Unions @ Work

It Isn’t Just Unionized Employees Who Walk Off the Job these Days

By Amelia J. Holstrom

Back in February on our Law @ Work blog, my colleague Tim Murphy wrote a blog about the increase in the number of major strikes and the total number of workers involved in those strikes in 2018.  While strikes have long been a tool of unions to pressure employers regarding wages and other terms and conditions of employment, in recent years, non-unionized employers have seen an increase in employee activism, including walkouts, over political and other related issues. 

Just last week, in a matter of hours, Wayfair employees organized and walked off the job to protest Wayfair’s sale of beds totaling $200,000 to migrant detention facilities at the U.S.-Mexico border. Prior to doing so, more than 500 employees sent a letter to management asking them to stop selling merchandise to those facilities, but Wayfair refused.  About 24 hours later, with the support of immigration groups and members of organized labor, employees walked out of Wayfair and into Copley Plaza. Soon after the walkout began, Wayfair announced that it was donating $100,000 to the American Red Cross to support “their effort to help those in dire need of basic necessities at the border.” For employees, the donation was too-little-too-late and they demanded that Wayfair donate to an immigration group.  Wayfair didn’t do so  . . . at least not yet. 

Wayfair has a generous employee matching program meant to encourage employees to give back to their communities. When an employee does so, Wayfair will match the employee’s donation up to a certain dollar amount.  On Friday, Wayfair employees posted to the @Wayfairwalkout Twitter account that they “continue in dialogue w/leadership to address this top-down; we’re also taking direct action NOW by encouraging employee[s] to donat[e] to orgs like @RAICESTEXAS via a Wayfair employee matching program! So far we are at $22.7k, which will be doubled by Wayfair.” While the walkout itself may not have resolved the issue employees were protesting, employees found another creative way to address their concerns.

Wayfair employees are not the first to stage such a walkout.  In November 2018, more than 20,000 non-union workers at Google walked off the job over the way Google was handling sexual harassment complaints against top managers.  And, there have been others.  For example, in May 2019, more than 150 employees at Riot Games walked out because the video-gamer developer was trying to enforce arbitration agreements in two gender discrimination cases filed by female employees against the Company.

So, why the sudden rise in walkouts?  It is hard to say, but some suggest that it is the leadership of student activists as they enter the workforce. Others attribute it to the fact that people identify with their employer’s values and that, when those values differ, employees take action.  No matter the reason, something is changing and in today’s tech-savvy world employees can plan, organize, and start a walkout in less than 24 hours.

This type of employee activism could lead to unionization efforts at more businesses, brand-damaging publicity, and poor employee morale, among other things.  Employers should be prepared to take quick action to diffuse employee dissent.  Your business may depend on it.  For guidance on how to address a walkout, unionization effort, or other-related matters impacting your business, you should contact your labor and employment counsel.

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