Amazon faces employee revolt over slow climate action

Hundreds of Amazon employees on Monday issued statements blasting their own employer and calling for the company to do more to fight climate change. Some employees also praised Amazon’s decision last September to order 100,000 electric vans—part of the company’s climate change initiative. But others argued that Amazon’s policies so far are inadequate given the scale of the climate change problem.

“Amazon can and should do more,” wrote Amazon employee Nolan Woodle. “We should end our contracts with oil and gas companies that are using our services to locate, drill for, and extract fossil fuels.”

“Big Tech has the opportunity to not only change the world but change the planet,” wrote another employee, Rabecca Rocha.

The coordinated action was in pointed defiance of an Amazon policy banning employees from speaking publicly about corporate policies. Last year, protests by Amazon employees helped to convince management to announce new measures to combat climate change. But since then, Amazon has warned several employees that they could face disciplinary action—including termination—if they continued to speak to the media about Amazon’s business practices.

Amazon insists that this isn’t a new policy—and that it isn’t unusual in corporate America. The company also asserts that it shares the employees’ concerns about climate change.

“Of course we are passionate about these issues,” a spokesperson told Ars by email. The spokesperson noted that the company has committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2040 and to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

At the same time, the spokesperson said that the company “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.”

Employees are getting more assertive across the tech sector

In recent years, employees across the technology sector have become more aggressive about challenging the practices of their employers. In 2017, for example, employee allegations of rampant sexual harassment at Uber contributed to the ouster of CEO Travis Kalanick.

In recent years, Google has faced employee pressure to end work on drones for the US military, to cancel plans for a censored Chinese search engine, and to revamp the company’s sexual harassment policies.

Now Amazon is facing an employee revolt of its own. Though 364 employees represents a tiny fraction of Amazon’s workforce, it’s likely to be too many people for the company to fire .

Most worker statements have focused on the need for Amazon to do more to fight climate change. In particular, employees object to Amazon selling cloud computing services to oil and gas companies. A page on Amazon’s website specifically touts the use of Amazon Web Service for oil and gas exploration.

Workers raised other concerns, too. Employee Hilda Marshall blasted Amazon for “abusing warehouse employees with inhumane quotas”—a concern shared by several others. Some employees faulted Amazon for working with Immigration and Customers Enforcement. One employee criticized Amazon for contributing to conservative candidates in the 2019 election for Seattle’s city council.

It’s a tricky situation for Amazon’s management because Amazon is in a constant competition for talent with rivals like Google and Microsoft. Technology employees like to not only earn a generous paycheck—they also like to feel good about the company they work for. Firing hundreds of employees could create a lot of ill will and harm Amazon’s efforts to recruit top employees.

On the other hand, having Amazon workers openly criticizing their own management isn’t great for either worker morale or the company’s public image.

Amazon seemed to be trying to head off employee criticism last September when it announced its climate initiative the day before a planned employee protest. But while that announcement may have satisfied some Amazon workers, it didn’t fully quell the employee revolt.

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