Polaroid Fires Workers — Struggle Continues

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Polaroid Fires Workers — Struggle Continues

by Ira Rubenzahl

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 2, May 1971, p. 16 – 17


“This is no ordinary company that we have built together. It is the proved pioneer that set out to teach the world how people should work together.” — Edwin Land, Chairman of Board and President od Polaroid in a personal letter to his employees, August 20, 1970.

Polaroid Corporation1 invented and manufactures instant color identification systems. The present production model known as the ID-2 system takes two color photographs of a person or document in 30 seconds and issues a plastic identification card. Since 1966, when Polaroid introduced the ID-2 system before an international police convention in Hanover, Germany, the company has worked to install its ID-2 system in South Africa. the Polaroid ID-2 system is now being used to produce the 15 million passbooks that every. Black South
African must carry at all times or else face imprisonment.

Since October 1970, a group of people working at Polaroid and calling themselves the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM) has been attempting to stop Polaroid from providing the South African Government with the ID-2 system. Polaroid has responded to the PRWM demands by claiming it will not sell the South African government the ID-2 system. However, this is just a ruse since the company continues to provide its distributor in South Africa, the Frank and Hirsch Co., with its products including the ID-2 system, which in turn are sold to the South African government. In order to force Polaroid to withdraw from South Africa, the PRWM has called for a world-wide boycott of all Polaroid products.

The Polaroid Corp. has thus far resisted any bridling of its power while at the same time attempting to maintain its liberal corporate image. It has gone so far as to spend 100,000 dollars for one day’s full page advertisement on January 12, 1971 in the N. Y. Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times as well as every Boston Newspaper and 20 Black newspapers. With this advertisement, called “An Experiment in South Africa”, Polaroid has tried to brainwash the
public into thinking that it will continue to deal with South Africa in order to help the South African Blacks even though every company doing business in South Africa does so under the apartheid laws.2


“Polaroid is on its way to lead the world—perhaps even to have it—by the interplay between science, technology and real people.” Edwin Land in a letter to his employees, August 20, 1970.

“The biggest threat to the orderly conduct of business …is people, the wrong kind of people. We would like assurance that there is a …mechanism for detention of known security risks—whether Communists or whatever… ” Testimony by G.E. and Hughes Aircraft executives before joint session of House Unamerican Activities Committee/House Internal Security Committee, April 21, 1970.

It would be mistaken to think that Polaroid’s interest in South Africa is simply to make profits from the sales of cameras and film. The ID-2 system means more than profit. It means control. What is happening in South Africa is similar to what is happening in Vietnam. Blacks and other third world people are being used as guinea pigs for the development and perfection of computerized monitoring and surveillance equipment like ID-2 as well as counter-insurgency technology such as pacification techniques, and riot control weapons.

But the racist character of these large scale testing programs should not obscure the fact that these techniques will be used everywhere. The Canadian government has already initiated negotiations with Polaroid for its ID-2 system under the “citizens certification plan” to help the police keep watch on the French separarists. The system is presently undergoing tests in the Montreal suburb of Longueil. In the United States legislation like the Defense Facilities and Industrial Securities Act3 shows that the use of ID-2 on a massive scale may be just around the corner. If you carry a drivers license from one of the five states using the 10-2 system, your picture is already on file with the state government. Polaroids new ID-3 will take four pictures: one for you, one for your state police, one for the FBI, and one for the national computer data bank.

What the 10-2 system illustrates for scientists is the pernicious way in which science is misused. You don’t have to work at Los Alamos or Fort Dietrick in order to find your scientific skills being exploited for anti-social ends. Even by working at an innocent looking camera company you are being used as a tool for the maintenance of a repressive social system. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether as a scientist you are working for Raytheon, or Dow, or the AEC, or MIT, or Harvard, you will be contributing to the power and longevity of the American ruling elite.

There is no easy way out. It is the nature of the present social and economic order that technology is not used to meet people’s needs, but rather to manipulate these needs for the benefit of the wealthy. While scientists have been slow to understand the nature of their work, the people who are directly threatened by it have already begun to fight back. The scientist as well as the production worker, is used to create the instruments of oppression. As scientists we must recognize that we are also victims of that oppression. The Polaroid workers struggle is our struggle.



Since the American Physical Society (APS) meeting a number of developments have occurred in the campaign to force Polaroid Corporation to withdraw from South Africa. On February 9, 1971 Polaroid responded to the boycott called by the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PWRM) by sending a memo to all its employees stating that, “Any public support of, or any public advocacy of, a boycott of Polaroid products by Polaroid employees has been, is, and will continue to be ‘misconduct detrimental to the interests of the company’ and any Polaroid employee so engaged has been, and is, subject to severe disciplinary action, including discharge.” Hence the company argued that the exercise of an employee’s constitutional right of free speech in advocating change in company policy was punishable by dismissal.

The next day Polaroid made good its threat by suspending without pay Caroline Hunter and Clyde Walton, two young Black Polaroid employees whom the company identified as leaders of the PRWM. Caroline worked for Polaroid as a chemist and Clyde worked in the sales department. In the letter of suspension the company stated that, “public advocacy of a boycott …is inconsistent with your responsibilities as an employee of the company ….We will no longer tolerate a situation in which you …strive to hinder or counteract the effectiveness of [the company’s] operations.”

There was no mention of the issue of Polaroid’s involvement in South Africa in either the memo or the letters of suspension. What is the meaning of Polaroid’s phrase, “the effectiveness of its operations?” Does it refer to Polaroid’s ability to test and perfect the ID-2 identification system on the Black people of South Africa?

Finally, on February 24, 1971 Caroline and Clyde were fired. Because there are no unions in Polaroid (an attempt to organize a union was squashed by management last summer) Caroline and Clyde had no recourse except to appeal to the officers of the corporation. However a number of people, including Boston SESPA, who understood the significance of a political firing, organized a picket and rally for the next day in front of the Polaroid Corporation Headquarters in Tech Square, Cambridge. The demonstration was attended by over 100 people with an equal number of onlookers.

Formation of the National Movement against Apartheid (NMAA), a broad-based group to support the Polaroid boycott, was announced at the rally. It immediately took action by leading a group of 40 people to the nearby MIT Coop, a campus store, and demanding that the MIT Coop respect the Polaroid boycott and remove Polaroid products from its shelves until the company withdraws from South Africa. The demonstrators chanted “off the shelf!” Learning that the directors of the Harvard Cooperative Society of which the MIT Coop is a part were meeting that afternoon, the NMAA marched from MIT to Harvard Square stopping in camera stores along the way and asking them not to sell Polaroid products. Two representatives from the NMAA and one from the Polaroid Workers told the Board of Directors of the Harvard Cooperative Society what Polaroid was doing in South Africa and that the Coop should honor the boycott. The Board of Directors, after appointing a special committee to study the problem, responded by refusing to honor the boycott on the grounds that Polaroid was taking positive steps to end apartheid. Ha! Polaroid continues to sell its products (including ID-2) to South Africa and continues to recognize the legitimacy of the apartheid laws by attempting to increase the salaries of Blacks within the constraints of South African labor laws [see above] . The corporation also provides scholarships for Blacks; but they have no choice but to attend government operated schools where they are instructed in servitude. Because of the Coop’s decision, the NMAA began a picket of the MIT Coop, asking people not to shop at the store until the Coop removes Polaroid products. If this action does not bring results, a picket of the Harvard Square branch of the store is planned.

The struggle against Polaroid has taken other forms. On March 11, Edwin Land was scheduled to talk at Harvard’s Physics Colloquium on “The Retinex Theory Of Color Vision”, the same lecture he delivered at the APS convention in New York. Over 60 people attending a prelecture meeting decided to question Land about Polaroid’s involvement in South Africa before the start of his lecture. However, as the beginning of the colloquium approached, and with all the lecture equipment in place, Land’s talk was suddenly cancelled. So the lecture room was liberated, and an impromptu teach-in on South Africa, apartheid, and Polaroid’s policies was held instead.

The myth of progressive capitalism and Polaroid’s liberal image have undergone severe strain. The company has refused to break with American corporate enterprise and withdraw from South Africa. Instead, the company has responded to the political issues raised by its employees by firing those employees, and by threatening those others who would dare to continue to exert pressure on management. Furthermore, careful scrutiny reveals that Polaroid’s much-publicized “equal opportunity employment” has proven to be a hoax. Although Polaroid employs 1,000 blacks (10% of its work force), only 80 of them are in white collar positions. According to the Washington Post, Jan. 17, 1971, “The company’s own confidential studies show that blacks are being paid 22% less than whites doing the same job. Blacks are finding promotions slow. And the company admits to having a quota on the number of blacks hired.” For example, according to the same article, “a black engineer (departed) was earning $350 a month less than a white man working next to him on a job with less responsibility.”

Thus Polaroid’s stance in South Africa is consistent with its practices in America.

Boycott Polaroid products in your workplace!

>>  Back to Vol. 3, No. 2  <<
  1. Polaroid is one of the large corporations which dominate the American economy. Polaroid’s American sales in 1969 were 453 million dollars and the sales from foreign subsidiaries amounted to over 70 million dollars. Profits were 63 million dollars from the parent company and eight and a half million dollars from foreign subsidiaries.

    The Chairman of the Board, President, and director of research is Mr. Edwin Land. Fortune magazine estimates his personal fortune as over half a billion dollars. Mr. Land founded Polaroid in 1937. Since 1938 Polaroid has engaged in a lucrative trade with South Africa. Besides the Polaroid Land instant camera, Mr. Land’s other scientific achievements include plastic optical lenses for devices’ for seeing at night, an infinity optical ring sight for bazookas, and the development of the U-2 spy camera.

    Polaroid employs over 10,000 workers in America, but there are no unions in Polaroid. Polaroid workers earn from two to four and a half dollars per hour. The Office of Economic Opportunity reported in 1970 that black workers in Polaroid received from 18 to 23% less than white workers.

  2. Some examples of apartheid law are:

    1. Under no circumstances may an employer pay Africans the same rates as white persons even if they do the same work and work the same hours.
    2. No African may strike for any reason whatsoever.
    3. Unless they have obtained a special permit to do so, a white person and a non-white person may not under any circumstances drink a cup of tea together in a cafe.
    4. No white man may teach an African servant to read.
    5. No African may buy land, or own property, anywhere in the Republic.
    6. No white person may have sexual relations with an African, Coloured or Indian person. And vice versa.
    7. An African in an urban area who is out of work must take work offered to him by the Bantu Affairs Commissioner or be removed from the area.
    8. Any African who takes a job outside his town, even if he has lived there for 20 years, must leave that town withen 72 hours.
    9. The Defense Facilities and Industrial Securities Act of 1970 would require security clearance for workers in “any plant, factory, industry, public utility, mine, laboratory, educational institution, research organization, railroad, airport, pier, waterfront installation, canal, dam, bridge, highway, vessel, aircraft, vehicle and pipeline.”