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Tina Casey headshot

How Amazon May ‘Win’ in Battles Over Workers, But Risks Losing the War

Amazon could be in danger of confronting a loss of talent in the long term as concerns keep rising over workers' rights during the COVID-19 crisis.
By Tina Casey

The rising wave of youth activism on climate change signals long-term pain for the fossil fuel sector in more ways than one. It’s a warning that the fossil industry’s ongoing “brain drain” problem is likely to intensify. It is losing a whole generation of up-and-coming innovators, engineers and scientists. Now Amazon, and “pick-and-pack” companies like it, may also be in danger of facing a similar wave of disinterest — and downright disgust — as concerns rise over worker rights during the COVID-19 crisis.

COVID-19 underscores inaction on climate change and inequities in the workplace

The COVID-19 crisis has raised long-simmering tensions over worker rights at Amazon to the boiling point. In recent years upper-level employees have pressured the company to accelerate its climate initiatives and stop using its Amazon Web Services division to enable oil and gas operations, under the banner Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ). Though the company has stepped its climate efforts, it also reportedly sent termination threats to two employee activists last fall.

In a now-familiar pattern, last March Amazon also grabbed some unwanted media attention for firing a worker activist at its warehouse in Staten Island, New York, after several workers walked out in protest of hazardous working conditions related to COVID-19. Yesterday, the company confirmed reports that one worker at its Staten Island facility died of the illness on Monday, May 4.  

That worker’s firing only added fuel to the fire. Employee activists targeted several companies including Amazon and its Whole Foods operations for a nationwide sickout on May 1 to draw attention to unaddressed health risks faced by frontline workers during the pandemic.

Amazon and the right to protest

The May 1 worker action was supported and promoted by AECJ, which is now drawing the connection to climate change, pollution, and worker health and safety issues during the COVID-19 crisis.

In an April 24 blog post on Medium, AECJ emphasized that its main point was the right to speak out without fear of termination or other reprisals.

In the post, AECJ prevailed upon Amazon to change its communications policies, so as not to punish workers who are “speaking up, in their own capacity and not on behalf of the company, about issues that directly impact the health and safety of workers and customers, including pandemic working conditions, climate crisis, and pollution.”

One Amazon VP speaks up

In a parallel development, last year the Whole Worker employee group at Whole Foods pleaded with upper-level employees at Amazon to use their voices in support of frontline workers and to protest the company's connection to the Donald Trump administration’s immigration enforcement.

"Workers that control the lever inside Amazon must make this machine stop and turn in another direction,” they wrote in a public statement last year. “Bodies inside this machine are being mangled as it tramples on our homes, destroying families and communities. If you have your hand on one of those levers, ask yourself: What can you do to stop it?”

With all this in mind, consider the newly published essay written by Tim Bray, an Amazon vice president and “distinguished engineer.” He resigned from Amazon Web Services last Friday and posted the essay on May 4. AECJ has since tweeted its support of Bray.

In the essay, Bray registers his disappointment with the failure of a 2019 Amazon shareholder resolution on climate change, supported by AECJ. He also highlighted the company’s dismissive treatment of AECJ activists in the run-up to the 2019 Global Climate Strike last September.

The turning point for Bray occurred in mid-April of this year, after AECJ members helped company warehouse workers support an event related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two visible AECJ leaders, were fired on the spot,” on April 10,” Bray relates, “Snap! At that point I snapped.”

As with AECJ, Bray’s primary concern is the company's repression of employee speech. He lists several alternatives that Amazon could have used to address the event, but instead the company simply fired two of the leading activists.

“I escalated through the proper channels and by the book,” he explains. “That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.”

It’s not just Amazon

Although Bray does not divulge what took place in the discussions leading up to his resignation, he leaves no doubt that Amazon has deployed an intentional strategy in the recent firings.

“The victims weren't abstract entities but real people; here are some of their names: Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed, and Chris Smalls,” he writes, “I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?”

Bray also advises upper-level employees that there are potential legal repercussions to Amazon’s policies on worker safety. “It’s not just workers who are upset. Here are attorneys general from 14 states speaking out. Here’s the New York State Attorney General with more detailed complaints. Here’s Amazon losing in French courts, twice," he writes.

Finally, while giving the company credit for stepping up its efforts to remediate COVID-19 risks, Bray points to a fundamental flaw in the business model that has made Amazon, and companies like it, so successful.

“…the big problem isn’t the specifics of a COVID-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” he explains. “Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”

It is done, of course, with the help of innovators and engineers, scientists, and managerial experts.

As the life-and-death consequences of pick-and-pack culture continue to spin out through the COVID-19 crisis, companies that fail to address worker issues may eventually replenish the thinning ranks of their front lines, but they may find it much harder to recruit the upper-level talent that enables them to succeed in the long term.

Image credit: Alexander Isreb/Pexels

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey