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The pandemic is ushering in a new era of employee activism

Thomas White for Quartz
Published Last updated

💡 The Big Idea

Employee activists are transforming the workplace—and making companies better in the process. Here’s the TLDR to our guide on the rise of employee activism

🤔Here’s Why

1️⃣  Today’s employee activists build on a long history of organized workers,

2️⃣  but many corporate leaders are scrambling to find the right way to respond.

3️⃣  Europe is trying to protect workers’ rights with new legislation,

4️⃣  while experienced organizers offer advice to burgeoning workplace activists.

5️⃣  Digital tools have become a new asset for modern organizing efforts.

📝 The Details

1️⃣  Today’s employee activists build on a long history of organized workers.

Labor organizing has existed in the US for centuries. What’s different about the “new” employee activism is that it’s mostly happening in non-unionized workplaces, and in industries like tech and retail where employees have rarely leveraged their collective power. The goal is the same: Employees want a say in a company’s operations and ethics, both in how employees are treated and in where and how a company’s products are used. In the process, this activism is redefining the employer-employee social contract and modernizing the labor movement in a power struggle of epic proportions.

2️⃣  Corporate leaders are scrambling to find the right way to respond.

Employees didn’t suddenly wake up one day and decide their companies needed to be better—the companies themselves opened up space for employee feedback. Yet leadership has been taken by surprise when debates once relegated to internal channels have spilled over into the public sphere.

Creating mechanisms for employee voice and giving them some real power could actually be an asset for companies by attracting talent and can make a company stronger in the process. “You won’t take every idea on board, but you can make better, informed decisions,” says Kate Bullinger, president of United Minds, a management consulting group that leads employee engagement work. “If leaders can step up and do a better job listening like they have this year, it can lead to better decisions for the company moving forward.”

3️⃣  Europe is trying to protect workers’ rights with new legislation.

Employees are steadily working more hours each week—especially during the pandemic. In Europe, which has a rich history of prioritizing workers’ protections, legislation codifying the so-called “right to disconnect” aims to help employees keep work out of free time.

4️⃣  Experienced organizers are offering advice to burgeoning workplace activists

Employee activism has sparked a national conversation, but the stories of how these activists got started have often not been left out. Activists are sharing their best practices with burgeoning organizers, suggesting a wide range of practices such as:

  • Hit employers where it hurts
  • Let employees come in on their own terms
  • Consider the timing
  • Move past the fear

5️⃣  Digital tools are a new asset for modern organizing efforts.

Online petition forms, anonymous Google docs, encrypted messaging apps—the tools for organizing look different today than they once did. It’s not yet clear if digitally-fueled activism is as effective or inclusive as the old school methods, but for a labor force fragmented by the gig economy and a pandemic-fueled shift toward remote work, they’re vital for workers to harness their collective power.

📚 Read the field guide