Employees of the online housewares giant Wayfair announced Tuesday that they would stage a walkout at the company’s Back Bay headquarters on Wednesday to protest its decision to sell furniture to the operators of facilities for migrant children detained at the southern US border.
Last Wednesday, they learned that a $200,000 order of bedroom furniture had been placed by BCFS, a government contractor that has been managing camps at the border. More than 500 employees signed a letter of protest sent to company executives. When the company refused to change course, employees organized the walkout.
“Knowing what’s going on at the southern border and knowing that Wayfair has the potential to profit from it is pretty scary,” said Elizabeth Good, a manager on the engineering team at the company and one of the walkout’s two dozen organizers. “I want to work at a company where the standards we hold ourselves to are the same standards that we hold our customers and our partners to.”
The politically motivated action is taking place at one of Boston’s fastest-growing companies, which employs more than 14,000 people globally and processes 100,000 orders a day. It took in revenue of $6.8 billion in 2018.
The Trump administration has made stopping illegal immigration a signature issue and has been holding thousands of foreign citizens who crossed the US-Mexico border in detention centers. Several facilities are now dangerously crowded, with children living in squalid conditions.
Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced plans to house 3,000 to 4,000 unaccompanied children at three emergency shelters near the border. A 1,600-bed shelter was planned for a compound in Carrizo Springs, Texas, that once housed oil field workers.
So when Wayfair employees noticed an order from BCFS for products destined for Carrizo Springs, they determined a detention facility was the buyer and decided to act. Within hours, a group of 50 workers began drafting a letter to company executives, including cofounders Niraj Shah and Steve Conine and the entire board, outlining their concerns. More than 547 employees signed the letter.
“This particular order, for over $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture, is destined for Carrizo Springs, Texas, to a facility that will be outfitted to detain up to 3,000 migrant children seeking legal asylum in the United States,” the letter said.
“The practice of detaining children and adults at our Southern border has been condemned since its inception, but since the acceleration of the practice in 2018, and the increase in death and injury that has come with that acceleration, we have seen more vocal condemnation of the practice. We, the undersigned, are writing to you from a place of concern and anger about the atrocities being committed at our Southern border.”
The employees asked the company to cease doing business with BCFS and other contractors and requested that it establish a code of ethics for business-to-business sales that would allow “Wayfair employees to act in accordance with our values.”
“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 letter stated.
The group sent it Friday and received a response Monday at 6 p.m.
In that unsigned letter, company executives said they appreciated the employees’ effort to bring the issue to their attention. But as business leaders, they said, “we also believe in the importance of respecting diversity of thought within our organization and across our customer base.”
“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,” the reply said. “We believe all of our stakeholders, employees, customers, investors, and suppliers included are best served by our commitment to fulfill our orders.”
Wayfair confirmed it had responded to the employees but declined to comment further.
In a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon, according to a recording provided to the Globe, Conine said he objected to the detention centers and noted that his cofounder, Shah, was raised in a first-generation immigrant family. But to take action as a company against a lawful customer’s purchase would be treading on a “slippery slope,” he said.
“The level of your citizenship as citizens is really the appropriate channel to try and attack an issue like this. To pull a business into it — we’re not a political entity. We’re not trying to take a political side.”
The meeting, attended by more than 500 employees, was heated at times, with staffers pressing Conine on whether he would accede to their requests or force them to walk out.
“I don’t have the answer you’re going to want to hear on that,” Conine said. “I don’t think this is the correct channel to handle this particular issue.”
He did, however, agree to consider establishing a code of ethics for corporate clients and make a donation to an appropriate charity.
Wayfair’s stock ended the day down 5.3 percent as news of the planned walkout spread.
Dan Hill, head of the crisis-management specialist Hill Impact, of Washington, D.C., said Wayfair’s decision was a difficult one.
“Once you start opening yourselves up to doing evaluations of sales according to public-policy issues, and things that go beyond legal concerns, it becomes very complicated,” he said. “Their stockholders aren’t going to be OK with them making unilateral decisions based on political skirmishes or public-policy fights.”
Following the corporate response, a Twitter account promoting the @wayfairwalkout quickly gained nearly 12,000 followers, and customers of the brand began expressing their frustration online.
Employees plan to walk out of their offices, which are on Copley Square and Boylston Street, on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
Here’s how some notable figures were reacting to the news:
Wayfair workers couldn’t stomach they were making beds to cage children.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 25, 2019
They asked the company to stop. CEO said no.
Tomorrow, they‘re walking out.
This is what solidarity looks like - a reminder that everyday people have real power, as long as we’re brave enough to use it. https://t.co/667abeLDTG
We must actively #resist any & all efforts by this cruel, incompetent administration to cage children and separate families. I proudly stand in solidarity w/ the hardworking individuals at #Wayfair who are walking out in the name of #justice & humanity. https://t.co/UFvCZNGeTJ— Rep Ayanna Pressley (@RepPressley) June 25, 2019
Tbh now I’m also going to see if I can return two filing cabinets that I bought from @Wayfair (but haven’t put together yet). This is really unconscionable, Wayfair.— Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) June 25, 2019
Here’s the deal with the @Wayfair walk out. They absolutely do NOT have to be the company that supplies the prison camps. These are privately owned camps that are for profit. Your elected officials cannot even get in there to see them! This CEO? 👎. Pls follow @wayfairwalkout pic.twitter.com/mYN9IQKTxU— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) June 25, 2019
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.