While Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was throwing a lavish party at his $23 million mansion in Washington, DC, this weekend—attended by celebrities like Ivanka Trump and Bill Gates—hundreds of his employees were gearing up to revolt.
At issue was the company’s external communications policy and reports earlier this month that it threatened to fire employees for speaking out about climate change without proper authorization. In protest, more than 350 Amazon workers published statements under their own names in a Medium post on Sunday, intentionally violating the policy en masse.
The protest was organized by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a coalition of activist workers that has pushed for the company to adopt more environmentally friendly policies over the past year. The group organized a climate change walkout last fall that was attended by thousands of Amazon and other tech workers around the globe.
“Corporations cannot own the conversation that threatens our very existence,” wrote Maren Costa, a principal user experience designer at Amazon. “We can’t be silent about issues that harm our children, communities, and planet.” Costa is one of several employees who were told they could be fired if they continued speaking publicly about Amazon without getting advanced approval. In the fall, Costa spoke with several news outlets, including WIRED, about what she said was the company’s inadequate response to the climate crisis.
Amazon has long required employees to get approval before speaking publicly, but the policy wasn’t strictly enforced, according to The Washington Post. In September, right before the walkout, Amazon created a new internal portal for workers to request permission to speak with the press; employees are now required to have a “business justification” for doing so.
None of the workers who contributed to Sunday’s Medium post appear to have used that formal channel. “The idea is to intentionally break the communications policy so prolifically that it is unenforceable,” Amazon Employees for Climate Justice wrote in an email sent internally last week to collect statements and signatures; it later made the message public.
Many large companies have policies about external communications, and AECJ acknowledged that Amazon’s policy makes sense in some cases, such as confidential projects. “But allowing a corporation to silence us on its contribution to the climate crisis is a clear overreach of comms policy, and effectively demands we give up our basic humanity and integrity in order to be employees,” the group wrote in its message.
“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,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. The spokesperson did not comment on whether Amazon would take action in response to Sunday’s post.
The statements the group published Sunday addressed a range of issues beyond Amazon’s impact on the environment. The Medium post is a laundry list of controversies the company has weathered in recent years, including labor issues, safety and privacy, and political influence, among others.
Not all of the statements were critical of Amazon’s outside communications policy. One worker said it prohibited her from sharing positive opinions with the press. “I want to be able to speak to the media about all the innovative things we ARE doing to protect Alexa customer privacy,” wrote Emily Greene, a software engineer. “I work every day to improve our protections of customer data, and it’s disappointing when the media spins the truth because the people who speak up are the ones with nothing to lose.”
A number of Amazon employees who participated in Sunday’s Medium post commended the company’s recent environmental efforts. Ahead of the walkout in September, Bezos unveiled a new “Climate Pledge,” where businesses promise to regularly disclose greenhouse gas emissions and reach carbon neutrality by 2040. Amazon was the first company to join. “I am proud to work at Amazon and to be working on such an important topic. I feel supported by our company and by our leadership to make this our top priority,” wrote Kimberly Pousman, an engagement manager working on the Climate Pledge.
But many other workers believe Amazon has not gone far enough to protect the planet.
“Amazon should end our contracts with oil and gas companies,” read a statement signed by dozens of employees “Our AI and machine learning are being used for ‘finding oil,’ ‘producing oil,’ and ‘optimizing production.” Gizmodo reported in April that over the past several years, Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s cloud computing arm, had aggressively courted the business of energy companies. Despite protest from employees, Bezos has said that AWS would not stop working with the fossil fuel industry.
Many criticized the treatment of warehouse associates and delivery drivers. “Amazon’s supply chain should not be built at the expense of warehouse workers who work at a pace that causes higher-than-industry-average injury rates,” read one statement signed by dozens of workers.
“It’s not humane to have people scared to go to the bathroom.” Michael Berman, a senior software development engineer, condemned Amazon’s network of delivery contractors, who have been implicated in a number of lethal accidents. “Today’s system incentivizes unsafe driving, and appears to be designed to insulate Amazon from liability, rather than to promote ownership and accountability,” Berman wrote.
Max Eliaser, a software development engineer, was the sole employee to denounce Ring, the home security company Amazon acquired in 2018. Civil liberties groups and privacy advocates have criticized the secretive partnerships Ring has made with police departments around the country, which amount to a private, nationwide surveillance network. “The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society,” Eliaser wrote. “The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation, and there is no balance that can be struck. Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back.”
A systems engineer named Bob Danek decried Amazon’s political influence in Seattle, where its headquarters is located. “Seattle residents have the exclusive right to vote for their council members, and to influence those elections with massive amounts of money is shameful,” Danek wrote. In the fall, Amazon poured $1.5 million into local races in the city, in the hopes of electing business-friendly representatives.
While the collection of statements spans a broad array of topics, the central point is that the hundreds of employees who added their names are choosing to speak out, with or without Amazon’s approval. “I think it is dangerous for any company of any size to silence the words of the employees who are looking for the welfare of everyone,” wrote Vivek Koppuru, a software development engineer.
It’s not clear what, if any, repercussions these workers may face. Google similarly confronted a wave of employee activism, and was widely condemned after it terminated several employees involved in organizing efforts. The employees alleged they were fired unlawfully, and the National Labor Relations Board is investigating the matter.
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