Amazon Workers Plan Friday Sickout to Protest Activist Firings


(Bloomberg) -- Inc. employee climate activists have called for a walkout Friday to protest the firing of two of their leaders and to show solidarity with warehouse workers who continue to pick, pack and ship orders during the pandemic.

But with mass gatherings banned and high unemployment making some workers loath to antagonize their bosses, the organizers could struggle to get their message out. More than 100 employees have committed to striking -- which essentially means calling in sick -- and some Amazonians who aren’t part of the movement say fears of being fired will likely curb participation.

“In some ways, it’s less risky for people to participate” because their faces won’t end up on the news, said Maren Costa, a member of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, who, along with her colleague Emily Cunningham, was fired on April 10. “But it’s going to be harder to have that impact. A picture says 1,000 words. How do you take a picture of this?”

An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on Friday’s planned strike.

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice began in late 2018 as a gathering of people who shared concerns about climate change and their employer’s role in it. They began a media and shareholder vote push to get the company to do more.

Amazon to that point had backed renewable energy projects and was working on environmentally friendly packaging. But it had stopped short of the sustainability disclosures and commitments embraced by many retail and technology companies. That changed in September, when Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos pledged to make Amazon carbon neutral by 2040.

The employees pushed for more ambitious policies, starting with a rally outside of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters the next day, a walkout timed to line up with youth-led climate strikes occurring around the world. When Amazon threatened to dismiss members of the group who continued to speak to the media without authorization, some 400 employees signed their names to statements made in defiance of the stricter communications policy.

As coronavirus cases spread in Amazon’s warehouses, the climate activists broadened their mission to agitate for workers complaining about a lack of safety measures and poor communication from management. Amazon earlier this month confirmed the first publicly reported death of one of its employees suffering from Covid-19, and the retailer has told employees in dozens of depots across the U.S. of cases of the disease within their ranks. Spokespeople have declined to provide a tally of ill employees.

Amazon has said critiques of its safety measures are unfounded, and Costa and Cunningham were dismissed shortly after their group circulated an invitation to Amazon employees to hear from warehouse workers on a live stream.

Amazon said the two were fired for unspecified violations of company policy; both had previously been warned about speaking to the media without authorization. “We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies,” Amazon said in a statement last week.

Costa and Cunningham say they were dismissed because they sought to shine a spotlight on warehouse working conditions. “That’s the bomb that set them off,” Costa said.

Employees have previously pushed Amazon to act on social and health care issues, including publicly supporting legislation legalizing same-sex marriage and expanding health care benefits for transgender employees.

A person familiar with Amazon’s corporate response to the climate activists, but not authorized to speak publicly about it, said the company might have tolerated a group focused around activism on a single issue.

But some executives worried that the group would fuel activism on a range of other issues, this person said, as well as strikes among warehouse workers concerned about their safety during the pandemic.

Amazon has some 800,000 employees globally. Executives and spokespeople have responded to recent walkouts by workers in Amazon warehouses by portraying strikers as a tiny sliver of the workforce. The climate group, which has planned another live stream with warehouse workers for Friday, is considering ways to show the scale of the sickout using social media.

“We know that many of our colleagues are going to be scared by this,” Costa said of her firing. “But we hope that what we’ve done already, and what we’ll continue to do, is inspire our friends and colleagues to fight for what’s right.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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