On October 8, 1970, some 200 people gathered for a protest in Technology Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Student protests were common in Cambridge, but this one was different: many of the attendees were workers from the nearby Polaroid headquarters, protesting the company’s business with the apartheid government in South Africa. Ken Williams, a worker at Polaroid, called out the company for supporting fascism, while Chris Nteta, a South African Harvard student, demanded that the company cut all ties with the racist government. The rally was the first public action by the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM), a little-known group that launched the first anti-apartheid boycott of a U.S. corporation.
This kind of political activity is growing increasingly common in the tech industry. The past few years have seen salaried employees protest at tech firms across the country. Office workers at Amazon, Google, Salesforce, and Wayfair have signed public letters, rallied, and walked off the job over issues ranging from their companies’ collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the military to sexism and racism in the workplace to climate change. They have also spoken out in support of subcontractors and wage workers fighting for better working conditions. Office workers at Kickstarter even voted to start their own union in February, one of the first of its kind. The George Floyd uprising has accelerated this activism. Workers from Google, Postmates, Uber, and Lyft joined the Strike for Black Lives on July 20, drawing a connection between racial injustice and the precarity of essential workers. These actions show that tech workers are recognizing the leverage they have to improve working conditions within their companies and influence how those companies behave in the world. Their burgeoning activism echoes the struggle that workers at Polaroid undertook fifty years ago.
The PRWM was started in 1970 by two African-American employees at the company’s headquarters in Cambridge: Caroline Hunter, a bench chemist who worked on the gel that rolled onto Polaroid film in the company’s signature product, the instant camera, and Williams, a photographer. One day, as Hunter and Williams were heading through the photography department on their way to lunch, they noticed something strange. “We looked back,” she recalled in an interview, “and on the bulletin board was an ID made for the [South African] Department of the Mines. It had a picture of a black guy, who we knew, who worked at Polaroid, but it gave him an African name, just as you would if you made a mock-up version for some product you were trying to sell.”
Hunter and Williams did some digging and discovered that Polaroid was selling photo equipment to the South African government, which was using it to make the ID cards and passbooks used under the apartheid system. The passbooks served as internal passports for black people, who needed them to enter cities and whites-only zones for work or official business. Failure to present a passbook to the police could lead to immediate detention. The passbook came to symbolize the institutionalized racism of apartheid’s oppression. In 1960, South African police opened fire on an anti-passbook demonstration, killing sixty-nine people in what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre.
Hunter grew up in segregated New Orleans during the height of the civil rights era. She studied chemistry at Xavier University and was recruited by Polaroid right out of college in 1968. Most of what she knew about South Africa came from reading Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s 1948 novel about injustices in that society, in high school. After Hunter and Williams learned more about apartheid and the passbook laws they decided to push the company to cut ties with South Africa and, with a few other coworkers, formed the PRWM.
They started by posting fliers around the corporate campus that read “Polaroid imprisons black people in sixty seconds” and explained how the company was providing photo ID systems to the South African government. According to Hunter, this action caused consternation and disbelief among her coworkers. Many didn’t believe that the company was operating in South Africa, so Hunter and Williams told their coworkers to call the HR department. After giving no comment for most of the week, the HR department finally took its phone off the hook. The PRWM proceeded to present Polaroid with three demands: that the company stop all operations in South Africa, publicly denounce apartheid, and donate all past profits from South African sales to African liberation movements. Polaroid at first denied that it had any dealings with South Africa and then, when that was proved to be false, refused to meet the demands. “We were naïve,” Hunter said of their early efforts, adding that she thought that if they got Polaroid workers speak out then the company would bow to the pressure.
Founded in 1937 by Edwin Land, Polaroid had long promoted itself as an innovative and progressive technology company. Land often introduced new cameras in extravagant press conferences that presaged today’s flashy tech product launches. The company’s instant camera was wildly popular with the general public, but also ideal for law enforcement agencies, including those in South Africa. Identification was key to apartheid’s system of racial classification and control. The Polaroid ID-2 system allowed apartheid officials to create passbooks for black South Africans on the spot.
Polaroid prided itself on its progressive record. It was known for focusing on diversity in its hiring practices, especially with African Americans and women, and for its internal upward mobility. (Williams, for example, started at the company as a janitor and rose to become a photographer.) The PRWM’s accusation that Polaroid products were being used to oppress black people in South Africa battered this image. The company took out newspaper ads under the heading, “What is Polaroid doing in South Africa?” in which it claimed that it only sold cameras, film, and sunglasses lenses to the South African public through a distributor, and that the company’s sales and involvement in the country was quite small. The ad went on to ask why a “group who call themselves revolutionaries” would target Polaroid and, in a clever rhetorical sleight of hand, answered that it was because the company would take their allegations seriously since Polaroid was built on the principle “that people should be recognized as individuals.” While decrying the racist oppression in South Africa, the ad hedged on whether Polaroid would pull out of the country. Instead, the company would send a fact-finding mission to the country to determine the “best solution for the black people in South Africa.”
The fact-finding mission returned with a series of recommendations that led to, as the company called it in full-page newspaper ads, “An Experiment in South Africa.” The company would continue to do business in South Africa but push for changes, making the argument that it could do more good in the country than it could if it pulled out. The company announced it would no longer sell its products to the apartheid government and made its South African distributor, Frank and Hirsch, institute wage increases and promotions for black workers. Polaroid also backed educational initiatives and job-training schemes for black South Africans. These measures had some effect in improving the salaries of black workers at the distributor, but largely ignored the legal nature of apartheid. Black South Africans could not vote in general elections or move freely throughout the country. Measures to make working conditions more equal were hampered by racist laws and racist officials. Moreover, in response to the proposed changes at Frank and Hirsch, the South African Minister of Labour promised to take action if a “non-white” was put in a position of authority over a white worker.
In the meantime, according to Hunter, Polaroid increased the pressure on her and Williams. They were surveilled, and some of their coworkers felt uncomfortable being seen with them. They were warned that their activism could imperil their jobs. Still, they received support from other workers at Polaroid as well as from anti-war and black liberation activists in the community. They started to work with Chris Nteta, who was then studying at Harvard Divinity School, and also forged an alliance with Science for the People, a coalition of technicians and scientists challenging their industries’ roles in capitalism and militarism. At a large rally on October 27, 1970, the PRWM and their new partners called for an international boycott of Polaroid products until their demands were met. It was the first call to boycott an American company for its dealings in South Africa.
The PRWN and its allies also stepped up their pressure campaign on Polaroid by crashing lectures and talks by company executives. In one notable instance, they forced their way on stage before Land was to give a presentation at the American Physical Society’s annual convention in New York. They accused Polaroid of complicity in the systematic racism of apartheid. An apoplectic Land retorted: “those people who were up here and those who joined them are liars, they want a bloodbath in South Africa.” Hunter was fired a week later, alongside another leader of the PRWM, Clyde Walton, for activities “detrimental to the best interests of the Company.” (Williams had already resigned in protest.) But Williams and Hunter continued their campaign from outside the company, even after they took on new jobs and started a life together; the couple married in 1977. Soon the Polaroid boycott movement spread to new arenas, and other people took up the cause. “What started as a grassroots effort,” Hunter said, “led to legislative activity, led to stock and corporate challenges, led to asking cities and pension funds to divest.” Student groups, unions, and private citizens took up the cause and brought pressure to bear on Polaroid.
Polaroid kept up its public relations campaign. It made several large donations to local African-American advocacy organizations, as well as those in South Africa that supported black education. After one year, Polaroid declared its experiment was working and vowed to continue its “engagement” with South Africa. But in 1977, a reporter at the Boston Globe discovered that Polaroid’s South African distributor was still secretly funneling Polaroid products to the apartheid regime. They were making dummy sales through a Johannesburg pharmacy, repackaging the equipment and film into unmarked cartons, and selling them to the government. The reporter even printed a copy of a receipt for Polaroid products sold to the Bantu Reference Bureau, the agency in charge of creating passbooks for black South Africans. The resounding outcry and embarrassment forced Polaroid to finally admit that their experiment had failed. The company ceased all sales in South Africa in 1977, and the PRWM declared victory.
Despite its failure, the Polaroid experiment served as the blueprint for corporate engagement with the South African government. In 1977, Leon Sullivan, a Baptist minister, civil rights leader, and board member at General Motors, formulated a set of principles for U.S. corporations operating in South Africa called the Sullivan Principles. Eric J. Morgan, who studies the anti-apartheid movement, described Sullivan’s plan as “voluntary buy-in from GM, Ford, Coca-Cola, and IBM to try to improve the working conditions for non-white South Africans in their plants or satellites.” Sullivan got hundreds of companies to sign on, but eventually concluded that the approach hadn’t worked. He called for a total boycott of South Africa in 1987. As Morgan said, “Ultimately the Sullivan Principles failed because they didn’t address the fundamental problem in South Africa: that non-whites weren’t citizens.” No amount of economic engagement would change that. “You can promote black workers, you can pay them well, but at the end of the day, they can’t vote so they’ll never be part of society in the same way as whites.”
It would be several more years before other American corporations followed Polaroid’s path and joined the boycott. In parallel, universities divested from companies doing business in South Africa, and athletes and musicians boycotted the country. Finally, in 1986, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over President Reagan’s veto, imposing sanctions on the South African economy. Pressure from the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement helped topple the apartheid regime, which fell in the early 1990s.
The PRWM was never more than a handful of employees, but they leveraged their position within the company and their ability to forge alliances into an effective pressure campaign. They used Polaroid’s carefully sculpted image as a progressive and innovative technology company to their advantage. They also modeled a form of workplace organizing that sought democratic control over their firm’s conduct and operations. In a 2010 documentary on the anti-apartheid movement, Hunter makes this point in simple but explicit terms: “As workers we had a right to say what happened to our labor.”
Tech workers today are coming to a similar conclusion. In a recent article for Logic magazine, Ben Tarnoff argues that the struggles and protests of the past few years represent not only a new level of militancy but also a transformation in how some tech employees view themselves. Whereas before they may have thought of themselves as creatives or co-collaborators, now they identify as workers and are more apt to view power relations in their industry through the lens of class, especially as it intersects with race and gender. The companies they work for profess to embody progressive values and encourage employee input, but when mid-level workers push their firms to take positions that threaten the bottom line, these companies respond in the same manner as Polaroid in the 1970s: with whitewashing and retaliation.
Last year, Wayfair responded to an employee protest over the company supplying furniture to immigrant detention centers by donating $100,000 to the Red Cross. In November, Google fired four employees who had organized walkouts to draw attention to the company’s lackluster response to sexual harassment claims, its exploitation of tertiary workers, and its potential collaboration with the Customs and Border Protection Agency.
The COVID-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter uprising have increased the urgency of these fights. In response to working conditions and inadequate pay during the pandemic, frontline workers at Amazon, Uber, Instacart, and other tech companies have staged dramatic protests and strikes across the country. These actions reflect a growing militancy among the service and gig workers who keep the tech industry humming. Mid-level workers within those companies will need to step up their actions to support them. After the death of George Floyd, most tech companies issued statements in support of racial justice, and some made large donations to organizations like the NAACP. But tech workers have called on their companies to match these statements with in-house actions to combat workplace racism, lack of diversity in upper management, and racial biases in their platforms. Over 2,000 employees at Google signed an open letter demanding the company stop providing technology to police departments.
Meanwhile, authorities are looking to tech companies to assist in repressing the movement. The Twitter-affiliated startup Dataminr was recently accused of helping police departments surveil Black Lives Matter protesters. Attorney General William Barr has asked Congress to require messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp to create backdoors into their encryption for law enforcement while at the same time pushing the narrative that leftist agitators and extremists have hijacked the protests. Engineers and coders can play an important role in making sure that their tech is not used to spy on protesters, target vulnerable populations, or spread dangerous disinformation.
Whatever the struggle, tech workers, at all levels, will have to keep organizing and agitating for democratic control over their labor. The lesson the PRWM learned in the 1970s still holds true today: whether you’re a waged worker in the factory or a skilled employee at the company’s HQ, real power is never freely given by upper management. It is taken through organized action.
Michael McCanne is a writer in New York.