"This is a lot heavier than I'd thought," said Sarah Ryan, 23, an organizer with Change.org, as she lifted a cardboard box with printouts of 250,000 names to deliver to the Apple Store in Grand Central Station in New York City. All the people had signed an online petition hosted by Change.org and another organization, SumOfUs, asking Apple to reform its labor practices in China.
This wasn't the first time Change.org has visited the store. They showed up at the grand opening Dec. 9 to protest Apple's use of "conflict minerals" – which are mined by warring factions and under conditions constituting abuse of human rights, primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They joined with The Enough Project and Delly Mawazo Sesete, a Congolese activist who created a Change.org petition that has gathered over 60,000 signatures urging Apple to stop using conflict minerals.
Protest theater is a regular activity for Change.org. On Wednesday in California, activists dressed as trees protested plans by the California Codorniu’s Artesa Napa Winery to expand by clearing a stand of coastal redwood trees. And recently the group delivered to the State Capitol in Texas a petition to protest state policy of eradicating wild burros. They were accompanied by several of the animals.
The best-known recent Change.org campaign is likely the one that stopped Bank of America's plan to charge a $5 monthly fee for customers using its debit cards. Amanda Kloer, the director of Change.org, believes that influenced the whole banking industry. “When they saw the incredible pushback against Bank of America, there haven’t been any other companies considering such fees," she said.
In another recent campaign, Change.org won a small victory with Hershey, which agreed to use Rainforest Alliance certified cocoa for all of its Bliss Chocolate products. Among other things, the certification is to ensure that products are harvested humanely. "In the cocoa industry, there’s definitely child labor, there’s child slavery," said Kloer.
Like Apple, Hershey became a target because of its size. "They have an opportunity to lift up the chocolate industry and make sure that it’s responding to workers' rights and human rights around the world,” said Kloer.
But other electronics companies may not be safe from citizen ire. At the action, Ryan was joined by 25-year-old Shelby Knox, the director of organizing for women's rights at Change.org, who was wearing a costume that made her look like a curly haired iPhone.
Knox proudly brandished a Google Nexus Android phone. "Apple has a terrible record on worker rights," she said. Though she added later, "I think that they all have shoddy practices, and they all could be a target [of protests]."
Despite her current campaign, Ryan makes no secret of her love for Apple products. "As I work on my Apple phone," she said, smiling, while checking messages before the action.
Ryan seemed comfortable reconciling her tech and human rights desires. "Apple is the cooler product. But if they are also the ethical product, that will be another reason to buy an Apple."