Six employee activists on the practices of effective organizing

A walkout at Google in 2018.
A walkout at Google in 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Stephen Lam
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Recent waves of employee activism have sparked a national conversation in the US about how CEOs and companies can, or should, answer the calls for change coming from inside the house. But the stories of how these activists got started, or launched unionizing efforts, have often not been a part of that conversation. We at Quartz wondered: What advice would these activists have for people who are considering becoming organizers themselves? Some of their suggestions are straightforward enough, while others are riskier, and could result in losing your job.

Here’s what employee activists at Whole Foods, Google, Facebook, and McDonald’s told Quartz.

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Getting started

Organizing is not just for superheroes

A Whole Foods employee who goes by Glamazon Prime, or “Glam” (she asked to have her name withheld) says she didn’t feel equipped to become an activist when organizers at Whole Worker, a group of about 400 Whole Foods employees looking to eventually unionize, contacted them years ago. They thought activist leaders needed experience or credentials, and many employee activists do have connections to unions or a community movement. But “just by virtue of being plugged into what’s happening in your workplace,” this is something anyone can do, says Glam. “It doesn’t require professionalism,” she said. Once you get started, you’ll learn on the job. (The group put unionizing efforts on the back burner during the Covid-19 pandemic, to deal with the more pressing issue of employee safety and hazard pay.)

Novices can also learn from outside groups, including traditional labor unions and the organization Coworker.org, which offers free coaching and workshops for people new to organizing, as well as a platform to share petitions and information. Tech workers can also touch base with the nonprofit Tech Solidarity, and the labor rights group Tech Workers Coalition, and stay up to date with Logic Magazine, which endeavors to analyze the industry and its optimistic ethos.

Allow your coworkers to come in on their own terms

“If you’re trying to lead any sort of organizing, you need to be incredibly sensitive to the factors at play. There’s visa considerations, there’s healthcare—especially in the United States, where healthcare is tied into our employers in a really complicated way,” says Good. “And this feels silly to say out loud,” she adds, because it may seem obvious, “but you can’t assume or expect anyone else to meet you on the line. Everyone has to make their own decision to do that, and different people can show support in different ways.”

“You can’t hold it against anyone to not be involved, or assume that someone’s lack of involvement is a lack of support or disagreement,” Good says.

Consider micro-activism and engage local elected officials

“Localized, small-scale, grassroots activism actually has a lot of influence over the way that these corporate franchises behave in different locales,” says Glam. So employee groups should consider reaching out to a mayor or state representative if they feel they’re being exploited in the workplace or that employers deserve scrutiny. “You know, what? Municipal governments listen to their constituents,” she says. “Localized micro-activism is much more powerful than people realize.”

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Be prepared

Keep receipts

Katie Doan, a former Whole Foods employee in California who says she was fired under false pretenses in May—store managers said she took too long of a break after a panic attack, but she believes she was targeted for organizing—and who is also a Whole Worker organizer, says documenting problems at the company is the most important thing you can do when you’re planning to challenge your bosses. This includes “sketchy conversations” with managers or “anything that seems off.” These days, “a lot of group members are talking about Covid concerns and how they’re seeing a case a day in their stores, and they don’t know what to do,” Doan tells Quartz. “Well, document everything. Document what [the store is] doing as a result. Are they doing contact tracing? Are they talking to the correct people? Are they cutting corners?”

Documentation is helpful “to remind yourself that these things are not cool,” she says, and to compare events with other people, see patterns in corporate behavior, and to have records should you ultimately decide to sue your employers or talk to the press.

Build solidarity with frank (and digitally-supported) conversations 

It’s another practice that sounds intuitive, but actually creating conversations and group chats is essential to give your activism staying power, says Doan. “There are so many conversations that we have in which [Whole Workers] are talking about something that’s going on within their workplace, and they say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry if this is news to you,” or ‘I’m the only person that may be thinking of this.’ Then when we say, ‘Unfortunately, you’re not the only person. And there’s a lot of people who feel the same way,’ they feel validated.”

Expect that what you’re doing will not be contained to your workplace

Elizabeth Good, an organizer of the Wayfair walkout last year over the online retailer’s contract to sell furniture to a detention center for child migrants, says that “there was some naiveté” among the group of coworkers who wrote the open letter to corporate leadership that kicked off further protests at the firm. “When you work at a place, you think of it as a closed loop. Obviously, that’s not the case, so I would say be fully aware of what you’re putting out into the world,” she says.

“Double down on making sure everyone feels ready to support each other,” she adds, “and that you share the same expectations, knowing that there won’t be one clear result in the end.” The Carrizo Springs, Texas facility that had ordered the furniture, BCFS, was closed one month later when the children being detained there were transferred to other locations.

Know your rights

It’s never a bad idea to be educated around your rights, advises Claire Stapleton, who co-organized the famous Google Walkout. After being demoted at Google ostensibly because of poor performance, she hired a lawyer who asked to see her performance reviews. “A lot of managers are managing things fast and loose” at Google, she says. “It’s just a huge company.” In one of her reviews, her manager said “Claire does best-in-class work, blah, blah, blah, but she does not seem as enthusiastic since she got back from leave,” she recalls. Stapleton’s lawyer explained that managers can’t make subjective and pejorative comments about someone in a protected class, which can effectively include mothers. “I had no idea,” says Stapleton. After hiring a lawyer, Stapleton’s demotion was reversed, but she resigned from the company in June of 2019 and is now writing “Tech Support,” a newsletter featuring “existential advice for the modern tech worker.” 

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Taking action

Leaked documents can drive engagement and attract attention—but not without risks

Before this year, Glam says she thought whistleblowing was the most effective tactic to force a company’s hand. The Whole Worker group has helped Whole Foods workers find the right media outlets and journalists with which to share insider information. “Just leaking information on its own is not going to really extract real behavioral changes from a corporation. But several leaks do have this cumulative effect on the collective consciousness,” she says. “Every time we were able to leak a pretty scandalous piece of information, there would always be a sudden increase in [employees] reaching out to us and wanting to join our group. There’s also just kind of a collective surge of anger and radicalization that happens when people see this stuff on Twitter and see things on the internet. It translates directly to an in-person conversation with your coworkers, which is what you want.”

Leaking documents is typically against company policy and isn’t necessarily legally protected in the same way other workplace organizing tactics often are. Activists say the rewards sometimes outweigh the risks, but that it’s useful to talk to a lawyer or union organizer to understand the tradeoffs. For more, see Coworker.org’s blog post on the do’s and don’ts of engaging your colleagues on a workplace issue and its resource library for more how-to guides. Whistleblowing—reporting corporate malpractice to officials—can also be legally protected, which you can read about at the Workplace Fairness website.

Going public with questionable or even illegal corporate practices can also help a group find powerful allies in progressive politicians or other influential personalities and allied activist groups. Whole Workers’ first big leak contained a union-busting training video that was given to managers and executives, and which led to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren writing an open letter (pdf) to Whole Foods’ owner, Jeff Bezos.

Hit where it hurts

All these actions are well and good, Glam says, but this year she has learned that the most effective way to get a company to change is to go for its pockets. “The walkouts that we’ve had have actually disrupted the flow of commerce at stores. They’ve been large enough that the lines got long and checkouts got slower. In a few instances, stores have had to close early,” she explains. Although the company didn’t engage directly with the group (because that would legitimize Whole Workers, group leaders believe), it wasn’t long before a walkout led to hazard pay.

“Capital is really the only language that companies like Amazon speak,” she adds. “I do think that there is a direct correspondence between the paltry concessions that we are getting and the ability to actually take money out of the pockets of the company.”

Timing matters

Mark Luckie wrote a memo about what it’s really like to be a Black employee at Facebook. He waited until just after Thanksgiving weekend in the US, when he knew the news cycle would be slow, to publicize it. Then he watched it ricochet around the world, picked up by media everywhere. Luckie, who had worked as a reporter before becoming a manager of journalism and media at Twitter, and then a manager of influencers at Facebook, had an insider’s knowledge of media schedules. “I knew that in order for Facebook to be held accountable, this note had to be part of the public conversation,” he tells Quartz. Other activists have leveraged the attention of major holidays and shopping days, like Black Friday, May Day, and Prime Day to maximize their splash-making potential.

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Staying the course

Move past the fear

“Fear is the greatest obstacle, and if you’re paralyzed with fear, then you’ll never join together and make changes,” says a McDonald’s worker in New England who has been working toward unionizing her workplace with the backing of the SEIU (Quartz agreed not to publish her name to protect her from possible retribution). She wants others who work in fast food or low-paying jobs to know that activism  is uplifting. “We had that joy of joining together to try to fight for better conditions. To be able to meet outside of work to talk about issues was great,” she says. “It was a frightening thing, but it was also a beautiful thing.”

She and her colleagues also won a pay raise that she believes only happened because they all banded together. “But of course, we’re still in the middle of this fight,” she tells Quartz. “There’s still discrimination and those of us who are involved in the union do have to worry about repercussions, so the fight just goes on.”

Activism doesn’t have to be a career-ending endeavor

Stapleton believes speaking up at work does not have to lead to your firing or leaving, though people may believe that if they hear her story (and those of many others at Google). Whole Workers’ Glamazon Prime echoes that sentiment and says that part of deprogramming employees who have been exposed to Amazon’s anti-union stance “is also teaching people how to organize in a discreet way” and “convince people that if you keep your head down and choose to be discreet about it, you can do all these things without attracting the attention of your boss,” she tells Quartz. That said, the risk of retaliation is always real at a firm like Amazon that’s “openly hell-bent” on blocking unions, she adds.

“For me, what really is important about employee activism is that it’s not a swan song,” says Good, who continues to work at Wayfair. “The reason that I got involved was I wanted to make my place of work a better place.” She wasn’t trying to put her company on trial in the court of public opinion, she insists. “I wanted to challenge the people I worked with side-by-side and actually improve the work that we do, and the way that we support each other and our community.”

Speaking with your employment status can be valuable and necessary too, she adds, it’s just not the only route.

Have moral clarity, because the emotional fallout can be brutal

The repercussions of leading an organizing effort or becoming a vocal critic of your company are unpredictable and can be damaging to the psyche, especially if corporate leaders drag your reputation through the mud in front of an audience of your peers. Stapleton says she would not have survived the aftermath of the Google Walkout, and the loss of certain friendships there, without “moral clarity” about the message she and others sent to Google.

Luckie also found that some of his former Facebook colleagues and friends questioned his views and his motives, and denied the problems he identified in his public complaint. (Other peers messaged him to say he captured the aggressions they’ve endured at the company, and that they were glad someone had spoken up.)  When he thinks back about the whole ordeal, what still haunts him is his fellow Black employees challenging the veracity of his statement. “I’m like, either you’re in denial, or you’re in a bubble. But to say that this doesn’t happen to Black people at Facebook is really ridiculous, honestly,” says Luckie.

You have the power

One of the simplest lessons Stapleton took away from organizing at Google is that employees do have collective power that companies can’t easily discount. Glam likewise tells would-be activists that “[m]any people just internalize the idea that their labor doesn’t have any value at all, or that they deserve health insurance or basic human rights.” People have been made to feel replaceable, she adds.

But the coronavirus pandemic has helped workers see what leverage they have. “More importantly, I think they’re not going to forget the trauma or the toll that this [pandemic] has taken on everybody emotionally,” they say. “I mean, I think everybody has at least one anecdote that they’re going to take with them to the grave.”