Last week an Amazon vice-president, Tim Bray, resigned in protest at what he called the company’s “chickenshit” decision to fire colleagues in the company’s warehouse division who had highlighted safety issues. “Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised,” wrote Bray.
Bray is just the latest, most highly paid, Amazon employee to speak out. Other critics have not had the luxury of resigning and some of those who remain say the company is actively trying to silence them.
The pushback on critics comes as both Democrats and Republicans are calling for investigations into Amazon’s dominance. The company may be winning the sales war during the pandemic but the aftermath looks set to be a different story.
John Hopkins has worked at Amazon DSF4 distribution center in San Leandro, California, for about six months. During the pandemic, Hopkins started distributing pamphlets with information about union organizing to co-workers and posting them on bulletin boards in the warehouse in response to safety concerns he has had about how Amazon has protected workers from coronavirus.
“No matter where I put them in the building they turn up missing shortly thereafter,” said Hopkins. “This is 100% about stifling the seeds of a union before it can grow roots.”
On 1 May, the same day Bray resigned, Hopkins filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against Amazon over the consistent removal of the pamphlets, while other flyers, such as postings for third-party contractor Amazon delivery jobs are permitted. Hopkins said his inquiries about posting the flyers to human resources have received no response.
Hopkins clocked out of his shift at midnight on 1 May in solidarity with the sick-out protest held by Amazon workers around the US, but stayed in the break room after his shift to hand out pamphlets and talk to co-workers about organizing. When management asked him to leave, he did so after arguing it was within his rights to speak to workers about advocating for better working conditions.
“I explained that since I hadn’t yet received a response from HR regarding my pamphlets, I felt that this was the only way that I had left to coordinate with my colleagues. I asked if they would set a time to meet with me about my concerns, or let me know when I could expect a response from HR and they refused to engage but just told me that I had to leave,” said Hopkins.
When he returned to work on 2 May, he found out he was suspended “for violating a new policy that says we can only be on site for 15 minutes before or after our shift ends”, he said.
At least six Amazon workers who have participated in protests or vocally advocated for improvements to worker safety and conditions have been fired during the pandemic, and several other workers have reported facing disciplinary write-ups from Amazon after protesting.
On 10 April, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa were fired from their corporate roles at Amazon after their group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, organized a virtual event for warehouse workers to speak with tech workers about working conditions and Amazon’s response to the pandemic.
“Amazon has been trying for quite some time to get rid of Maren and I. We felt very strongly about continuing to speak up because of how high the stakes are,” said Cunningham, a user experience designer who worked at Amazon since 2013. “This is a time where we have to deeply care about one another. We’re both in the climate crisis and a global pandemic and if we can’t stand with each other now, then when do we?”
Cunningham and Costa, a principal user experience designer who worked at Amazon since 2002, have been among the most visible workers pushing Amazon to take action and enact meaningful policies to combat the climate crisis. They have previously faced threats of termination for speaking to the media.
“There seems to be a pattern of censoring, silencing and firing, across the nation, around the world, with Amazon choosing to silence workers who are standing up for safety, basic human rights instead of taking criticism as an opportunity to do better,” said Costa.
At Amazon warehouses, Chris Smalls and Gerald Bryson at JFK8 in Staten Island, New York, were terminated shortly after participating in protests outside the warehouse over working conditions and lack of safety protections as coronavirus cases continued to rise at Amazon warehouses around the US. Bashir Mohamed, an employee for three years at Amazon’s MSP1 warehouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was also fired after he was advocating for better protections and cleaning during the pandemic.
In leaked memos Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, called Smalls “not smart, or articulate” and argued the media’s focus on him would leave Amazon “in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers”. The company later apologized for the comments about Zapolsky, saying they were “personal and emotional” and born of frustration.
It is not only Amazon’s management who are frustrated. Courtney Bowden, 30, worked at an Amazon warehouse in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, for over two years before she was terminated on 30 March after being suspended for trying to provide a co-worker with a 24-hour dispatch hotline to report concerns with the shuttle service to the warehouse. She was previously vocal with management in asking for better safety protections for workers, such as adding more time clocks to promote social distancing, and paid time off for part-time workers.
“I had to file a charge with the NLRB because this whole incident stems from me trying to give somebody a telephone number for the shuttle bus company,” said Bowden. “Anybody who is outspoken about labor or safety issues, Amazon is retaliating against a lot of people at the moment. I was recently outspoken on two different occasions during the coronavirus and they chose to retaliate against me.”
An Amazon spokesperson told the Guardian in an email: “We respect the rights of employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so, but these rights do not provide blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, wellbeing or safety of their colleagues.” They added: “With over 1,000 sites around the world, and so many measures and precautions rapidly rolled out over the past several weeks across safety, pay, benefits and operational processes, there may be instances where we don’t get it perfect, but can assure you that’s just what they’ll be – exceptions.”
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