- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
Hundreds of workers at the online retailer Wayfair walked out of their jobs yesterday to protest their company’s decision to sell beds to migrant detention camps on the US-Mexico border. Their action received support from Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — AOC tweeted: “[t]his is what solidarity looks like — a reminder that everyday people have real power, as long as we’re brave enough to use it.”
Maddie Howard, a Boston Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member and Wayfair employee who played a central role in organizing the action, spoke with Jacobin’s Eric Blanc about the walkout’s development and political stakes.
Why did you decide to take a lead in organizing this walkout?
What our government is doing right now on the border is so outrageous, so egregious, we felt like we had to do something. We saw that we needed to make it as difficult as possible for these concentration camps to exist — doing nothing means being complicit in human rights violations.
We need to make it not financially worth it for companies to profit off of the anti-immigrant horrors going right now. I’m sure the financial impact of our walkout has already more than offset the profits Wayfair made by selling those beds.
We know there are other companies that are complicit in these camps, and we wanted to inspire their workers to fight back. Employees often feel like they’re helpless, but we wanted to help them realize they have power.
Can you describe the background that led up to yesterday’s action?
This has all happened very fast. It was just Tuesday last week that somebody posted in an internal Slack channel something about a $200,000 sale of beds to a contractor called BCFS that supplied border camps.
Once we confirmed the facts about the case, a group of us got together and said, “Let’s send a letter to management.” So we got a lot of people, eventually about 550, to sign this letter where we raised our proposals for how to fix this problem.
What were your main demands? And how did the company react?
The demands evolved somewhat once we found out that the bed sale was final. So the three main demands ended up being 1) Don’t do business with this contractor again, 2) Since it’s too late to cancel this bed order, donate all the proceeds to RAICES [a nonprofit that helps reunites families at the border], and 3) Institute a code of ethics, so this type of thing doesn’t happen again.
Honestly, we thought the company might meet our demands right away. In the past, they had been more or less receptive to some of these [social justice] questions. That’s why we were pretty surprised when on Monday we got a response from the CEO that basically said, “We can’t do any of what you’re asking for.”
So that Tuesday morning, a big group of us decided that we had to walk out. Somehow this got leaked to the press, and it started blowing up on social media.
In response, the CEO held a big meeting with us — there were hundreds of people there. Basically, he repeated what was in their letter; he said they couldn’t discriminate by refusing to do business with a company for political reasons. There was a lot of back and forth, but I realized we had come to an impasse. I took the floor and said to the CEO, “There’s only one thing that matters: Are you going to concede to our demands or are we going to walk out?” So I walked out of the meeting right then and there, and I brought some coworkers with me.
Wednesday morning, we all got an email from the CEO, talking about how the company donated $100,000 to the Red Cross. That’s great, but that’s not what we were demanding — it didn’t directly address any of our concerns. So we went ahead and moved forward with our plan.
Was it difficult to convince coworkers to walk out?
In the day leading up to the walkout, the office wasn’t talking about anything else. All anybody discussed was whether they would walk out.
But, yes, we had to do one-on-ones with the waverers. It’s been really scary, we’ve known we were doing something risky. The company has said they wouldn’t retaliate against us, but lots of people were concerned.
Another big argument we had to counter was the claim that “the kids need beds.” We explained that this wasn’t about having beds or not, it was about applying real collective pressure to make it untenable to operate these horrific camps. And our goal shouldn’t be to have migrants in slightly more comfortable concentration camps — we don’t want any concentration camps at all.
Can you describe how the walkout went?
I left my desk early on Wednesday to help set up the rally. And I can’t tell you how moving it was to see everybody streaming down to Copley Square. Honestly, I didn’t know how many would come. We had about a hundred confirmations beforehand. But I think there were more than five hundred folks at the rally, and about 80 percent or so of them were employees at Wayfair.
I was blown away by my coworkers’ passion and their intensity. And it was so great that we had so much support at the rally from Jobs with Justice, from DSA, and from the unions that showed up to support. It was amazing.
Liberals and leftists often talk about labor organizing as something completely separate from, or even inherently antagonistic to, anti-racist organizing. But it seems like your action shows that the opposite is the case: that workplace actions can and should be central to anti-racism.
I think this has been a really great example of how everything that we do when we’re talking about total liberation is intersectional. We’re not alone or isolated. None of the issues that affect us are alone or isolated. All of this this interconnected. Profiting off of prisons and concentration camps is very real, it’s a systemic and structural problem affecting lots of people.
Through this struggle, many of my coworkers began to see through the so-called apolitical nature of big business. Lots of them said, “If this is how the free market works, I don’t like it.” Many folks already were engaged and supported activism in their free time outside of work, but this struggle broke down the barrier between our workplace and collective struggle.
My coworkers this week saw how the functioning of the machine depends on our labor. And when we withhold our labor, the machine can’t function. So my advice is: start talking to your coworkers. Maybe today it means organizing around something small. But keep doing the low and slow organizing, because when something hits a flash point, you need to be ready to have each other’s backs. And then strike when the iron is hot.