Israel-Hamas war: Employee activism puts firms on back foot

Pro-Palestinian protests and the response by law enforcement have shaken US university campuses in recent weeks. Similar incidents have been unfolding on campuses across Europe.

Protests against Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas since the October 7 terrorist attacks are also beginning to raise questions in the corporate sector. The most high-profile example so far is Google. The tech giant fired 50 workers in April for participating in pro-Palestinian sit-in protests at two of its US offices.

“Ultimately we are a workplace and our policies and expectations are clear: this is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts co-workers or makes them feel unsafe,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in an email to employees.

The protests were organized by No Tech for Apartheid, a group comprised mostly of Google and Amazon workers who are opposed to their companies providing web services and cloud technology to the Israeli government and military. The companies provide those services as part of an Israeli cloud-computing operation known as Project Nimbus.

The sacked workers have since filed a complaint with the US National Labor Relations Board. DW has contacted Google about the matter and will update the article if we get a response.

Sam Schwartz-Fenwick, a labor and employment lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw law firm in Chicago, told DW that the fact that the protest was a sit-in, which appears to have disrupted other workers, gives Google a strong legal case.

“If you’re challenging a business decision by your employer that doesn’t touch on the terms and conditions of your employment, that is not protected by law,” Schwartz-Fenwick said.

A unique challenge

In recent years, companies have had to deal with increasing levels of employee activism over various political, social and cultural issues. 

“This is becoming part of everyday life in the American workforce right now, where employers are having to grapple with these questions constantly,” said Schwartz-Fenwick.

Protesters march across the Brooklyn Bridge and down Broadway
The murder of George Floyd led to many companies taking a public stand Image: STRF/STAR MAX/IPx/picture alliance

John Higgins, who recently authored a book on employee activism called Speak Out, Listen Up alongside Megan Reitz from the University of Oxford, told DW that political activism by employees is becoming a defining feature of the workplace and companies often struggle to know how to respond.

“The whole notion that companies exist separately from global considerations was the dominant business philosophy from the mid- to late 1980s and it really took off in the 1990s,” Higgins said. “But what we’re living through now is the challenge to that. It is saying that companies cannot simply ring-fence on their own.”

Steve Rochlin, CEO of the strategic advisory firm Impact ROI, told DW that corporate statements and “position-taking” reached its peak in the United States after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the Supreme Court’s reversal of abortion rights in 2022. 

Higgins said the Israel-Hamas conflict and wider questions around Israel-Palestine presented a particularly unique challenge for businesses.

“They are incredibly cautious,” he said in relation to corporate public statements made on the conflict. “Most of their responses have been defensive. Many global companies are quite used to this because, if you do business in Israel and the Middle East, you’ve always had to walk a tightrope.”

Rochlin agrees. “Many companies understand that they cannot stay silent on the Israel-Hamas conflict,” he said. “But companies do not want to risk offending or alienating either side. Many are focusing on supporting their employees.

“They have decided the best way to discuss the issue is to remind employees of corporate nondiscrimination and nonviolence policies, and to remind them about employee assistance programs for those that are finding it difficult to process the conflict.”

Walking fine line

Given that companies have both customers and staff with both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives and allegiances, many have been careful not to be seen picking a side.

“In many cases, they need to be able to explain the line they are holding, to say: ‘We are aware that we have Palestinian and Jewish employees, and we know that there is a tension between them. It is our responsibility to keep both groups safe,'” Higgins said.

So far, widespread worker protests at companies against Israel’s actions in Gaza — where, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, about 35,000 people have been killed since the start of the current conflict — have been relatively rare.

Placards expressing opinions are seen at a pro-Palestine rally at Columbia University
Pro-Palestinian protests at university campuses have been met by police clampdownsImage: Jimin Kim/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Protests at Google have shown that such activism at businesses and institutions is increasingly possible. On May 8, more than 100 EU staff members gathered outside the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Employee activism endures

Higgins said the ways companies deal with the conflict amplified existing questions about how they deal with rising levels of employee activism on the whole.

When many companies started to encourage workers to “bring their whole self to work” in recent years, they weren’t necessarily prepared for potentially divisive political opinions being part of the equation. “There’s a little bit of: ‘Well, if you’re going to let me bring my whole self, then I’m bringing my political things, too,'” he said.

Schwartz-Fenwick said it was “really important” for companies to tell workers that their full identity is valued on the job, but managers must be increasingly prepared for political and social issues to be part of the mix. “Things that previously people might not have shared at work,” he said, “they’re more comfortable doing that now.”

In 2020 Alphabet's Sundar Pichai speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum
Business executives such as Sundar Pichai have had to walk a fine line at timesImage: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Both Higgins and Schwartz-Fenwick believe that a major part of the challenge for businesses is that many workers have become increasingly intolerant of other perspectives. “The echo chambers that people were living in for two years during the pandemic pushed this into hyper-drive,” said Schwarz-Fenwick.

Though companies have chosen to pause and “tiptoe” around the conflict in Gaza, Higgins said he expected environmentalism to be a huge driver of employee activism in the years ahead.

“We’re just at the start,” he said. “The rate of serious engagement with the environment is still slow within the corporate sector. And the younger generation are really up in arms about it.”

He said companies would need to prepare for accusations of “greenwashing” and, more generally, be adept at knowing when and whether to respond to political, environmental and social issues raised by workers.

“The question is: How do we choose which issues we’re going to have a point of view on, and which are the ones where we don’t have to? Because you don’t have to have a point of view on everything.”

Rochlin said companies were constantly being judged for their impact on people and the wider world. “Every company should understand that there will be a range of issues that they cannot afford to stay silent about and removed from,” he said.

Edited by: Uwe Hessler