This week, hundreds of employees from Boston-based Wayfair walked off the jobafter they found out the company had a deal to sell furniture to a government contractor, BCFS, operating migrant detention centers on the U.S. border with Mexico. Employees asked Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah to stop doing business with the contractor, but so far, he has declined. The actions by Wayfair employees are reminiscent of those taken nearly 50 years ago in Cambridge by Polaroid employees. Worker Caroline Hunter and the man who would become her husband discovered in 1970 that Polaroid was producing pass book photographs in South Africa during the height of apartheid. Pass books were a form of government I.D. that black people in South Africa were required to carry.
Caroline Hunter still lives in Cambridge. She spoke with WGBH Radio’s Aaron Schachter about her involvement with the Polaroid protests. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Aaron Schachter: Take us back, if you would, to 1970. You and your late husband both worked at Polaroid, as we said, at the company's headquarters on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. How did you find out the company was dealing with the apartheid regime in South Africa?
Caroline Hunter: It was actually, I would say, a historical accident. I had gone to meet Ken for lunch, and we looked at an I.D. badge made for South Africa. We looked at it closely, because it had the photograph of a co-worker of his. And below his name, where his name should be, was a South African name. And we looked at each other and Ken said, I didn't know they were in South Africa, and I said it's a bad place for black people. That's all we knew.
So we did a little research in encyclopedias, went to the library, and decided that we needed to do something, because we did not want to have our labor being used enslave, to hurt, to injure other people, particularly black people in South Africa.
Schachter: And so what did you guys decide to do?
Hunter: With another co-worker, we naively made a leaflet saying “Polaroid imprisons black people in 60 seconds. They sold this I.D. system to South Africa.”
We went into Polaroid on a weekend and put these leaflets up on the bulletin boards and put them where the corporate people parked. And on Monday, when we went to work, the Polaroid police and the Cambridge police were looking for us.
Schachter: How did they know it was you?
Hunter: Well we signed in with our I.D. cards. We were very naive. We thought we could organize from within. And so within three days of that leaflet, we called for a rally, got a South African who had just gotten here who could testify that he had actually had his pass book taken with a Polaroid camera, and met with corporate people at the end of that rally and called for an international boycott.
Schachter: And so what did the company end up doing?
Hunter: We had three demands, which were that Polaroid denounce apartheid, that they immediately stop their business, and that they donate the profits to the liberation movements because at that time, blacks had been in exile, fighting for their freedom.
And although there were lots of corporations in South Africa, we were trying to raise a human cry that apartheid was heinous and needed to be stopped. And so within days, Ken was fired and after two and a half months, I was fired for misconduct.
Schachter: Did anyone at Polaroid keep up the fight?
Hunter: Yes, we had many workers who joined us. Because Polaroid was non-union, they were brought into headquarters and told that they could not participate with us and that they and all their relatives would be fired. So we moved to an outside campaign with the help of many clandestine efforts from Polaroid workers from within. [We also] testified before the United Nations, testified before Congress, talked to Congressman Dellums, who eventually filed legislation against apartheid, and began an international grassroots movement that got Polaroid out of South Africa after seven years.
Schachter: So it worked.
Hunter: It did work, but it took the sacrifice of many, many people.
Schachter: Caroline, do you see similarities between what happened at Wayfair this week and the actions that you took so many years ago?
Hunter: Actually, I am even more impressed with their activities, because they were able to marshal many co-workers to stand up and take a very public action. We were a little group. We relied upon the masses to help and support us, those Polaroid workers who had been threatened with losing their jobs to support us. So it's very important to see this activity, to have others stand up, because one voice and one group will make a difference.
Schachter: Some folks are saying that this comparison to apartheid isn't really fair. I mean, that was one of the greatest evils the world has ever known, and maybe selling furniture does not equal apartheid.
Hunter: The behavior of the workers is what is parallel, that you have a group of workers who are risking their jobs, who are taking a public action to stand up against an injustice. So I think that's the parallel that we want to talk about, that this group of individuals have taken a great risk.