Employee Protests Are on the Rise at Retailers Like Amazon and Walmart

Corporate change may follow, but not as quickly as desired

photo of guns on the right, people protesting in the middle and packs of cigarettes on the left
Large retailers are seeing more employees protesting to get a better quality of life and against certain business decisions. Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images; Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

With a rallying cry of  “We are humans, not robots,” workers in Amazon’s warehouses have walked out multiple times this year over issues like a 30-hour-per-week cap and working conditions.

While a spokesperson for the National Labor Relations Board said it does not track employee protests, staff at retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Wayfair and Whole Foods have signed letters to executives and/or walked out over a range of issues this year alone, including government contracts, carbon footprints, gun sales and earning a living wage.

This, in turn, reflects a passionate labor force that’s willing to speak up and take action based on their values and concerns in an increasingly polarized society. While businesses will continue to carefully weigh policy decisions, experts say their employees will also continue to protest values-based issues, and the stakes will only get higher.

Amazon and Walmart did not respond to requests for comment, and Wayfair declined to comment.

Internal turmoil

“Disgruntled employees never lead to good consumer outcomes,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing services firm Metaforce and adjunct associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “I think the risk to Amazon is less than a hotel chain or an airline or a restaurant or brick and mortar. If you [go] to Target and employees are unhappy, you feel it faster.”

This, in turn, undermines brand reputation and equity, he added.

According to Raig Adolfo, chief strategy officer at digital marketing agency 360i, unhappy employees make marketers’ jobs harder—especially since customer experience is their main focus now.

sidebar of information about how certain brands dealt with employee protests

“Even in today’s digital world, employees play a huge role [in customer experience] beyond just digital properties,” Adolfo said. “If employees don’t truly buy into your brand, they can’t truly sell it, either.”

A sign of the times

A recent Gartner report found deep divisions between liberal and conservative consumers, which it said raises the stakes for brand targeting and messaging as marketers must work even harder to ensure brand actions and values are aligned.

Marketers also have to be constantly dialed in to what’s happening within the organization, the marketplace and the world to avoid conflicts, while simultaneously pushing the envelope creatively. That can leave them in a difficult spot.

“On the one hand, marketers are told to do bold, provocative things, but at the same time, playing at edges is risky [and potentially] offensive or problematic,” said Chris Ross, vp, analyst in Gartner’s marketing practice.

Yet there hasn’t been much in the way of corporate change as a result of employee protests among brands. There are a few exceptions, such as Amazon issuing a Climate Pledge and Walmart amending its gun policy, with employees still asking for more in both cases.

Demand for stakeholdership

In August, Business Roundtable, a nonprofit association of CEOs, updated its definition of corporate purpose. Instead of existing primarily to serve shareholders, it says corporations serve a broader range of stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers and communities. It was signed by 181 CEOs, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon.

In response, Cat Davis, a 12-year Walmart employee and leader of labor rights group United for Respect, and Lenore Palladino, senior economist and policy counsel at the Roosevelt Institute think tank, published a statement where they said McMillon has an opportunity to show these new priorities “aren’t just words on paper.”

They noted Walmart does not have a good track record of “valuing workers or acknowledging the changes that its employees call for,” including pay, benefits, scheduling and decision-making.

“The fact is: Walmart’s employees have long struggled for McMillon and his predecessors to recognize our ‘stakeholdership’—our status as essential stakeholders in the success of the company,” they wrote.

Adolfo said he expects activism like this to continue because society has changed so much. “It’s not only digital platforms and data that transformed marketing; it’s also the climate of our societies, the zeitgeist and fact that there’s been a power shift and consumers are holding everyone accountable,” he added.

One constant, Ross said, is businesses will continue to weigh the economic and reputational elements of their decisions.

“It’s the interconnection of values, economic impact and a fluid, polarized market that makes this new environment so challenging for marketing leaders,” he said.

@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.