Welcome

Welcome to the New Age of Employee Activism

Aug. 18, 2021, 8:01 AM

Hardly a week goes by without a news story about employees taking a stand on an issue. Over the past two years, workers have walked off the job at Facebook, Amazon, Wayfair, and Uber, protesting a range of company policies and actions.

Last month, employees at the Southern California campus of Activision Blizzard, the maker of such popular games as “Call of Duty” and “Candy Crush,” walked off the job. They were protesting their perception of the company’s “tone-deaf” response to a state lawsuit charging it with discrimination and harassment against women in the workplace.

Their protest was joined by Activision workers around the world and resulted in the resignation of the company’s president J. Allen Brack on Aug. 3.

20th Century Worker Activism

Worker activism is nothing new. In the early 20th century, long before Norma Rae stood on a table and called for her fellow workers to strike for their rights, labor organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) and American Federation of Labor (AFL) staged work stoppages to press for benefits for workers. They used strikes to bring recalcitrant employers to the bargaining table, often with considerable success.

The walkouts of the last century were almost exclusively in unionized environments. Today’s walkouts are happening in every type of workplace, with the most recent protests occurring among non-union workers. The protests have involved factory workers on the line, as well as engineers in the technology sector. No industry or pay level has been immune from the movement.

For companies that are not unionized, worker protests can be complicated. When a walkout involves hundreds or thousands of non-union workers, employers’ hands may be tied. It is difficult to act against a significant segment of workers at multiple locations who are joining together in protest.

Not Just Wages and Working Conditions Anymore

The new employee activism is not simply about wages and working conditions. Workers understand the impact corporations have on society, but they also know the power they themselves wield. They expect their employers to be good corporate citizens, and employers who fail to recognize this could see lower employee morale and higher rates of attrition.

In the same way that companies have embraced and implemented diversity and inclusion programs to broaden the look and feel of their work forces, they are now being challenged by their workers to open the channels for dialogue and action about social, cultural, and moral issues. If they can’t do this, they risk losing not just workers and revenue, but also their standing in the global business community.

For example, Wayfair employees objected to the company’s involvement with the purported inhumane migrant detention facilities at the border. Facebook workers protested what they believed to be the company’s enabling of a campaign of lies and disinformation by the prior presidential administration.

The Activision walkout was spurred not by the underlying charges of sexism but by employee beliefs that the company dismissed the charges without consideration of the core issues giving rise to the charges.

What Employees Want from Employers Now

For an increasingly vocal and activist contingent of workers, the question ultimately boils down to whether they feel good about the companies for whom they work.

Finally, and in growing numbers, workers are unashamedly demanding what they want from companies. They are signaling a desire to hold employers to a higher standard. They want to work for companies that are aligned with their own personal mission and values.

The pandemic has fundamentally changed attitudes about work. Recent protests have happened against the backdrop of the “great resignation” of the post-pandemic era. People are not returning to work in the numbers that were expected for many reasons.

Some used their downtime to re-examine their lives and career choices. Others were uncomfortable about returning to unsafe worksites or interacting with unvaccinated co-workers. Many found that they could not work and manage children whose schools and daycare centers remained closed.

Successful Companies Will Listen to Employee Concerns

Regardless of the reason for the great resignation, the workplace of the future will be unlike what we’ve known before. Workers no longer consider a job a lifetime commitment. They are open to changing jobs and finding companies that align with their personal values systems.

The job market now is one in which employees can shop for what fits them best. To survive this wave of employee activism and demands for increased accountability, the successful companies of the future will be those that listen to worker concerns and respond thoughtfully and meaningfully.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs,Inc. or its owners.

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Angela Reddock-Wright is founder and managing partner of the Reddock Law Group of Los Angeles and a neutral with Judicate West. She is an employment and labor law attorney, mediator, arbitrator, workplace, and Title IX investigator.

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