Worker activism vs. worker organizing


On June 1, Amazon’s corporate LGBTQ+ Pride event was disrupted by a few dozen protesters, primarily engineers employed by Amazon, who staged a die-in during the event to protest Amazon’s continued sales of “Irreversible Damage” and other anti-trans books available on its website. This action is the latest in a pattern of activist demonstrations mounted by workers, particularly at tech companies, against their bosses’ corporate practices, distinct from unionization drives or political strike actions, preceded by climate walkouts and other similar actions by workers at Google, Amazon, and Netflix. How do we understand this phenomenon, and how is it different from more traditional workplace organizing?

From walkouts to die-ins

The anti-transphobia die-in at Amazon is only the most recent of tech worker activist campaigns. In 2018, workers at Google protested and ultimately caused the cancellation of Dragonfly, a project that would create a censored Google Search for use in China. A similarly controversial project to provide AI services for the U.S. military, Project Maven, was also briefly shelved following workers’ outcry but lives on today as a spinoff funded by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Google workers that same year also staged a mass walkout over sexist corporate practices. The following year, Riot Games staff walked out over sexism in their workplace, and worker-activists at Amazon and Google led walkouts to demand that their companies take greater strides to eliminate their environmentally destructive footprints.

While workers at Google were able to channel this energy into the formation of a minority union in 2021, elsewhere the actions have done little more than win vague verbal commitments from company bosses, and they have not produced meaningful changes in these companies’ operations. In one case, workers at Netflix who attempted to pressure the company to drop transphobic comedy shows from their service succeeded only at getting themselves fired and having the company double down on its transphobic content. While tech-worker activists have been highly successful at grabbing headlines of national newspapers, they have had a much weaker track record in actually winning the concessions that they are fighting for.

Strong ideals but inadequate methods

On its own, the rise in workplace activism can be seen as a positive development, an expression of mounting frustration against companies’ reactionary priorities. At their core, these workers’ demands align with the socialist view that workers should control the conditions that we work under, including decisions about what we produce and how. Whether opposing their employer’s destruction of the environment, collaboration with repressive governments, or distribution of transphobic literature, workers are right to fight back and demand more control.

What is missing from these activist efforts, and what distinguishes them from workplace organizing, is the lack of a long-term strategy based on the true strength of workers in the capitalist economy—workers’ key, irreplaceable role in profit-making production. Die-ins at corporate events and small walk-outs by a minority of workers, if not tied to broader organizing campaigns, can at most threaten the bosses with a bad PR day. Even when they draw headlines in major publications, worker-activist actions rarely lead to changes in customer or shareholder behavior large enough to threaten the company’s bottom line. By contrast, an organized, strike-ready union can shut down an entire company’s production, a much more serious threat for the bosses and the entire capitalist system behind them.

What’s more, an organized workforce is not only a tool for offense and making demands of the bosses: it is also a tool for defense, protecting individual organizers from retaliation through the solidarity of the whole rank and file. Small activist actions, even when nominally successful, leave core organizers open to retaliation by the company, as was the case at Netflix. Rather than creating martyrs for the cause that inspire further worker actions, these outcomes have the effect of demoralizing workers against any future attempts to assert control over their workplace, leading them to believe that speaking up at work is something that can only be done by people who can afford to lose their jobs.

The best vehicle for change at work is a union

None of this should be taken as a suggestion that we should not be organizing around issues like trans rights, the environment, or anti-imperialism in the workplace, or that we should limit our activity in the workplace to bread-and-butter economic demands like wages and vacation time. As socialists, we should always be pushing for our unions to engage in tangible solidarity with the rest of the working class and the oppressed. We can point to the long and proud history of solidarity strikes to support the struggle of workers at other worksites, and of political strikes to demand social and political change, as well as more mundane work such as providing a venue for workers to raise grievances against unsafe working conditions, including racist, sexist or homophobic abuse on the job, with a real chance of having it redressed thanks to the strength of the union. And when the time comes to walk off the job or take some other public action against the bosses, an organized union provides a ready base of support that can be mobilized, rather than having to scramble to mobilize supporters from scratch for each successive cause.

Fighting against oppression in the workplace can even be a way to build a union in itself. But this is only possible if organizers directly tie anti-oppression work to union drives. A union will not magically materialize following a successful walkout, it requires conscious effort in building. As organizers at Google stated to CNN, even after the walkouts, building the union took one-on-one meetings and deliberate organizing.

We need workers who are willing to stand up for what they believe in and fight the bosses toe-to-toe. But we also need to be prepared to do the patient and often frustrating work of building unions in our workplaces. It is only by organizing our workplaces and threatening our bosses where it actually hurts them that we will be able to win the significant conditions we need to change society for the better.

Photo: Amazon employees march away following their die-in at the Amazon headquarters in Seattle on June 1. (Daniel Kim, Seattle Times)

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