Wayfair employees walked out on the job on Wednesday to protest the company selling beds to furnish a detention center on the Southern border. The protest was publicized by media outlets across the country and attended by hundreds of employees and supporters, holding signs reading “no beds for concentration camps” and “abolish ICE.”
One idea commonly held among protesting employees was that non-executives should have a bigger stake in company decisions.
“We've had many conversations with the leaders back and forth,” Wayfair employee Madeline Howard said. “We really do want to reach some kind of agreement with them, but they're just not hearing what we're saying.”
The idea of employees setting the agenda for a company represents a shift in the way corporations work. That's according to Chris Allieri, the founder and principal of Mulberry & Astor, a public relations firm specializing in crisis management.
“At the end of the day, as a corporation, you have to look at your employees,” Allieri said in a phone interview. “Their viewpoint matters, and I think we’re going to see it matter even more.”
Allieri said that's because things are changing. In the past, if employees had a problem with a corporate decision, they'd just have to suck it up or leave.
“That used to be the way, right?” he said. “Now companies need to look at their audiences. And I think, for too long, the audience of the employees — it was just not considered.”
Wayfair corporate did not respond to requests for comment.
This isn’t the first time a mass employee protest has happened. In the 1970s, employees at Polaroid in Massachusetts protested after discovering that their employer was providing the camera system to the South African state during apartheid. An employee-led boycott and divestment campaign ended up including other involved businesses like General Motors and Barclays Bank — all of whom ended up pulling out of South Africa.
“[Wayfair] isn't the first company that's done business with the federal government, or ICE or Immigration and Naturalization Services,” Allieri said. “But this company is a consumer-facing company. It's the happy pillow brand, right?”
Consumer-facing brands — companies that interact with the public on a regular basis — are more likely to be subject to the will of their employees, Allieri said. That means they need to get better at listening to the people who work for them.
Peter Brown, a communications strategist in Boston, said that ignoring those employees is bad business.
“One of the most important pieces of any organization you know is your employees,” Brown said. “They're the foundation of who you are and why you exist, and listening to them and paying attention to them and taking their concerns seriously is paramount.”
After Wednesday's protest, some employees returned to their desks to get back to work. Wayfair corporate promised there would be no retaliation against employees who protested, and protesters say they hope it's the beginning of a discussion.
Though Wayfair hasn’t donated to RAICES, as the protesting employees requested, they did make a $100,000 donation to the Red Cross. Howard said it made her feel like company leaders weren't listening.
“It's great, but also there are a lot of ICE facilities that the Red Cross can't enter,” she said.
Howard said protests will continue if Wayfair doesn't meet their demands. Emily Garbutt, who works in Wayfair tech support and helped organize Wednesday's protest, said this protest is a move forward — but it's hard to tell what impact it will have on the company.
“There's a lot of people here,” Garbutt said on Wednesday, looking around at the packed crowd. “There's not as many people here as they have dollars in the bank though, so it's hard to say if they fear this at all.”