Popular Information is a small but feisty organization with deep research and reporting on a limited number of topics, and a well-worth-it $6/month subscription fee. I first encountered them as an invaluable source on corporate financial support for voter suppression and for politicians who collaborated in the attacks on the 2020 election, but their reports cover a much broader range of issues.
The change is possible story focuses on their exposé of working conditions at the Olive Garden, and the near-immediate change in sick leave policies following that exposé.
The Darden corporation owns the Olive Garden chain and other restaurant chains. Altogether, they employ 170,000 hourly workers. Darden had lobbied against mandatory paid sick leave, and the Olive Garden offered prime examples of the restaurant and corporation’s abusive policies:
“An Olive Garden server reports that, at a North Dakota location, employees are ‘not allowed to stay home sick’ unless they can find someone to cover their shift or produce a doctor’s note. But many of the workers lack insurance to see a doctor. In December, the server says, several members of the staff worked with a persistent cough.
“A former Olive Garden server in Arizona, who recently quit, also said there was no pay for missed shifts. Did the server observe people coming into work sick as a result?
“All of the time. If you couldn’t get your shift covered and called in sick, they would typically try to get you to come in anyways, and if you stayed home, you would lose shifts in the future.'”
The Popular Information report was widely disseminated on social media, leading to a flood of tweets and retweets. Within 10 hours, the Darden CEO tweeted to Popular Information’s Judd Legum: “Judd, we are proud to announce that all or our hourly employees are receiving permanent, paid sick leave benefits, effective today.”
Legum, who has seen lots of corporations make, and then break, promises, followed up. So did Harvard University’s Kennedy School, which found that the number of Olive Garden employees with paid sick leave went from 23 percent before the story to 66 percent in spring 2020, and remained at 64 percent in fall 2020. The researchers’ conclusion:
“We have shown that at least in this case, online investigatory journalism coupled with social media activity led to substantial changes in corporate practices, with significant follow-on benefits to workers.”
Online activism does not always get such well-documented and dramatic results. As Legum and Popular Information have repeatedly documented, many corporations make promises in order to stop the criticism and promptly renege on those promises when they think that attention has moved on. Others, however, keep their promises. (I’m sure the knowledge that Popular Information is watching is one factor in keeping them honest.)
I’ve marched for years, thinking that maybe it makes no difference, but I can at least try. Calls to Congress? Letters to the editor? Blog posts like this one? Does any of it make a difference? And as for online activism—I was pretty sure that was just preaching to the choir. But it is not. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it makes a change. If online activism can make a change, then likely the other kinds of activism do, too.
I find this Harvard University-certified result encouraging. Whether I see results from my own work or not, I will keep doing it, online and IRL: voting, tweeting, speaking out, blogging, marching, Facebooking, organizing in any way I can.
We need it all.