The weekslong fight inside Netflix comes to a head Wednesday, when employees at the company are expected to walk out, demanding that the company better support its trans and nonbinary employees.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos didn't respond to the walkout directly in a recently published Wall Street Journal interview but said, "I'm firmly committed to continue to support artistic freedom for the creators who work with Netflix and increase representation behind the screen and on camera."
But ahead of Wednesday's walkout, a Netflix spokesperson issued a statement that says: "We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that's been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content."
The incident that incited the employee action may have been the company's handling of Dave Chappelle's new special, The Closer, which contains some jokes at the expense of transgender people. But B. Pagels-Minor says the dispute runs deeper.
Pagels-Minor is the employee Netflix recently fired, alleging that they leaked "confidential, commercially sensitive information" outside the company. The company says that this data made its way into a Bloomberg article revealing data about various metrics and expenditures — details the notoriously tight-lipped company usually keeps under wraps.
"I collected the data, but I did not leak the data," says Pagels-Minor, who spoke to NPR. They said they shared the information internally among co-workers, but not to anyone outside the company, and added that when they were terminated, they weren't offered an opportunity to prove their case.
"It was just like, 'Hey, you're the person. You're gone,' " Pagels-Minor says.
In a statement, a Netflix spokesperson said that a discrepancy in Pagels-Minor's account had gone unexplained and that Pagels-Minor had wiped their electronic devices, "making any further investigation impossible."
Pagels-Minor — who started at Netflix as a senior data product manager for membership and finance engineering, before moving on to work at the company's game launch department — says there wasn't any investigation to begin with.
Pagels-Minor co-led the employee resource group for transgender and nonbinary employees, known as Trans*, and was part of one for Black employees, known as Black@. They said the walkout began as a proposal for a day when trans and nonbinary employees would take paid time off as a result of the exhaustion incurred from the Chappelle news cycle, with any other employees invited to join in support. But then Pagels-Minor saw how executives weren't engaging with questions about the controversy and started organizing a full-blown walkout, along with drafting a list of employee demands.
A rally in support of the walkout is also planned for Wednesday.
The list of demands, first reported by The Verge, includes hiring trans and nonbinary people to executive positions, creating a fund to support trans and nonbinary talent and adding disclaimers "that specifically flag transphobic language, misogyny, homophobia, hate speech, etc. as required." It doesn't ask for anything to be removed from the platform; nor does it mention Chappelle. Instead, it asks for the promotion of trans-affirming content alongside any content deemed anti-trans.
Such demands are part of a growing trend of white-collar workers in tech speaking up about the direction of their companies, says Alan Hyde, a professor of labor and employment law at Rutgers Law School and author of Working in Silicon Valley: Economic and Legal Analysis of a High-Velocity Labor Market.
"They want to have a say in the kinds of businesses their company does, the kind of workplace culture they have, who the clients are. So these have been important demands in motivating worker unrest over the years," Hyde says, pointing to Facebook, Apple and Google as recent examples.
The usual course of these actions, he explains, is that employees make a lot of noise, the company might change one or two details and then things simmer back down to normal. But in the context of this year, when there has been a tremendous surge of labor activity at firms such as John Deere, Kellogg and Kaiser Permanente, Hyde admits, "I'm not sure we've seen this movie before."
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Workers at Netflix are expected to stage a walkout today. It's the culmination of weeks of internal backlash the streaming company has faced from its transgender and non-binary employees over comedian Dave Chappelle's latest special, "The Closer." Last week, Netflix fired an unnamed employee who had helped organize today's walkout, saying they leaked internal data to an outside source. NPR's Andrew Limbong caught up with that employee, who says they were not the leaker.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The employee resource group at Netflix representing transgender and non-binary workers sent a list of demands to the company. And nowhere does it mention Dave Chappelle, his latest special or pulling anything off of the platform. Instead, the only Netflix property mentioned is the documentary "Disclosure" about the history of trans representation in media, featuring transgender writers, producers and actors, such as Angelica Ross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DISCLOSURE")
ANGELICA ROSS: You see a fierceness that's coming from the girls that are coming up now. That's because we understand we ain't got nothing to lose. I already done lost that job. I done lost that job.
LIMBONG: Because the walkout later today is about having more - more representation among the higher-ups, more warnings, especially for transphobic content, and of course, more TV shows and movies featuring transgender and non-binary people. Here's former Netflix employee B. Pagels-Minor, one of the walkout organizers.
B PAGELS-MINOR: When Netflix talks about entertaining the world, when Netflix talks about creative freedom, when Netflix talks about the cultural values of the company, if you actually apply that rubric equally to all groups, you would suspect that there would be more representation across different content types of different groups.
LIMBONG: They started at Netflix as a senior data product manager for membership and finance engineering before moving on to work at the company's game launch department. Pagels-Minor also co-led the employee resource group for trans workers and was a member of one for Black employees. Netflix fired them on Thursday, alleging they leaked sensitive internal information outside the company - you know, how much was spent on the Chappelle special versus others, as well as various performance metrics. Netflix is notoriously tight-lipped about this sort of stuff.
PAGELS-MINOR: I did collect the data. But I did not leak the data.
LIMBONG: They add that they weren't given an opportunity to prove their case.
PAGELS-MINOR: It was just kind of like, hey, you're the person. You're gone.
LIMBONG: In a statement, a Netflix spokesperson said Pagels-Minor's claims aren't supported by the facts and that they wiped their device, quote, "making any further investigation impossible." Pagels-Minor says there was never any investigation to begin with. But beyond the back-and-forth, actions like the walkout at Netflix later today are a part of a growing trend of white-collar workers in tech speaking up about the direction of their companies, says Alan Hyde, professor of labor and employment law at Rutgers.
ALAN HYDE: They want to have a say in the kinds of business their company does, the kind of workplace culture they have, who the clients are. So these have been important demands in motivating worker unrest over the years.
LIMBONG: Hyde says we've seen this movie before. Employees make a lot of noise about something. Maybe the big companies change a thing or two, offer up an apology. And then everything calms down back to normal. But in the context of this year...
HYDE: With 10,000 John Deere workers out on strike, with bakery workers and all - this tremendous upsurge in strike activity this year, I'm less positive that we've seen this movie before.
LIMBONG: It's a tricky time to be a big company juggling internal pressures along with public outcries. But it's possibly an even trickier time being an employee putting your job on the line to change the culture at a company you really believe in.
Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FAODAIL'S "NORTHBOUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.