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PLAYING THE LONG GAME

A timeline charting the new rise of employee activism

Fast-food workers and supporters protest outside a McDonald's restaurant in Los Angeles
REUTERS/Kyle Grillot
Fast food workers in Los Angeles in 2018.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work senior reporter

Published Last updated

Over the last decade, American workers have been dramatically changing their relationship with their employers. 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.

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 told Quartz, “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.

2011
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.
2012
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.
2013
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.
June 4, 2015
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.)
Aug. 26, 2016
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.
Nov. 8, 2016
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.
Feb. 19, 2017
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.
Oct. 5, 2017
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.
2017-2018
“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.
April 4, 2018
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 the contract.
June 19, 2018
Microsoft employees protest the company’s work with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in an open letter to CEO Satya Nadella.
Nov 1, 2018
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.
Nov. 27, 2018
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.
Dec. 2018
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 rejected.
Feb. 22, 2019
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.
May 8, 2019
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.
May 29, 2019
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.
June 26, 2019
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.
July 9, 2019
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.
Sept. 20, 2019
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.
Nov. 26, 2019
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.
Dec. 10, 2019
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.
Feb. 18, 2020
Kickstarter employees vote to unionize, making it the first major tech firm whose employees have taken the plunge.
April 16, 2020
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.
April 20, 2020
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.
May 1, 2020
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.
June 1, 2020
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.
June 10, 2020
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.
July 17, 2020
Starbucks employees in Seattle march to demand the company’s pull investments in a local police foundation.
July 2020
Whole Foods workers sue their employer in a class-action lawsuit for barring them from wearing Black Lives Matter masks.
Aug. 2020
Black Nike employees walk out in support of social justice, after already raising objections to the company’s treatment of Black employees.
Sept. 27, 2020
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.
Sept. 30, 2020
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.
Oct. 27, 2020
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.
Dec. 2, 2020
Google fires celebrated researcher Timnit Gebru after she pointed to flaws with the company’s practices for hiring minorities and biases in artificial intelligence.
Dec. 3, 2020
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.