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STATE OF PLAY

How a new generation of workers has revitalized employee activism

Thomas White for Quartz
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Claire Stapleton remembers the evening that she was putting her toddler to bed, in early 2019, when a devastating email arrived from a manager at Google, her employer of 12 years. It was a memo sent to Google’s entire marketing department addressing rumors that she was being pushed out of the company, which she read on her phone.

Stapleton had been a rising star in the firm, at that time in the YouTube marketing department, and in an internal communications role when she joined in 2007. Because she had written what she calls “whimsical” reminder emails for Googlers during the five years she oversaw the firm’s TGIF all-hands meetings, she had earned the nickname “The Bard of Google.”

As the real Bard would have it, her story took a dramatic turn when Stapleton called attention to rot within Google’s corporate state to its nearly 120,000 employees. Along with Meredith Whittaker, a research scientist and founder of Google Open Research, Stapleton 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.

Stapleton has compared calling for the walkout to “waving a lit match in front of a powder keg.” 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. Google managed its reputation by contributing to the public narrative: CEO Sundar Pichai apologized for the company’s shortcomings, and said the firm supported its staff. Several measures were being planned, the company said, to make Google more transparent. Two months later, however, Stapleton was effectively demoted and Google disbanded Whittaker’s team. When Stapleton complained to HR, she was pressured to take medical leave, she says.

“I see myself as so pure-hearted,” Stapleton tells me. She had co-organized the rally because she cared about Google and its future, and yet she was exiled. Her once-close relationships with managers dissolved. Stapleton and Whittaker had publicized the ways that Google was punishing them and invited Google employees to a Retaliation Town Hall to share their own stories of being muzzled at a firm that once encouraged dissent.

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.

The memo, emailed from the head of marketing Lorraine Twohill, and with whom Stapleton wasn’t particularly close, was an attempt to delegitimize the organizers. Twohill said their claims of retaliation were false. “Over the last several weeks, I have spent a lot of time talking to everyone involved, trying to understand and empathize with the situation,” she wrote. But Stapleton says Twohill hadn’t spoken to her at all. (Google tells Quartz that it investigated Stapleton and Whittaker’s claims and “none were substantiated.” The company says it prohibits retaliation in the workplace and gives “employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously, and investigates all allegations of retaliation.” At press time, another questionable departure at Google, of AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, is under investigation.)

The memo was so “harsh,” says Stapleton. “It went to all these people, thousands of people, my colleagues.”

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I cannot believe how I’m being painted as this person who was just blowing shit up out of nowhere,’” she recalls. “It was so traumatic that I almost couldn’t process it at the time.”

In the context of America’s centuries-old history of labor organizing, what was happening to Stapleton is easier to parse. It has always been a struggle, says Thomas Kochan, a professor of management and work and employment scholar at MIT Sloan School of Management. “That’s the key message in American labor history: In the United States, there’s been strong opposition, both by business leaders—and sometimes supported by militias from the private sector—and from local government, to squash employee organizing.” Those people who wanted to make workplaces humane were branded as criminals and troublemakers with baseless claims, rather than employees seeking just and fair treatment.

“It wasn’t until the 1930s, when we got the National Labor Relations Act, that the country made a specific explicit policy of saying, ‘We don’t want to have violence, we don’t want to have to struggle, we want to have a set of procedures where workers could find a way to organize,’” he says.

The violence may be behind us, but the resistance from businesses continues. What has changed very recently is where people are organizing. The Google Walkout was a milestone of the “new” employee activism that’s happening outside of unionized settings, and particularly in tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft, but also in retail outlets such as Starbucks and Chipotle. Even the relatively staid and stuffy world of book publishing has been confronted with employee ire over lucrative book deals offered to controversial figures, including disgraced director Woody Allen, and more recently for Jordan Peterson, the rightwing, anti-feminist, anti-trans rights psychologist with a cult following. (Disclosure: Quartz’s US newsroom is unionized.)

In many instances, the end goal of this employee activism is to form a union, and companies are taking great lengths to detect and bust those efforts. The demands of many other recent actions—walk-outs, sick-outs, Change.org petitions, open letters, or coordinated interrogations at a company town hall—have to do with a company’s operations and ethics, perhaps whether it’s doing enough to support the Black Lives Matter movement, or to reduce its carbon footprint and correct environmental injustices.

More employees also want to have a say in where and how a company’s products are used, whether those goods are beds earmarked for sale to child migrant detention centers (a problematic deal Wayfair employees contested in the summer of 2019), or augmented reality headsets that would train US soldiers to be more efficient killers (a contract that Microsoft employees successfully blocked in the winter of the same year.)

Most promisingly for labor advocates, there’s now a nascent effort to forge ties of solidarity across all levels and departments in a company, from the head office to the warehouse floor or retail shop.

Kochan expects all such forms of organizing to explode in popularity once we climb out of the pandemic. Unionized workers and those driving to unionize in frontline jobs are expected to be more active than ever. Through the press and social media, Americans have learned how large firms have failed to pay more for labor at a time when staffers risk their lives to keep customers fed or clothed. Their roles restocking grocery shelves, making deliveries, or caring for the elderly are getting the public recognition they have always deserved. Unionized and non-unionized essential workers feel broad support for their efforts to push employers to cough up pandemic pay, offer paid time off, and supply personal protective equipment.

The Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Shiller told Marker that he believes sympathy for labor hasn’t been as high since the Great Depression. “The narrative was that it wasn’t [workers’] fault. There was something in the system,” Shiller told journalist Steve LeVine. “This is another case where obviously it’s not their fault. And there is heroism in how they are delivering to us through this.”

So-called progressive companies have been caught off guard by the momentum behind the new employee activism movement. Having spent years proselytizing about conscious capitalism and the new empathetic workplace, their employees are calling their bluff and raising valid questions about who has the natural right to weigh in on financial and ethical decisions. In short, employee activism is redefining the employer-employee social contract, and modernizing the labor movement in a power struggle of epic proportions.

Table of contents

What is the “new” activism? | How did we get here? | Is it working?

What is the “new” activism?

The biggest difference between “new” and conventional employee activism is that the former is taking hold outside of unionized workplaces, and in industries where workers were once unlikely to see themselves as laborers united by a common opponent. It’s focused largely on mobilization efforts and it’s extremely agile. It comes together quickly when workers want to react to a company’s decision to, say, effectively cut hourly pay for sales people (as Tesla once did) or end hazard pay while a pandemic rages on.

Self-organized employee activism doesn’t come with union dues or lengthy contract processes, which partly explains its quick-footedness. It’s also aided by technology that makes it easy for workers to connect surreptitiously with one another. People can share Google docs, disseminate information through private chat groups on sites such as WhatsApp and Slack, and contact reporters through fully encrypted Signal messaging accounts.

Journalists at digital outlets especially have been unionizing at a rapid clip in recent years, seeing the precarity in their industry, which has created a receptive audience for stories of other forms of employee efforts, says Michelle Miller, co-founder of Coworker.org, an organization trains and backs non-unionized employees in the US who are engaged in activism. That dynamic has been useful in building followers and finding public support. But activists (old and new) are also reaching the wider world and consumers directly through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Where the boundary between “new” and “old” employee activism gets blurry is with the values that the public and the media attach to each. The dominant narrative is that today’s “new” activist workers are concerned with large social causes in the world beyond their institutions, while labor unions are laser-focused on self-serving issues like hourly pay and workplace safety.

This perceived contrast, and the fact that so much of the new activism is coming from Silicon Valley, is why stories of new activism have captured headlines. For idealist millennials who grew up in an America with particularly low approval ratings of unions, and in which both anti-union propaganda, and stories of corrupt union leaders, colored perceptions of unions, the new activism may be more palatable, perhaps even unconsciously.

However, the idea that today’s activism is somehow nobler in its breadth, compared to big labor, is misguided, according to Kochan, who offers examples from history that challenge this notion. “Early in New York City, particularly Jewish immigrants banded together to support each other in communities, and to support the development of newspapers, and to develop ways of educating people to their rights and to their responsibilities as citizens,” he says. “You saw a broader form of organization that reflected the social identity, in this case, the Jewish immigrant identity, that carried over into the workplace.”

Walter Ruether, a popular labor leader and president of the United Automobile Workers in the 1940s, “argued very strongly for expanding the range of issues that would be discussed in collective bargaining,” says Kochan. “He proposed that if General Motors would agree to limit price increases, and would work to build more products and services that met the needs of the American consumers, that perhaps the UAW could then limit its demands for wages.”

Today’s labor unions have continued this fight. More recently, Kochan adds, the same spirit has driven organizations like Justice for Janitors, whose marches centered on wages and creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and Unite Here, which represents workers in Las Vegas casinos, and in hotels around the country, and includes racial justice and immigration reform in its remit. Both offer literacy classes and citizenship programs “aimed at the immigrants as employees, but also as citizens, and as members of their particular community,” says Kochan. In the past decade or so, teacher unions have begun to incorporate “common good” goals in their negotiations, eliciting community support for their battles to limit class size and pursue social justice for Black and brown students, for instance.

Take a closer look at the breadth of work covered by new employee activism and you’ll see that it’s hardly limited to world-changing aspirations. Non-unionized grocery store employees and gig workers, for instance, have banded together over hazardous work conditions and pay. Then there are myriad causes that serve employees and the broad community equally, including gender or racial discrimination. When recently unionized urgent care doctors in Washington State pushed back against a rule stating physicians had to see all walk-in patients right up until closing time, causing work shifts to drag on for hours longer than normal, they had everyone’s safety in mind.

Finally, some “new” activism isn’t really that new, says Miller. “For the first 20 years of the 21st century, farm workers, domestic workers, taxi drivers, a lot of communities that are primarily immigrant communities, communities of color, have been engaged in new forms of organizing, but have not gotten the incredible amount of attention that some of the quote-unquote newer organizing has gotten.” But if there’s a buzz around novel ways of organizing, it might serve as a wake-up call to the traditional labor movement, she adds, “so that the institutions are a little bit more responsive than they have been.”

Often the experience of advocating collectively for some workplace change sparks something in people that makes them think about how… rules get made more structurally.

Not surprisingly, the big question hanging over this movement is its long-term sustainability. Some employee groups have formed around a single issue and will fade if the issue gets resolved, says Miller of Coworker.org. Others, she says, may be around for longer: “But often the experience of advocating collectively for some workplace change sparks something in people that makes them think about how policies get established and how rules get made more structurally. And at that point they begin working together over a longer period of time not just to change one or two policies, but to shift how power operates in their company.”

If it’s going to exist in the long-term, organizing requires funding for access to lawyers and training, and to pay for resources that will allow people to stay connected and informed, to develop consistency and institutional knowledge. “What’s the revenue stream? How do we build an organization that has the resources to continue to put pressure on companies to listen to their employees, to engage them, to negotiate with them?” Kochan asks.

Liz Schuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO (the Quartz Union for US-based reporters is a part of the NewsGuild, which is a member of the AFL-CIO), also wonders about the long-term potential of non-union activism. She tells Quartz that not enough people in the tech sector, for example, have connected the dots to recognize what a formal union could do for them. “These walkouts are very powerful, but then you go back to work the next day and you don’t know what’s going to happen, and in some ways you could be vulnerable,” she says.

These walkouts are very powerful, but then you go back to work the next day… you could be vulnerable.

Unions have laws around them that protect workers from employer retaliation and shore up their pay during strikes, which could create more psychological and financial safety for their members. But tech workers, in particular, don’t see unions as part of their identity, says Schuler. “They see themselves as more professionals that often are individually negotiating for their salaries and aren’t as prone to collective action, because the employer keeps them separated,” she says.

Speaking to the question of responsiveness, she admits that unions do feel prodded to step up and support non-unionized workers looking for quick changes inside companies, but also insists that labor groups have pivoted with every new technological age in history, and they’re ready for the next turn toward AI and automation. “There is always a tension between movement and institution, but you need both,” Schuler says, “and they each learn from each other.”

As it happens, the newly minted activists are also thinking about sustainability and cash flow. Coworker has collaborated with past and present Google employees to pilot a solidarity fund, says Miller. It’s meant to cover the costs of organizing across the tech supply chain, “so everyone from content moderators and gig drivers, to engineers to project managers, can apply to the funds,” she says, to keep their activism projects going. This is just one of the ways Coworker is experimenting “in real time,” she adds, to invent new forms of labor activism.

How did we get here?

The rise of fierce and bold employee activism over the past decade represents a drastic departure from corporate norms. In most private sector companies without unions, employees were expected to comply with management’s top-down decisions about the company’s operations. So what changed? Here’s how researchers and organizers answer that question.

Companies embraced purpose to attract young job seekers. Then things got complicated. Plenty of research has shown that younger workers are drawn to companies that market themselves as purposeful and ready to take a stand on social issues. They may even accept lower pay if they believe in that company’s mission, Mae McDonnell, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, told WBUR. Once inside the firms, those same employees are best positioned to call out any breaches of the company’s professed values.

Protesting companies became more effective than pressuring elected officials. As Alison Taylor, executive director of the Ethical Systems center at NYU’s Stern School of Business, writes for Quartz at Work, people “have concluded that challenging wealthy, powerful corporations offers faster and more effective impact than engaging in electoral politics mired in voter apathy, gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, disinformation, and corruption.”

Rising inequality, in particular, has forced people to take action. Though it’s reductive to call this a second gilded age, economic inequality in the US has become intolerable for anyone with a conscience, in the 99% and even among some of the 1%. “People see the extremes and are finally saying, ‘We have had enough,’” says Schuler of the AFL-CIO. “And they’re saying, ‘We want to do something about this. What can we do about it?’” In collective protest and unionizing, people see “a path to creating more worker power, more worker voice in the economy,” she adds. “Whether you’re in the tech sector, whether you’re working in a meatpacking plant, I think the issues are the same.”

Tech utopias can feel more like sweatshops. Toiling for a global tech company that coddles you with perks has turned into a nightmare for some. Employees are expected to be always available; video game developers, for example, have been pushed to their physical limits during crunch times. Even when conditions aren’t harsh, employees may realize that tech jobs “are also bullshit jobs,” says Stapleton. As companies get bigger and richer, it becomes harder and harder for executives to stay true to their liberal or progressive values, she says, and those in the mid and lower ranks may struggle to find meaning in their roles.

Labor laws are flawed, forcing new forms of activism. Thomas Kochan adds that the uptick in non-unionized walk-outs and other forms of organizing is also the result of flimsy labor laws. “In the last decade or so,” he says, he and other researchers have “documented why the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t work effectively to provide workers an opportunity to gain access to collective bargaining or other forms of employee voice. And so we’ve seen much, much more experimentation with ways outside of the law—not illegal necessarily, but outside of the confines of the act,” he tells Quartz.

“That’s what we’re experiencing now: deep frustrations with our labor law, leading to these so-called new forms of organizing, as well as an increased interest in organizing under conventional means.” Because unions and employee activists led and joined grassroots campaigns for the Democratic party and Joe Biden’s run in the 2020 election, they’re preparing to hold the administration accountable for promises made about labor rights.

Affinity groups connect employees who share identities and experiences. Employee affinity groups are professional spaces, not bastions of activism. However, when there’s a broad social movement that applies to one group or identity, one way the goals of that movement can find their way inside the corporate realm is through these groups. “The classic example of this would be how the LGBT movement kind of paved the way for same-sex domestic partnership benefits and other benefits that professional workers have,” says Brayden King, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Major companies were way ahead of federal and state governments in recognizing domestic partnerships, he says. “That was largely due to the work of employees who are also engaged to the broader LGBTQ movement, and they created affinity groups within their companies, and organized from within, not in a hostile way.”

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.

These clubs for socializing create the container for people from across all levels of a workplace to come together and ultimately compare experiences, says Kochan. Strategizing may follow, as it did for Claire Stapleton, who first raised the idea of a walkout in an anonymous mailing list called Expectant New Moms at Google. That’s also how it went for some employees of color at Coinbase—members of an affinity group called ColorBlock—who spoke out in favor of an official Black Lives Matter statement at Coinbase this fall. Coinbase’s CEO banned any political debate that he viewed as irrelevant to the company’s mission to build a cryptocurrency infrastructure

Is it working?

If the new employee activism is marked by its creativity and optimism, the same cannot be said of how companies have reacted. The playbook is not nuanced: With few exceptions, when companies identify particular workers as agitators and champions of a cause, they push those employees to quit or outright fire them.

There are better ways to embrace employee voice, which could make companies stronger in the process.

In our on-demand culture, sadly, the firings, which happen fastest, can give the impression that the companies are “winning” and the movement is failing. “What tends to get lost is, at least at Coworker, we’re already on a 25-year timeline. Much of this is about what each little piece adds up to, and each little moment of transformation for people.” We may not know for 10 years what the most recent walkouts at Facebook or Google amounted to, she adds. But most media accounts of what’s happening comes down to “narrow analysis around, ‘Well, did the thing work?’”

“In this economy, most of the time, the thing is not going to work,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not in the long term doing the shifting work.”

In this economy, most of the time, the thing is not going to work. But that doesn’t mean it’s not in the long term doing the shifting work.

Indeed, companies once didn’t feel pressure to even pretend they were listening to rank-and-file staff, or that they valued diversity. That’s no longer the case. And in the future, it might be a given that all workers will have a seat at the proverbial table.

For now, companies will differentiate themselves with all kinds of pledges to support other movements, but labor doesn’t appear in any mission statements, says Brayden King, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Across industries, in non-unionized workplaces, voluntarily giving up power to employees and running a company more democratically remains a radical idea.

Scholars connect that to costs—labor is the biggest expense for most companies—and the history of management, King explains. Corporate leaders “want to have autonomy over decision-making, and the flexibility to get rid of workers when they need to,” he notes. They are more willing to pressure their suppliers to improve their workers’ conditions than make long-term changes to their own policies, he says, because “you can always just tell a supplier to get lost.”

Therein lies the power of any employee movement, too. As Stapleton says, at Google the advocacy work goes on still, whether in conversation at daily meetings, or in circulated petitions, and the company can’t do much to stop it. “They are not going to completely root out employee activism,” she says. “They would have to root out a huge percentage of the company, because obviously, a lot of people at Google really do care about [their] fellow man and doing the right thing by humanity. [They] aren’t going to just sort of stand down and say, ‘Alright, I guess Google’s just evil. I’m just going to let it be.’”