Staten Island, NY – Amazon firing three workers for organizing was too much for Tim Bray.
At the end of March, two weeks into the quarantine in New York City, Amazon employees at their Staten Island warehouse held a walkout to protest the company’s negligence in protecting the workers on the job. Following this action, Amazon fired one of the organizers, Chris Smalls. Further protests and walkouts were held on May Day. It also came to light that Amazon was having top-level discussions and strategy sessions about how to stop a workplace organizing effort and discredit Smalls.
While working conditions appear to be deteriorating for warehouse workers at Amazon, employees on the tech side have been quieter. Instead of fighting for a union, they protested for the company to take a stronger stand on climate change. They even took part in a global walkout, after which some employees were threatened with punishment from the company.
However, with COVID-19 happening the two organizing forces at the company came together. According to Tim Bray, a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services (AWS), after Smalls was fired the workers reached out to the climate organizers, who go by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ). Within days a video conference was organized between the two groups and an announcement was sent around on an internal AECJ list asking them to sign a petition supporting the workers and participate in an April 16th video call with warehouse workers and activist Naomi Klein. Following the announcement, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two visible AECJ leaders, were fired on the spot that day.
Three firings of people leading organizing at Amazon was too much for Bray. “At that point, I snapped. VPs shouldn’t go publicly rogue, so I escalated through the proper channels and by the book.” Doing it by the book got him nowhere and he was faced with a choice, continue to work for a company that only fired women and people of color for organizing or quit. Bray decided that he could not continue to work for Amazon and left on May 1.
Following his decision to leave the company, Bray wrote a blog laying out the problems within Amazon. He noted that at AWS:
It treats its workers humanely, strives for work/life balance, struggles to move the diversity needle (and mostly fails, but so does everyone else), and is by and large an ethical organization. I genuinely admire its leadership. Of course, its workers have power. The average pay is very high, and anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better.
However, at the warehouse, Bray said:
At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power. If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.
Actions like Bray’s are important, especially as “internet” companies move into other areas like manufacturing. Programmers, developers, may get paid well, but they also hold a lot of power. If they don’t stand up for all workers within the company then places like Amazon, Apple, and Google will continue to appease the people they need and treat the rest like a resource they can use, abuse, and throw away. As Bray puts it, the company sees the warehouse workers as weak and getting weaker due to record high unemployment, so they will continue to treat them like crap. Unless people on the tech side and high-level employees like Bray stick with the warehouse workers, Amazon will continue to use the Walmart playbook and exploit their workers.