History is full of examples of workers coming together to stand up for what is right. In 1862, mill workers in Manchester refused to touch cotton picked by US slaves. Australian construction workers pioneered “green bans”, refusing to build projects that would damage local environments or communities. Workers at IBM, Polaroid and others challenged their companies for supplying the apartheid South African government.
Workers changing the world
Recent years have seen workers across the economy take on their companies’ contributions to a range of issues including climate change, inequality and online misinformation. Below are some examples of what workers have achieved and how they did it.
Many Google workers were outraged to learn that their company was partnering with the US Department of Defense to help develop artificial intelligence for analysing aerial drone footage. Though the company argued that their work, by improving detection capabilities, could save civilian lives, a number of workers felt that using AI to augment government weaponry or warfare was a red line they were not prepared to cross.
Over 3,000 Google employees signed a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai asking Google to pull out of the programme, dubbed “Project Maven”. About a dozen employees later resigned in protest at Google’s continued involvement in the project. Primarily in response to employee concerns, Google declared it would not seek renewal of the contract two months shortly after.
This incident contributed to a wave of employee activism at Google and US tech companies more broadly, notably when tens of thousands of workers around the world walked out of Google later that year in response to failures by the company in dealing with sexual harassment complaints.
Given Amazon’s scale and the volume of products it ships around the world every day, as well as it’s cloud computing platform, it is hardly surprising that the company has a massive carbon footprint.
A group of 28 Amazon employees sought to change that, using shares they held in the company to file a shareholder proposal asking Amazon to take a stronger stance on climate change. 8,000 employees went on to support the initiative, which was ultimately backed by just under 30% of shareholders; a high number for such proposals but ultimately meaning the proposal did not pass.
Workers continued to press the issue, with over 1,700 participating in the global climate strikes making a number of demands, including that Amazon commit to zero emissions by 2030. Amazon went on to commit that same month to be carbon neutral by 2040.
Public relations firm Edelman landed a contract with GEO Group, a US-based private prisons company with contracts to run immigrant detention centres, to reshape their public image. GEO Group had received a great deal of negative media attention following reports that the US was separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border.
A number of employees objected internally to the news, saying it was a moral issue and conflicted with the firm’s values, though not all employees agreed. Allegedly fearful that employees would leak the contract to the media and cause a public relations crisis for the firm, Edelman executives decided to drop the project.
In Hong Kong, the government of mainland China frequently pressures businesses operating in Hong Kong to make statements supportive of the regime’s political positioning towards the region. Generally, businesses comply.
Employees at the “Big 4” accounting firms - Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC - decided to demonstrate that these statements were not aligned with their views. In 2014, the Big 4 put out a newspaper advertisement attacking the Occupy Central protests which challenged China’s policies towards the region. Employees responded with their own ad saying “hey boss, your statement doesn’t represent us”.
In 2019, when the firms again made statements criticising pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, employees again responded with an ad contradicting them and setting out 5 demands for government action. Both instances drew attention to how global businesses were pressured to be complicit in violating democratic norms, and how employee activism could challenge the dominant narrative.
In August 2019, a mass shooting occurred in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 23 people; 23 more were injured.
There was an outcry from both consumers and workers about the ready availability of guns in shops like Walmart. Around 40 employees staged a walkout in protest, followed by an employee-organised petition sent to the CEO which gained over 129,000 signatures.
Walmart’s CEO wrote to the employee acknowledging the petition and said they were planning next steps. A few weeks later the company announced they would be ending the sale of certain guns and ammunition and would no longer allow customers to openly carry firearms in stores. Other big chains swiftly followed.