On June 16, Konikoff Dentistry in Virginia Beach posted vaguely that four of its employees had “posted offensive and inappropriate social media comments or otherwise engaged in offensive social media posts from others.” Less than a day after their boss was made aware of the conduct, every worker had been fired. The move ended up making the local news, with attorney Gary Byler explaining that former staff across Hampton Roads had few options for recourse. “You are free to post racist comments on Facebook. Employers are free to not hire racists.”
Byler goes on to say that racist social media posts are hard to defend in court, especially in Virginia, which has few restrictions on an employer’s ability to fire staff. “Unless you have a written contract [. . .] you’re not fired for an inappropriate comment; you’re simply not rehired.” As a result, workers like those at Konikoff Dentistry have little recourse, with Byler sharing darkly that “the one case that concerns me most is that a professional woman who has been with the Mayo Insurance group for years and years was fired for what her husband posted on Facebook.”
Recent months have seen a growing trend among some social justice circles of trying to get people fired from their jobs who express racist or otherwise reactionary sentiments on social media or in person. Lately, notable celebrities like Hartley Sawyer of The Flash, Taylor Selfridge of Teen Mom, and writer/creator Craig Gore of Law and Order: Organized Crime have all been fired over behavior online. But workers have been targeted as well, with firings all over the country: a caregiver in South Carolina, a Party City staffer in West New York, an orchestra musician in Austin, and beyond.
It’s impossible not to sympathize with the sentiment behind these campaigns. To state the obvious, racism is abhorrent and should be condemned in every form. The fact that so many people feel comfortable making openly racist statements in public shows how much work needs to be done to wipe out racism in the world.
But anti-racists shouldn’t let this basic anti-racist commitment lead them to believe that spearheading campaigns to force individual racists from their jobs is that path to a just future. Firing people is neither an effective nor an ethical left-wing strategy in combating racism.
A Punitive Approach
It doesn’t take much to orchestrate a campaign to pressure businesses and managers to fire racist employees: a little social media savvy, some time on your hands, some luck. The approach has been made possible by the way in which social media provides users with huge volumes of content at the same time as the ability to quickly post about that content to audiences of potentially millions.
These situations tend to follow a similar format. A user will share an offender’s personal details along with some proof of their behavior, usually a screenshot. That same user will either directly tag the offender’s place of work, share that information with their followers, or message the business privately while discussing the case publicly. The mixture of public shaming and private messaging is designed to add teeth to the demand of firing the employee. After all, if a company fears the public backlash of having an accused racist on staff, it is likely to ditch those staff to placate its customers and stage its progressiveness.
The worker is then fired, usually after a massive digital pile-on, media coverage, and public humiliation. Social media users feel good about themselves for having struck a blow against racism, share a few GIFs to celebrate, and then move on to a new offender in a few weeks. This was the case in the 2015 example of HSBC firing six staffers after they were reported for an Instagram post in which they staged a fake Islamic State beheading of a nonwhite employee. HSBC responded after public outcry stoked by the Sun, a British tabloid paper owned by Rupert Murdoch.
This is a fundamentally punitive approach — as well as one that plays into the hands of owners and managers. The act of pressuring bosses to drop their staff without the involvement of a mediator like a union cuts against some of the basic principles leftists have fought for in the workplace since the dawn of the labor movement. Workers have long organized unions precisely to ensure their bosses can’t fire them easily; union-busting and austerity under neoliberalism have long sought to dismantle these restrictions.
The labor movement insists on introducing some basic level of democracy and due process into the fundamentally undemocratic setting that is the workplace under capitalism. That doesn’t mean workers can never be disciplined. Rather, it means tackling workplace issues without the threat of instantaneous firings — the power of which relies on the possibility of workers losing their ability to pay for the basic necessities of life like food, shelter, and, in the United States, health care — in response to speech or behavior we don’t like.
In 2018, Chipotle briefly fired a manager in St. Paul, Minnesota after a video of her repeatedly refusing service to a group of black men and calling the police on them went viral. The manager ultimately got her job back after explaining that several of the men had dined-and-dashed in the past, which, luckily, they also bragged about online. Yet the situation should have never gotten to that point; her bad judgment on a difficult night should have never led to such an extreme response from her superiors so quickly. The fact that the decision was then overturned in a matter of days is further proof of her instability as a worker: corporate HQ had complete power to determine wrongdoing and consequences in the situation.
An irony here is that social media mobs tend to define themselves against a monolithic group of middle-class white people who demand to speak to the manager when they don’t get the retail service that they like. Yet the impulse to fire workers for reasons of social justice often overlaps with that demand to speak to the manager. Both approaches rely, ultimately, on wielding class power to discipline someone into behaving the way you like.
That threat of deprivation is one that bosses use against workers every day under capitalism. Leftists can’t use that same threat for social justice ends.
Workers Organizing Together Has a Much Better Anti-Racist Track Record
Once the door opens on that kind of discipline, it’s very difficult to prevent it from drifting in a right-wing direction. Suddenly it’s easier for bosses to throw out workers for breaking all sorts of company “values” that are part of the company’s brand. For example, workers like mechanic Kirsten Vaughn in Indiana regularly face intense backlash for online sex work, and even retired lingerie models like Durham, England teaching assistant Gemma Laird have been fired for their allegedly inappropriate online behavior. This isn’t the same as disciplining workers for racism, but these situations are only possible because of a hair-trigger willingness on the part of employers to discipline and even fire workers as a result of what they do online.
Addressing issues like racism requires institutions with the time, energy, resources, and formalized democratic mechanisms to be handled properly. Social media favors public responses to this misbehavior that are unduly punitive, because these platforms are designed to amplify outrage rather than facilitate the kind of public discussion and collective action that could lead to genuine solutions. There is little reason to believe that public smackdowns have any positive effect.
Workers organizing together, on the other hand, has a much better anti-racist track record. History is filled with examples, like the Triple Alliance of New Orleans porters’ strike of 1892 that triggered a massive strike wave that was later called “the first biracial strike in US history.” Not only did the strike itself foster cross-racial cooperation, but also, it led to integrated unions for the first time. Recently, the United States has seen promising teacher strikes that have explicitly linked anti-racism to their official demands, most notably last year with the United Teachers of Los Angeles. In June, ILWU and ILA members staged a work stoppage in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd. Even beyond these explicitly anti-racist actions, studies show that membership in racially integrated unions tends to decrease racial prejudice in whites over time (if the members are at the same level).
Critically, all of this happened as a result of collective struggle, with multiracial groups struggling together side by side. It takes much more time and energy to deal with racism by organizing with people in groups, rather than whipping up social media mobs. Yet the only way to decrease racial animosity in the long term is for different kinds of people to work together for shared goals. When it comes to socialism, that shared goal should be weakening the power of bosses — and getting rid of them, altogether. Social media pile-ons that demand firings can’t do that.