Polaroid Fires Workers — Struggle Continues

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Polaroid Fires Workers — Struggle Continues

By I.R.

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

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 previous page] . 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!

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