Dissent Magazine: When Polaroid Workers Fought Apartheid

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Online political ideas magazine Dissent published an overview article last week about the groundbreaking work of Polaroid employees, a full 50 years ago, to pressure the company to stop selling technology to the apartheid regime of South Africa. It’s a fantastic history walkthrough that demonstrates both that employee activism to demand company business practice changes isn’t new, and also that the corporate response playbook hasn’t changed at all.

So many of the actions that Polaroid took in 1970 in response to the anti-Apartheid movement feel eerily similar to the behavior of big tech companies in response to pressures today:

- A “progressive” company that turns out to be not-at-all-progressive when its revenue is threatened.
- Deny that there’s a problem.
- Lie about the extent of the unethical business relationships.
- Claim that the company “only” sells pieces X, Y, and Z of the oppressive system, and therefore the firm isn’t really the guilty party.
- Attempt to disintermediate and obfuscate the problem by “only selling through a distributor”.
- Make donations to nonprofit advocacy organizations in an attempt to purchase public credibility. This practice is often called “ethics washing”. I sometimes refer to it as “purchasing corporate indulgences”.
- Run your own corporate-controlled “fact-finding effort”, in which the company happily writes a glowing final report about its own businesses practices.
- And, of course, the old standby: fire the most visible employees who are placing pressure on the firm.

What we do see from the Polaroid anti-Apartheid overview, which we haven’t yet seen from today’s employee-driven tech reform movement, are more aggressive tactics such as crashing public speaking events to interrupt company executives while they’re on the stage. We’ve seen some early motions in this direction, such as when immigrant rights activists brought an 800-pound prison cage to day 1 of the annual Salesforce conference in San Francisco, to call out Salesforce’s complicity with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. When we return to the days of in-person events in 2021 or beyond, perhaps we’ll see this type of tactic, which is a form of nonviolent intervention, resumed and escalated.

Another key point to note from the Polaroid overview is that the employees intentionally expanded their anti-Apartheid coalition beyond the walls of the company – they didn’t assume that “this is a problem that only employees can fix”, because it wasn’t. The Polaroid employees pulled in anti-war activists, citizens’ anti-Apartheid organizations, and other supporters.

Some extended extracts from the Dissent article appear below.

- Bruce

When Polaroid Workers Fought Apartheid
Fifty years ago, a group of Polaroid employees launched the first anti-apartheid boycott of a U.S. corporation.

Michael McCanne ▪ August 14, 2020

On October 8, 1970, some 200 people gathered for a protest in Technology Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts... many of the attendees were workers from the nearby Polaroid headquarters, protesting the company’s business with the apartheid government in South Africa… The rally was the first public action by the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM)...

[Organization founders] 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…

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…

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…

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 company would send a fact-finding mission to the country to determine the “best solution for the black people in South Africa.” […]

Polaroid increased the pressure on [Hunter] 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 ... also forged an alliance with Science for the People, a coalition of technicians and scientists...

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 [Polaroid founder] 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…

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 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...

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.


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