Over the last decade, American workers have been
. When large firms across industries have underpaid or mistreated workers, paid out bad actors, or failed to take a stand for what’s right, employee activists have increasingly pushed back, pressuring companies to do the right thing. dramatically changing their relationship with their employers
These actions have accelerated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with potentially global implications. “In the first half of 2015, there were six instances of employee activism in tech firms reported in mainstream media. In the first half of 2020, there were 60,” Mae McDonnell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school,
recently told WBUR.
Here are some milestones of the new employee activism. Unless otherwise indicated, you can assume that the corporate response followed a familiar pattern: give lip-service to the employees and their demands, take little to no action, and push out the boat rockers, the very employees who are most engaged in the company’s wellbeing and future. However, as Michelle Miller, co-founder of Coworker.org
, “Did the thing work?” is the wrong question to ask. It’s the culmination of individual actions that may ultimately lead to a major paradigm shift. told Quartz
When Target announces it will open on Thanksgiving night to kick off Black Friday early, a store employee launches a petition on Change.org to protest the decision. Some 190,000 signatures were collected from Target employees and the public.
Two hundred fast-food workers in New York City walk off the job demanding high minimum wages. The “Fight for $15” goes on to become a 300-city strong global movement.
Inspired by Target’s ad-hoc organizing, the “Wisconsin Uprising,” and similar events, former colleagues at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch, create Coworker.org, a non-profit that offers non-unionized employee groups pro bono training and consulting.
Journalists at Gawker, a beloved digital media outlet, vote to form a union, kicking off a wave of organizing in several newsrooms. (Quartz’s newsroom unionized in 2018.)
Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, declines to stand for the national anthem to protest police brutality against Black Americans. In subsequent games, he takes a knee during the anthem, and other National Football League players and athletes in other sports begin to follow. In 2017, Kaepernick opts-out of his contract with the 49ers, hoping to be signed elsewhere. No other team steps up to sign him.
Donald Trump wins the US presidency. His policies around immigration, women’s reproductive rights, trans rights, and border control will spark activism among the general population and within companies with government contracts.
Susan Fowler, an engineer who had worked at Uber, publishes a first-person account of the sexual harassment she experienced there on her personal blog. The piece goes viral and inspires several other women in Silicon Valley jobs to come forward with their own stories. Several managers at Uber are fired and CEO Travis Kalanick is eventually forced to resign.
The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine publish exposes about Harvey Weinstein’s history of harassing and assaulting women in Hollywood, reigniting the #MeToo movement and fueling increased scrutiny of pay practices and corporate responses to sexual harassment complaints.
“Google doc activism” that had previously been limited to political or social causes is adopted by private sector employees, who start anonymously sharing salary information.
Thousands of Google employees sign a petition asking Google to cancel Project Maven, part of a contract with the Pentagon to develop software to interpret video images and improve drone targeting. Google later
declines to renew
Microsoft employees protest the company’s work with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in an open letter to CEO Satya Nadella.
An estimated 20,000 Google employees in 40 countries stage a walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims and its $90 million severance pay-out to Andy Rubin.
Mark Luckie, a manager at Facebook, shares a damning memo about being Black at Facebook, a then-rare act of defiance at the firm. He later left the company, feeling pressured to quit.
Ahead of a planned shareholder meeting, 16 Amazon employees who own company stock file a shareholder resolution requesting that Amazon go public with plans to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Several thousand employees
sign an open letter
urging Amazon to adopt the resolution. It is
More than 100 Microsoft employees sign an open letter to the company’s leadership regarding the firm’s $480 million contract to sell augmented reality headsets to the US military.
Two days before Uber’s IPO, Uber drivers in several cities stage a strike protesting low pay and poor working conditions at the company, in one of many protests by Uber and Lyft gig workers.
Citing the risk of negative employee sentiment, Disney CEO Bob Iger says he doubts the company would continue filming in Georgia if a draconian anti-abortion law is passed there.
Hundreds of Wayfair employees in Boston stage a walkout over company plans to sell furniture to a detention center for migrant children at the US-Mexico border.
In an all-hands meeting, Ogilvy CEO John Seifert speaks with employees crushed and enraged by revelations that the US Customs and Border Protection had become one of the ad firm’s clients. The transcript of that meeting will later be leaked to BuzzFeed News.
Amazon employees walk out to join a global climate change march as “Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.” Other companies
give employees time off
to join the march.
Google fires the “Thanksgiving Four,” a group accused of accessing private internal documents. After the walkout, the company tightened its rules about what Googlers had a right to see.
Nike employees walk out in protest of the company’s treatment of women and female athletes. Several senior executives join the employees to discuss their grievances.
Kickstarter employees vote to unionize, making it the first major tech firm whose employees have taken the plunge.
Amazon corporate employees hold an online walkout to criticize Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers during the Covid-19 pandemic and to protest the firing of four warehouse staff members who had been vocal critics of Amazon’s pandemic safety measures.
In a memo to business leaders, Rick Berman, an anti-union lobbyist, cautions that he believes organizing is about to rise in individual companies and across industries. “This is the first time since the early 1980s where I sense significant interest by employees in ‘collective action’ and ‘3rd party representation,’” he says.
Retail and warehouse employees at Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, and Instacart stage walkouts to demand their employers pay more and provide better protective measures during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Facebook workers stage a virtual walkout over the site’s refusal to take down Trump’s misinformation-loaded status updates. Less than two weeks later, one employee who publicly questioned CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s response to Trump’s posts is fired.
As Black Lives Matter marches spring to life in US cities, hundreds of Microsoft employees protest the company’s contracts to provide facial recognition and other types of software to police forces.
Starbucks employees in Seattle march to demand the company’s pull investments in a local police foundation.
Whole Foods workers sue their employer in a class-action lawsuit for barring them from wearing Black Lives Matter masks.
Black Nike employees walk out in support of social justice, after already raising objections to the company’s treatment of Black employees.
After Black employees asked Coinbase to publicly support Black Lives Matter, CEO Brian Armstrong declares his company “apolitical.” He later offers four- to six-month severance packages to anyone who doesn’t want to conform to the “new” environment.
Newly unionized New Yorker journalists successfully enlist the support of progressive Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren in a union contract stand-off with management. The politicians agree to boycott a New Yorker event to show their solidarity with the organizers.
Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Alabama file a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board, becoming the first potential group at the notoriously anti-union company to take unionization efforts this far.
Google fires celebrated researcher Timnit Gebru after she pointed to flaws with the company’s practices for hiring minorities and biases in artificial intelligence.
The NLRB files a complaint against Google, saying it illegally spied on employees attempting to organize and wrongfully fired two employees, including one of the Thanksgiving Four. Google must settle the complaint or face a judge.