Royal Dutch Shell and the Rise of the Ventriloquist Employer

Companies keep claiming to speak for their employees, but workers can speak for themselves.

Trump speaking at a podium onstage with an audience of workers behind him.
President Donald Trump speaks to 5,000 contractors at the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex on Tuesday in Monaca, Pennsylvania. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Thousands of factory workers served as the backdrop when President Donald Trump spoke at a Royal Dutch Shell chemical plant outside Pittsburgh last week. But as it turns out, these blue-collar workers weren’t all true believers; their employer told them if they did not attend the speech, they’d lose some of their weekly pay.

Shell is hardly the only ventriloquist employer using workers as a prop to serve company interests. This phenomenon makes it all the more important for recent genuine worker activism to grow, and should inspire in all of us a healthy skepticism about faux expressions of worker voice.

California lawmakers, for example, should probably discount a full-page ad last week in the Los Angeles Times by the food delivery company Postmates, opposing a bill to help gig economy workers by providing them with workplace protections. The ad, addressed to Gov. Gavin Newsom, purports to speak for hundreds of Postmates workers whose names appear on the ad. Who paid for the ad? Postmates. Workers subsequently reported that they didn’t realize that their names would be used and that they didn’t understand the full context of the statement in the ad.

Meanwhile, Twitter erupted in confusion and amusement last week over Amazon’s “FC ambassadors,” who tweet how much they like working in Amazon’s fulfillment centers, especially in response to criticism of the company. The FC ambassadorial tweets paint a sunny picture: “We’re just chilling in this Freezing Cold A/C … Always great to know that Amazon has our backs, and windblown hair at the end of the day,” and “I just love that I work for a company so willing to encourage and give.” Amazon even brought some of these worker diplomats to Congress to lobby on behalf of the company. Meanwhile, other not-officially-sanctioned worker testimonials about conditions in fulfillment centers read like a dystopic sci-fi novel: workers fired by computers, people peeing in bottles to keep up with the relentless pace, and even attempted suicides by employees.

In other instances, companies have enlisted their workforces to post positive reviews and thereby inflate their rankings on the website Glassdoor, in order to be more appealing to job seekers. The companies included household names: Slack, LinkedIn, Clorox, and even the maker of Jack Daniel’s.

These companies and their dubious employee supporters remind me of a case we handled over a decade ago, when I worked for the New York State Department of Labor. A garment shop we pursued not only paid grossly subminimum wages and kept fake payroll records, but also distributed a cheat sheet to workers with questions and answers to memorize for when our investigators came to inspect. (“Question: What is your hourly wage? Answer: Not sure but always over $7.75”—a lawful wage at that time.)

In fact, it wasn’t at all unusual for scofflaw employers or their attorneys to hand us a packet of statements supposedly made and signed by employees. Typically they were variations of “I like my job and I like my pay and my rights have never been violated.” The statements had a hostagelike quality; they were invariably in English, a language the workers didn’t speak, and often ended with the shaky, practiced signature of a worker with only a grammar school education. I was always shocked by the chutzpah, the gall of these employers, presenting such documents as freely given worker statements—and insulting our intelligence in the process.

But now these tactics have gone beyond shady underground employers and sweatshops.

Why do companies rely on coerced employee voices to mislead prospective employees, law enforcement, policymakers, the public, and—in the case of the Trump rally—even 2020 voters? Ultimately, such distortions of worker voices are sure to be a losing proposition; the truth behind the window dressing will invariably emerge.

And in fact, by using their employees this way, companies are actually demonstrating the effectiveness of the heightened worker activism of recent years, the strikes and marches and organizing campaigns. The number of workers who took action in 2018 was the highest in over 30 years, with 20 major stoppages involving almost half a million people. Who were they? Google workers (20,000) who walked out to protest forced arbitration. Hotel workers (nearly 8,000) from Maui to Detroit, who went on a two-month strike. Stop & Shop supermarket workers (over 30,000) in New England. And, of course, hundreds of thousands of teachers in half a dozen states. At the same time, there have been regular protests, marches, legislative efforts, organizing campaigns, and other kinds of activism across the country, like the thousands of fast food workers who have taken to the streets to protest low wages, sexual harassment, and dangerous working conditions.

Not surprisingly, some of this activism has occurred in the very companies who’ve used their workers to promote the company line. After Postmates changed its pay structure in May, reducing workers’ income, more than 2,000 workers signed an independent petition seeking a $15-per-hour wage and pay transparency, among other things. Amazon has long been known for its union-busting activities; last year a cheesy but chilling Amazon anti-union training video was leaked to Gizmodo. Yet even this Goliath faces worker unrest: On “Prime Day” last month, Amazon warehouse workers in Minnesota went on strike, led by the same group of Somali and East African workers who forced the company to negotiate last fall.

Worker activism has impacted policymakers and leaders; issues of job quality and labor rights have become key debates in state and national politics. And in light of the combined activism and public concern, companies are starting to realize that they can no longer hide behind the tired trope that respecting workers is bad for business. There’s more of an imperative to show they’re actually decent employers.

Of course, the best way to get workers to say nice things is obvious: treat them well. Don’t resort to condescending treacle about how “we’re all family,” like some employers do. Pay people well, keep them safe, offer good benefits and job security, don’t fight union campaigns, don’t discriminate. But instead, these companies wheedle, bribe, or threaten people into singing the company’s praises.

It’s easy to tell when something’s fake. Just compare the tight faces of the Shell workers attending Trump’s speech, the polite applause and nervous laughter, with the faces of fast food workers rallying for better conditions—smiling, shouting, carrying signs and placards, mad as hell and undeniably happy to be there.

We know, after all, what worker voice looks like and sounds like. It looks like a sea of red-shirted schoolteachers. It sounds like fast food workers saying the number 15. It’s not filled with forced cheer or imposed from above. It’s messy, it’s loud, it’s urgent, and above all, it’s real.