Polaroid Workers Movement

In the early 70s, the photography giant Polaroid found itself in hot water when employees discovered that the company was involved in the South African apartheid system by providing the government with photos that were used in the “passbook” system to identify black individuals.

As reported by camera blog, two co-workers Caroline Hunter and Ken williams formed the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement in 1970 to stop the company from selling all photography equipment to the South African Government. While the company stopped selling equipment directly and denied any further involvement, it was later found out that the Polaroid Distributors in South Africa were still selling their equipment to the Government. It seemed like the company was trying to avoid bad press while still making profit from the Government. By using forced cheap labour, the profits were especially high for any corporation doing work in South Africa.

The company was known as a very Progressive workplace and had strong hiring of African Americans and women. As the message on the workers movement spread, Polaroid faced strong hostility in the United States. You can see a press release issued by the PRWM here. The list of demands included boycotting the country of South Africa and block all sales of Polaroid Photography. They also wanted Polaroid to announce their stance on apartheid publicly and asked the company to donate all their profits made in South Africa to minority liberation movements.

Although Polaroid tried to distance itself from the South African Government, pressure kept mounting which forced the company to take out full page ads trying to explain their stance but the environment in the 70s was not conducive to having anything which might be seen as supporting apartheid.

Throughout this whole saga, both Hunter and Williams lost their jobs but kept doing their work through the workers movement. By 1977, Polaroid was the first major US corporation to pull operations out of South Africa. This was followed by others and showed the power of worker organized movements.