Netflix employees join wave of tech activism with walkout over Chappelle controversy

Slew of walkouts by tech workers, unthinkable mere years ago, shows workers ‘now understand their labor power’, expert says

Employees at Netflix halted work on Wednesday and staged a protest outside the company’s Los Gatos, California, headquarters to condemn the streaming platform’s handling of complaints against Dave Chappelle’s new special.

The actions – which hundreds participated in – are the latest in a string of highly visible organizing efforts in the tech sector, as workers increasingly take their grievances about company policies and decisions public.

“Three years ago, a worker walkout at a major tech company would have been unthinkable,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “White-collar workers across the world now understand their labor power, and their ability to change the unethical practices of their employer by withholding their labor.”

On Monday, the transgender employee resources group behind the walkout released a list of specific demands of Netflix, including more funding for trans creators, recruiting more diverse employees and flagging anti-trans content on the platform.

Tensions at Netflix started in early October, when Netflix leaders doubled down on their support for the comedian Dave Chappelle following criticism from viewers, the queer media watchdog Glaad as well as some employees that Chappelle’s new show contained jokes that were anti-trans.

As internal criticism grew, Netflix leaders continued to defend the special. Reed Hastings, the co-chief executive, reportedly said on an internal message board: “I do believe that our commitment to artistic expression and pleasing our members is the right long-term choice for Netflix, and that we are on the right side, but only time will tell.”

Ted Sarandos, the other co-CEO, claimed in an email obtained by Variety: “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” He added: “Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse – or enjoy shocking standup comedy – without it causing them to harm others.”

The Sarandos memo in particular fueled the walkout, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “The memo was very disrespectful,” a staffer told the outlet on the condition of anonymity. “It didn’t invite a robust conversation about this hard topic, and that’s normally how things go.”

Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix.
Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix. Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

Meanwhile, Netflix temporarily suspended Terra Field, a trans employee, who had tweeted that Chappelle “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness” and tied such comments to real-world violence. The company said Field was suspended because she had attended a meeting she was not invited to, but it later conceded she had “no ill intent”.

Netflix fired another trans worker who had been involved in organizing the walkout on allegations of leaking internal documents to the press.

“We understand this employee may have been motivated by disappointment and hurt with Netflix, but maintaining a culture of trust and transparency is core to our company,” a Netflix spokesperson told the Guardian about that decision last week.

The employee on Tuesday identified themself as B Pagels-Minor in an interview with the New York Times and denied “leaking sensitive information to the press”.

Social media event pages for the walkout have advertised a rally outside the Netflix headquarters in Los Angeles featuring public figures and speakers.

Staffers participating in the virtual walkout have vowed to halt work and focus on efforts to support the trans community.

‘A wave of worker walkouts’

In this week alone, there are protests at Netflix, the grocery delivery platform Instacart and at Facebook by its content moderators. Uber drivers globally went on strike in 2019. Hundreds of Amazon workers walked out to protest against the company’s climate policies in 2019.

Walkouts have become an increasingly common tactic among tech employees. “We are seeing a wave of them,” said Jess Kutch, executive director of the Solidarity Fund, which raises money to support employees engaged in workplace organizing – including at Netflix.

Google employees were among the first to deploy the strategy on a large scale in 2018, when more than 20,000 workers around the world walked out over the news that the company had given a $90m severance package to an executive who was forced to step down over sexual misconduct allegations (which he has denied).

The incensed workers decried a culture of silence about sexual harassment and systemic racism and demanded Google make concrete changes to address such issues within the company. In particular, they targeted Google’s use of forced arbitration – a practice common in the tech industry in which workers settle legal disputes in a private forum, making it almost impossible for workers to sue their bosses in court and keep repeat offenders from being publicly recognized.

Google employees stage a walkout in Mountain View, California, in 2018.
Google employees stage a walkout in Mountain View, California, in 2018. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

The November 2018 action changed the way workers in the tech industry organize, experts said. “Workers are observing their peers to see what is effective in moving decision makers, and replicating that in their own companies,” Kutch said.

Kutch noted tech employees studied other protest movements to determine the most effective forms of action, learning, for example, to release specific demands tied to their walkouts. “There is a degree of depth, commitment and planning that was not present even just a few years ago,” she said.

Organizers have particularly taken aim at the tools tech companies had long used to keep dissent internal. Faced with employee pressure, companies such as Google, Airbnb, Facebook and eBay were compelled to end forced arbitration practices.

Employees have also fought companies’ use of non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, which were initially meant to protect trade secrets, but later allowed companies to keep accusations of wrongdoing from becoming public.

Last month, California passed a law that makes it illegal for firms to prevent employees from speaking out about such issues through the use of NDAs.

Organizing gained another boost when the Black Lives Matter movement and protests laid bare some of the huge inequities in tech and revealed the power of protest to change them.

“Workers woke up at that moment to the fact that if employers are able to discriminate against any one part of the workforce, it hurts everyone,” said Anastasia Christman, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

“There have been isolated examples of this kind of thing for years, but employees are increasingly using the leverage of their labor to stand up for diversity and equity,” she added.

The price of whistleblowing

For some employees, the price of speaking out has been steep. Leaked memos showed that in early 2020, Amazon discussed smearing a warehouse worker who spoke out against the company’s Covid-19 practices and was later fired. (Amazon said the employee was fired for putting other employees at risk of Covid-19.) In September 2021, Amazon reached a settlement with two other employees who said they had been fired over their climate activism within the company.

Other whistleblowers have narrated how their lives were upended by speaking out against major tech companies. The worker behind the walkouts at Google, Claire Stapleton, left the company after 12 years of working there, due to perceived retaliation for her role in organizing.

Netflix told the Guardian in an email that it “respect[s] the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out” and recognizes “we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content”.

“We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused,” the spokesperson said.

In a public blogpost, Field outlined much of the vitriol she has sustained for speaking out about the special. She said she did not necessarily want the show removed from the platform, but wanted accountability from Netflix to its workers and viewers.

“We’ve spent years building out the company’s policies and benefits so that it would be a great place for trans people to work,” she wrote. “A place can’t be a great place to work if someone has to betray their community to do so.”

Netflix CEO Sarandos told the Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday that he handled the situation poorly, but that he remains supportive of Chappelle’s work. He said that his previous memos “lacked humanity”, and did not acknowledge that “a group of our employees were in pain”, but said that his stance “hadn’t changed”.

Contributor

Kari Paul in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

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