Hundreds of Wayfair employees stage walkout; company announces Red Cross donation
Hundreds of engineers, product managers, and visual artists employed at the online housewares giant Wayfair streamed out of their sleek offices and into Copley Square Wednesday, gathering with hundreds more to protest the company’s sale of furniture to the operators of facilities that detain migrant children along the southern border.
The protesters spread across the square, some carrying handmade signs proclaiming “A prison with a bed is still a prison” and “Workers say no to child detention!”
Lively and young, many in the crowd were “Wayfairians” who were loyal to the company, fearful of saying too much, but moved to protest nonetheless. Organizers passed out water and sunscreen while a marching band played.
“We’re not here because we hate our jobs or we think this is a bad company. But sometimes people forget that we need to be human,” Rachel Dougherty, a Wayfair employee, shouted over a loudspeaker as her co-workers cheered.
The walkout was planned after employees discovered last week that Wayfair intended to fulfill an order from BCFS, a government contractor that is operating camps at the border, for $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture. More than 500 employees signed a letter to the company’s leadership, urging them to cease doing business with BCFS and similar contractors, and to establish a code of ethics for business-to-business sales.
Company executives wrote back to the employees on Monday, saying they appreciated their “passion and commitment” but indicating the sale would go through.
“It is our business to sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate,” the executives wrote.
Shortly before the walkout, facing mounting pressure from customers and international media attention, Wayfair cofounders Steve Conine and Niraj Shah appeared to soften their stance, sending a note to employees that they “care a great deal about humanitarian issues” and announcing the company would donate $100,000 to the American Red Cross to support its “effort to help those in dire need of basic necessities at the border.”
But the protest organizers said the Red Cross donation did not address their concerns. Madeline Howard, who has worked as a product manager at Wayfair for more than six years, said she and other organizers walked out of a meeting with Shah on Tuesday when he refused to meet their demands. A day later, the company announced the Red Cross donation.
“We need to make it as difficult as possible for these camps to operate,” said Howard, who wore a bright red “Abolish ICE” shirt — referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — to the rally and acted as its emcee.
The walkout’s objective was not to bring an end to detention camps, she added, but for employees to take personal responsibility for the company’s relationship with them.
“I wouldn’t be fighting this hard if I didn’t think we stood a chance to move them,” she said.
Many of the rank-and-file employees who walked out declined to answer questions and directed the news media to “PR at wayfair.com.” It was unclear whether they had been instructed by fellow employees or by management not to speak to the press. Management had indicated there would be no retaliation for employees who participated.
Though they were visibly nervous, some employees were moved to speak over the loudspeaker to the crowd. The rally took on an open-mic spirit, with a number of employees volunteering to make seemingly extemporaneous speeches, cheered on by co-workers.
Wayfair is one of the fastest-growing companies in Boston, employing more than 14,000 people around the world and taking in $6.8 billion in revenue in 2018. Its business model depends on the notion that millennials, soon to settle down, will want to buy things like sofas, lamps, and rugs online from a friendly, tech-savvy company that ships products right to consumers’ homes.
And many of the employees who walked out on Wednesday seemed to be part of this precise demographic — young people eager to believe in the company they worked for. (“Shout-out to the elders in the crowd,” one speaker yelled, to cheers from the non-elderly crowd.)
Other young people there who did not work at Wayfair expressed disappointment with the company’s initial decision to work with contractors on the border and with the executives’ response to their employees’ letter.
Jamie Allendorf, 22, held aloft a cardboard sign reading “Wayfair Making Concentration Camps Home Again.” She said she had come to the protest because she has a friend who works at Wayfair; in the past, she had benefited from discounts for furniture to outfit her Allston home. She didn’t plan to shop at Wayfair anymore, though.
“In light of this news, it’s kind of not an option anymore,” she said.
Another attendee, Mike O’Hare, 20, who works in finance and had wandered over during his lunch break, said he doubted he would shop at the company after reading the leadership team’s response to the employee letter.
“It felt sort of stubborn and selfish,” he said. “It sounded like it wasn’t a client-centered response but a revenue-centered response.”
BCFS, the company that placed the order with Wayfair, made headlines last year as the operator of a tent city in Tornillo, Texas, where thousands of migrant children were detained. The camp became a symbol of the Trump administration’s harsh treatment of migrants, with photos from above showing neat lines of children walking between drab, industrial-style tents.
The furniture from Wayfair in this order was destined for a 1,600-bed compound to detain unaccompanied children in Carizzo Springs, Texas. Lawyers who were allowed to visit another Texas facility detaining young migrants last week said that the children, including three infants, were living in filthy conditions, without enough food and water.
“There are a lot of people that asked me today where Wayfair should draw the line, in terms of how it does its business,” said Emily Garbutt, an organizer of the walkout who works in IT support at Wayfair. “I think it’s fair to say that a good place to draw the line is kids in jails.”