Could This be the Dawn of a New Labor Movement?

  • June 30, 2019

Traditional Work Stoppages on the Rise

Is it possible we are seeing the traditional labor movement evolving into something new? Signs seem to to be pointing that way. Could this be the dawn of a New Labor Movement?

The number of U.S. workers involved in work stoppages, which includes strikes and lockouts, was the highest of any year since 1986, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released earlier this year. For workers fighting with their employers over economics and contract language, striking is often the last option available and is not to be taken lightly due to the loss of wages and other financial hardships. Workers can also be replaced in some circumstances.

The impact on employers can be significant as well. The Stop & Shop strike earlier this year cost the company about $100 million.

Employers and employees who operate in a unionized environment understand that a work stoppage could occur during collective bargaining, and prepare for such events.

The same is not true for employers who are union-free, even in an era when employees of non-union companies are more prone to speak out publicly against employer policies, as reported by USA Today.

“Not happy with the leadership at your company?

You may not have to keep your mouth shut anymore. Gone are the days when speaking up got you automatically fired.

Employees, especially millennials, feel increasingly emboldened to publicly criticize their employers, organize protests and pursue change at the top on issues such as gender equality and immigration.

Among the latest examples: home goods seller Wayfair, and technology companies Google and Amazon.”

Work Stoppages as a Means of Workplace Activism

Hundreds of employees at the online furniture company Wayfair walked off their jobs Wednesday to protest the company’s decision to supply furniture to migrant detention centers. The walkout was the culmination of a week of back and forth between some employees and the company leadership.

The employees, organized under a newly formed group called Wayfair Walkout according to USA Today, drew widespread support on the internet from prominent politicians such as presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and from many Wayfair customers, who took to social media to swear off shopping at the furniture giant until the company rectified what they see as aiding a grave injustice. Locals unaffiliated with Wayfair also joined the walkout to show their support for the protesting employees.

At Amazon, some 8,000 employees concerned about climate change have signed onto Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. The worker group won the support of two independent shareholder advisory services for a proposal pressing Amazon to account for its emissions and has continued to advocate for action since the company and investors rejected the resolution in May.

About 100 Google employees urged the organizer of this weekend’s San Francisco Pride parade to kick the company out of the celebration, escalating pressure on the internet giant to overhaul its handling of hate speech online.

Google in turn warned workers not to protest against the company if they are marching with Google’s official contingent. Doing so would violate the company’s code of conduct, according to internal memos viewed by the people. The Verge reported the memos earlier.

The company’s actions may violate federal labor law protecting workplace activism, as well as a California law protecting employees’ political activities, according to University of California at Berkeley law professor Catherine Fisk. “Maintaining the policy would chill speech that is protected by law,” she said.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, boundaries are breaking down between political and business issues that employees, especially Millennials and younger employees want a hand in addressing. Referring to this developing trend as “The New Labor Movement”, the article points out how Employees, especially younger ones, increasingly expect the places where they work to reflect their moral, cultural and political values, and they are becoming more vocal in their demands—often using social media and online job-discussion forums—when they feel employers fall short.

The rise of websites and blogs where employees can share concerns about corporate policy has given added momentum to some organized efforts.

The concurrent rise of employee activism and growing use of communications technology in the workplace is no accident, according to Mark Kramer, a Harvard Business School lecturer and co-founder of FSG, a consultancy that advises companies on their social-impact strategy. “Social media enables employees to communicate without going through official channels, which didn’t happen before to the same degree,” says Mr. Kramer.

Experiencing this type of activity creates a difficult situation for employers, raising many questions.

Who responds to these types of internal protests?

Does the activity constitute protected concerted activity?

What is the potential PR fallout?

It’s clear that even as traditional labor activity remains somewhat slow, there are many challenges for internal labor relations practitioners to deal with. Are you prepared for an internally driven protest? You might sleep better at night when you can answer these questions. That’s all for this week. Let me know what you think.