees (and employees of many other industries) who serve them. While women’s reproductive rights advocates in the rest of the country saw Hollywood make a heroic gesture, some employees in Georgia who can’t just fly off to another filming location felt like they were being abandoned in the name of a political statement.

As Buzzfeed News reported, a group of industry employees has launched a counter-movement to the studios’ budding boycott campaigns, coming together around the hashtag #Stayandfight.

One 39-year-old studio hand who had moved to Georgia to work in its film and TV industry six years ago and supports a family there told Buzzfeed that the potential boycott would cause damage to people’s lives, more than it would support justice. “It’s not going to affect the politicians and the actors,” he said of the possible boycott. “They’re still going to keep going to work in other places like they always have. But with us here, it’s going to destroy us.”

Welcome to the dark side of employee activism. We’re just beginning to see how it gets as messy as any other democratic process, if not more so, when it pits one group of workers’ needs against another’s. In this case, the divide is not even centered on the morality of the abortion bill (though that tension must exist too), but instead on how best to respond to it. Employees fighting the same cause must grapple with an old question: Is disengagement the right answer?

A nascent movement

Nearly 40% of American workers could be called “employee activists,” according to a new report by the communications firm Weber Shandwick, which defined the term as “people who have spoken up to support and/or criticize their employer’s actions over a controversial societal issue.” The survey found widespread support, across generations, for the right to voice dissent at work, but noted that nearly half of millennial employees fit the employee activist label themselves, compared to a third of Gen-Xers and only 27% of baby boomers.

Millennials were also most likely to say they believe “employees can make a greater impact on the world than business leaders can,” suggesting that, yes, employee activism is on the rise for demographic reasons alone. But employees are not naive, either: 79% said they feel advocating for an employer to change a policy can put their jobs at risk.

Clearly, employee activism is far more complicated than consumer boycotts or other forms of collective action. Even once a person accepts the personal risk of joining a collective action at work, they may still risk offending colleagues who don’t share in their outrage, or worse, putting someone else’s security and income on the line, when that someone may sit down the hall or come face-to-face with them at the next all-hands staff meeting.

Over decades, community organizers have developed processes for building consensus and rallying the troops, making sure all voices feel heard. Employee activism, however, isn’t there yet, and what’s unfolding in Georgia suggests it’s still a wild west; we can likely expect a few minefields in future. “It seems that there will need to be more art and science to how and when you respond [to employee protests], and part of that will be based on data and what do our employees think and feel,” says Samuelson.

“This is going to get more complicated,” she adds, “not less so.”