Is the Corporate Union making a comeback?
It was back in the summer of 2018 that I first got excited about the latent potential of employee activism. In the June 2018 Bullog I wrote about the Google Walkout and Microsoft workers protesting about the technology support the company was giving to the Trump Administration’s immigration policies which separated Mexican kids from their parents. A letter to the CEO saying “not in our name” initially had 100 signatories but rapidly went viral within the company forcing them to ditch the multi-million-dollar contract and add a clause around Human Rights into all future contracts.
I’ve tended to view employee activism as a close cousin of the intrapreneurship movement, but with key differences. There’s a greater focus on collective action to influence corporate policy as opposed to more entrepreneurial individuals (and teams) seeking to change products, services and business models that could provide value to the business while benefitting people or planet.
However, it was always going to be difficult to agree a consensus position across an entire corporate workforce that may have 10,000 employees of many different political persuasions. The early activism was quite haphazard and companies would find that one group of activists might campaign for greater LGBT rights for example, only to find another group campaigning to say they were doing pretty well actually. It was only a matter of time before more organised and coordinated action would be required. This led me to speculate about the emergence of so-called “white collar” trade unions in the October Bullog. Here’s a quote just in case any of you might have missed that month (how dare you!):
“Maybe the trade union of the next decade is more around collective bargaining on things like climate change, sustainability, purpose, business ethics or indeed what the company’s position should be on divisive political issues of our time. “ Bullog, October 2020
I’m not claiming to be Nostradamus here, nor did I have access to any insider information, but you can imagine I was quite tickled to read about the launch of the Alphabet Workers Union in Fast Company magazine in January, closely followed by a more recent announcement of Alpha Global, Google’s international workers union. This is a collection of 13 separate unions working across 10 countries whose stated goal is to keep the parent company in check on a range of issues and challenge anything the business does that is ethically questionable.
So far so good and I really applaud all the clandestine work behind the scenes by Google employees to bring these unions to fruition. Sadly this appears to have come at a price as there have been many accusations of Alphabet using “Termination and intimidation in order to quell workplace activism” according to the National Labor Relations Board in the US, who ruled in favour of a number of workers whose sackings were deemed unlawful. Two of the most high profile and vocal critics within Google’s AI Ethics department, Timnit Gebran and Margaret Mitchell both lost their jobs in the last 3 months to howls of protests from thousands of co-workers. They’d evidently breached company email policy – as has anyone who’s used their company computer to send a message to their partner as to when they might be home for dinner. It’s a cheap shot but is a widely used tool to get rid of troublesome or ineffective employees..
I had always thought that employee activism was potentially safer than intrapreneurship in that it’s not just your own head that is above the parapet -there are thousands which give safety in numbers. Clearly, I was wrong about that and these first-generation employee activists will probably go down in history as the martyrs that have started a quiet revolution towards more democratic corporations.
I firmly believe that Alpha Global and AWU are the thin end of a very thick wedge within business and that similar underground discussions will be going on in many multinationals across the globe. Rather than trying to quell and suppress such activism, my strong advice to business leaders would be to engage and embrace it. If they do – it will be a positive differentiator in the recruitment marketplace to attract smart, free-thinking talent. Ignore it at you’re peril as it’s not going away any time soon.
From Activism to Intrapreneurship
In terms of other things going on this month, there’s been a certain “red thread” around intrapreneurship. For someone who is written a book called The Intrapreneur (do you see that not-so-subtle plug?) and for any of the regular readers of The Bullog, you could be forgiven for saying that intrapreneurship features heavily a lot of the time. Perhaps so, but the month of February was even more than usual.
For example, I’ve just taken on a small strategic advisory role for the Schwab Foundation which is the social entrepreneurship arm of the World Economic Forum. They’re increasing their focus on Corporate Intrapreneurship and I’ll be supporting their work in this area. Similarly, I will be working with Yunus Social Business to support the launch of their Unusual Pioneers’ program for intrapreneurs. If you’re interested in applying or know someone who could be relevant, the deadline is fairly imminent and I’d encourage you to visit here. Oh, and while I’m plugging the movement, I continue to be on the Board of the League of Intrapreneurs who are launching Global Intrapreneur Week which will run from 7-11 June. Again, I’d encourage you to sign up as it will be another fabulous week of fascinating, fun and relevant content.
Best of the rest……
I recorded another podcast, this time for Stef Cutler of The Aperture podcast, which will come out in the coming weeks. Steph is particularly impressive as she lost her eyesight in her adult life and has managed to turn this crisis into a real opportunity to do great work. I’d encourage you to check out some of her past podcasts here.
During February I also gave two virtual presentations, one was for BioforAll training on corporate purpose and start-up mistakes and the second was for Consulting Without Borders when I was talking about diversity. My particular angle on the topic is less traditional and focuses more on how we bring diversity of thought and tolerate radical thinkers within corporate ecosystems.
I had a thoroughly enjoyable Earth circle evening organised by Extinction Rebellion’s XR Catalysers. This is an arm of the movement which seeks to engage people with a business background to the cause and was beautifully hosted with some very interesting fellow participants.
With everything going online these days, the world of Art is no exception and I enjoyed a virtual exhibition by Craigberoch’s very own Cast member, Alexander Inchbald called “When I was White”. Alex has a remarkable style of all white on white and paints in the midst of the elements, high up snowy mountains. Take a look at his virtual exhibition here.
Lastly, or speaking about our cast let me give little plug to Peter Koenig who is going to be running the 7th and biggest Money & Business Partnership Congress in Alpbach and online. It’s all about how we “rethink, reimagine and redesign our world so that money flows freely” according to Peter. I’m going and you’ve still time to sign up here.
On the personal front…….
As you know, I’ve been spending most of my time at my place in the French Alps, just outside of Geneva and am fortunate enough to be able to enjoy more hiking and skiing. Having had enormous amounts of snow in December and January, February has been mild rainy and more recently very hot and sunny which has melted most of the snow. I’m convinced that, in the Alps at least, February is the new April and for the last few years, April has been the new January, having had large amounts of snow and cold temperatures. Let’s see, but the CoP26 climate conference in Glasgow really can’t come soon enough to get governments to get serious on the climate crisis.
OK, that’s more than enough for now folks. If you enjoy this monthly ramble then do feel free to suggest others sign up here. Until next month,
P.S STOP PRESS – I just watched a replay of the most amazing TV programme on Channel 4 in the UK called, Darcey Bussell’s Wild Coasts of Scotland. Episode 4 is on the Isle of Bute and she couldn’t have done a better job of showing the magic of the Island which will help you understand why I’m determined to create the business decelerator there. I strongly encourage you to take a look.
* The Bullog = Bulloch + BlogMake sense? Not bulldog, nor is it bulls**t although I’ll let you be the judge of that! It’s a brief synopsis on recent articles, events and opinions from my world and the things that have caught my attention over the past few weeks.