SEATTLE — More than 350 Amazon employees violated the e-commerce giant’s communications policy Sunday, in an unprecedented public display of support for colleagues who were warned they could be fired for speaking out to criticize the company’s climate practices.
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a group of workers concerned about the company’s business with the oil and gas industry as well as its carbon footprint, published quotes from 357 workers in a post on Medium. The comments, all of which are attributed to Amazon workers by name, are a mass defiance of company rules that bar workers from commenting publicly on its business without corporate justification and approval from executives.
(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Amazon’s role in the climate crisis is staggering and alarming,” wrote Scott Ogle, a queue management analyst, according to comments viewed in advance by The Washington Post. “While the company has publicly announced measures to reduce emissions and impacts in the coming years, it does not add up with its ongoing support to oil and gas industries and its efforts to silence employees who speak out. I stand with fellow employees who prioritize sustainability over profits.”
Another employee denounced Amazon’s efforts to stifle criticism.
“Solidarity to the workers facing retaliation for standing up!” wrote Charlie LaBarge, a software engineer.
The group also tweeted a video of employees Monday speaking about the danger of climate change and saying they won’t be silenced.
Amazon encourages workers to advocate for causes they believe in but wants them to pursue those convictions when related to the company’s business internally, spokesman Drew Herdener said in a statement. Workers can submit questions to executives during all-hands meetings, and they can join internal interest groups, such as ones that focus on sustainability. Employees can also attend lunch sessions with Amazon leaders to discuss the issues, as long as they are willing to keep matters raised in those sessions confidential.
“While all employees are welcome to engage constructively with any of the many teams inside Amazon that work on sustainability and other topics, we do enforce our external communications policy and will not allow employees to publicly disparage or misrepresent the company or the hard work of their colleagues who are developing solutions to these hard problems,” Herdener said.
To illustrate Amazon’s focus on sustainability, Herdener pointed to an initiative Bezos announced in September agreeing to measure and report Amazon’s emissions on a regular basis and meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement 10 years early. Critics said at the time that the commitments lack accountability and transparency.
“Of course we are passionate about these issues,” Herdener said.
The employee group claims credit for pushing Amazon to take those steps, but it wants the company to go further. The group has called on Amazon to commit to being carbon neutral by 2030, to end cloud-computing contracts that help energy companies accelerate oil and gas extraction and to stop funding politicians and lobbyists who deny climate change.
Amazon workers are part of a growing activist movement among tech workers. Along with thousands of Amazon employees, Google workers walked off the job Sept. 20 to protest corporate climate policies. A year before, thousands of Google employees stepped away from their desks to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims.
Workers at both of those companies, as well as at Microsoft, have criticized the development of facial-recognition technology from their companies, fearing misuse by law enforcement and other government agencies.
Although Amazon’s employees are betting the company won’t crack down on them, Google’s workers allege they were fired in retaliation for their public criticism of the company and their attempts to organize. Google said the recent firings were a result of policies violations regarding the accessing and sharing of internal documents and calendars. The company has denied it was retaliatory.
The activism of Amazon’s workers is different, said Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington and the author of “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America,” a chronicle of the tech industry. Collective action is rare among white-collar workers, and even rarer among the coders, testers and engineers who work for tech giants.
“This is not something we’ve seen before,” O’Mara said.
The challenge for Amazon is that it is selective in its hiring, investing large sums to entice employees to join the company and train them to develop its sophisticated products and services. Even though the workers speaking out account for a small fraction of Amazon’s total workforce of 750,000, including warehouse workers, they would be costly to replace.
“These high-skilled workers are among these tech companies’ most valuable assets,” O’Mara said.
The protest Sunday follows a threat to fire two workers who spoke out about the company’s environmental policies in October. Maren Costa, a principal user-experience designer at the company, and Jamie Kowalski, a software development engineer, told The Post in a joint statement that the company is contributing to climate change as its cloud-computing business aids exploration by oil and gas companies. The pair raised concerns related to a new set of statements from the company outlining its positions on a variety of hot-button issues, including an acknowledgment that it would continue to work with the energy industry.
Within a few weeks, both employees were called into meetings with the company’s human resources staff, and both received letters in November from a lawyer in the department discouraging violations of Amazon’s communications policies. The letter to Costa warned that future infractions could “result in formal corrective action, up to and including termination of your employment with Amazon.”
Rather than back down, the activist employees have dialed up the pressure on their employer. The employee group that solicited the comments aims to fight Amazon’s communications policy in numbers so large that retaliating against everyone would make it challenging to conduct business.
“The idea is to intentionally break the communications policy so prolifically that it is unenforceable,” the group wrote in an email to colleagues soliciting policy-breaking quotes.
“Hundreds of us are now putting our job on the line — because we all believe that speaking up about the climate crisis is necessary and the right thing to do at this time,” Sarah Tracy, a software development engineer, said in an email to The Post. “A policy that prevents employees from speaking out in this way at this time just won’t work for us.”
Employee criticism went beyond condemnation of the company’s climate policies. Workers also called out Amazon’s cloud-computing business for its work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which some have criticized for separating parents from their children at border facilities, and condemned Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse staff, some of whom have complained about unsafe working conditions.
“No more collaborating with ICE or with oil and gas. No more abusing warehouse employees with inhumane quotas,” Hilda Marshall, a data linguist at the company wrote. “Amazon is in a position to turn the tide, and the time is now.”
One worker suggested Amazon nix its Ring doorbell-camera business, arguing the privacy concerns are “not compatible with a free society.” Ring acknowledged earlier this month that it fired workers in recent years for improperly accessing users’ video data. Last year, a hacker accessed a Ring camera in an 8-year-old girl’s room and used it to harass her, something the company attributed to the theft of credentials that provided access.
“The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation and there is no balance that can be struck,” wrote software development engineer Max Eliaser. “Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back.”
Moreover, members of climate group say speaking up about important issues, even if it means disagreeing with senior leaders, is an ingrained part of Amazon’s corporate culture. At the core of Amazon’s culture are 14 leadership principles, intended to guide decision-making at the company, including “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit,” in which workers are encouraged to argue their convictions, “even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.”
“I thought Amazon was a place where those who see something that’s wrong and bring it up are celebrated for being leaders, not threatened with firing,” said Victoria Liang, a software development engineer and a member of the climate group.