The Industry

The Wayfair Walkout Is a Different Kind of Tech Worker Protest

Employees are finding new ways to insist their companies oppose the Trump administration’s most appalling policies.

From center, Wayfair co-chairmen and co-founders Steve Conine and Niraj Shah ring the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 2, 2014.
From center, Wayfair co-chairmen and co-founders Steve Conine and Niraj Shah ring the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 2, 2014. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Last Friday afternoon, more than 500 employees sent a letter to executives at the online home-goods retailer Wayfair. Their concern was a $200,000 order of bedroom furniture that would ship to a border camp in Carrizo Springs, Texas—managed by BCFS, a government contractor—where thousands of migrant children seeking asylum would be detained. “We believe that the current actions of the United States and their contractors at the Southern border do not represent an ethical business partnership Wayfair should choose to be a part of,” the message read. The employees addressed the letter to co-founders Niraj Shan and Steve Conine, as well as Wayfair’s board of directors, and asked the company to stop selling to contractors that outfit migrant detention centers and to establish new ethical guidelines for business-to-business sales.

Wayfair employees got a response on Monday: no way. “As a retailer, it is standard practice to fulfill orders for all customers and we believe it is our business to sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate,” executives wrote in a leaked memo. So on Tuesday, a group of Wayfair employees announced plans to walk out of work from the company’s Boston headquarters on Wednesday, demanding that Wayfair donate all of its profits from the furniture sale to RAICES, a nonprofit that provides legal support to immigrants and refugees trying to attain asylum and reunite with their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. A Twitter account created by the group of Wayfair workers says the sale to the detention facility generated a profit of $86,000.

According to the letter that employees sent to Wayfair execs, this wasn’t the first time the online retailer had sold furniture to a migrant camp. Last September, when another detention facility in Tornillo, Texas, operated by BCFS, ordered furniture from Wayfair, employees complained to management. But they were shrugged off then too.

This time, the Wayfair employees went very public—and they did so during a week of renewed public outrage over the Trump administration’s border policies, thanks to reports of appalling conditions at a facility in Clint, Texas, holding migrant children who had been separated from their families. When Wayfair employees disrupt business on Wednesday by walking out, they’ll highlight that even a company best known for cheap sofas is entangled with a system that has split up families, locked asylum-seekers in cages, and detained children who have been found sick and without access to sufficient food or places to bathe.

This isn’t a typical use of organized labor, but it’s of a piece with the methods used by white-collar workers in the technology industry over the past two years. So far, the movement to force companies to oppose various activities of the Trump administration has had mixed success. Wayfair’s case suggests it will now grow beyond the very largest tech companies—and that employees are realizing signing a petition isn’t their only move.

The Wayfair protesters aren’t fighting to improve their own working conditions: They’re organizing to change their employer’s business practices. Google employees did this in 2018 with a petition that lead to the nonrenewal of a Department of Defense contract to build software systems for drones. Microsoft and Salesforce employees were less successful last year when they sent letters to their respective CEOs demanding they stop contracting with federal immigration agencies. More than 4,200 Amazon employees recently called on the company, unsuccessfully, to reduce its carbon footprint and stop offering cloud services to the oil and gas industry. In all of these instances, whether the activism led to an immediate change, workers were more organized than they had ever been before at each company—and less afraid to try to act as a check on business practices they felt were harmful. (In another example this week, Google employees who want the company to reform how it handles hate speech on its platforms are asking the San Francisco Pride parade to boot the company from the event.)

There are several ways the Wayfair workers tapped their employee privileges as part of their protest. For one thing, without the walkout, most of us would have no idea the company was supplying beds to border camps. It was the employees who realized and then shared the news that a customer—BCFS—was outfitting detention facilities. They also shared insider information—the order’s dollar amount as well as the profit Wayfair made from the purchase. The timing probably wasn’t intentional, but they also chose the right news cycle. A relatively small corporate order of beds is now national news.

One critique of the Wayfair employees has been that surely the children detained in those camps should have beds and that Wayfair shouldn’t stop supplying them—after all, it was only this week that a Department of Justice lawyer argued that it is “safe and sanitary” for children to sleep on concrete floors. That argument assumes there are no other furniture sellers. The point Wayfair workers are making is that such squalid camps shouldn’t even be there and that their company shouldn’t facilitate their existence—and that as a well-known brand, it can play a role in public outrage over the border policy. That’s clearly a stance executives of companies like Wayfair don’t want to take. But more and more, they’re contending with workers who disagree.

“These people spend the majority of their lives at work—we all do,” said Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California–Hastings who studies labor organizing with a focus on the tech industry. “And all of a sudden there’s a hook. They are somehow connected to these concentration camps, and so withholding their labor is a way to make a difference.” Tech companies like Wayfair tend to pay well and offer significant perks to attract top talent—which is why you don’t see many labor unions in the industry. An employee focus on ethical business practices would seem to expand what these corporations need to do to keep their workforces happy. It’s an awkward position because they’d rather act completely neutrally as stores that accept money and send beds to whoever wants them.

So the first thing executives will do is end the controversy as painlessly as possible. On Wednesday, an editor from Time shared an internal letter from Wayfair detailing plans to donate the profits from the sale to the Red Cross. That would seem to be a bet that the company can quell internal dissent for the low price of $86,000. Somehow, it seems unlikely that Wayfair employees will jump for that deal.