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Amazon user experience designer Emily Cunningham speaks at a rally outside of the company’s shareholders’ meeting in May 2019. Employees in support of the climate resolution wore white to the event. (Amazon Employees for Climate Justice Photo)

After Amazon employees publicly pressured their employer to take aggressive action on climate change, the company has warned two workers that they could be fired if they continue to violate Amazon’s “external communications policy.”

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, an organization leading worker action on climate change, is pushing back, alleging that the company is trying to silence workers and vowing to continue calling for stronger leadership in reducing climate damage.

“Now is a time when we need to have communications policies that let us speak honestly about our company’s role in the climate crisis,” said Maren Costa, a user experience principal designer at Amazon, and one of those threatened with termination, in a prepared statement.

“This is not the time to shoot the messengers,” she said. “This is not the time to silence those who are speaking out.”

In a news release issued today, a half-dozen employees went on record to share their concerns about the rules, and long-time environmental activist Bill McKibben tweeted in response: “the world is on fire. Climate leaders don’t silence employees who are sounding the alarm. This is sick behavior…”

 

Amazon in September updated its communications policy and notified employees in a message that states: “As a general rule, external communication by employees about Amazon’s business, products, services, technology, or customers must be approved in advance by public relations.”

The company said this is a standard approach to regulating company-related speech.

“Our policy regarding external communications is not new and we believe is similar to other large companies. We recently updated the policy and related approval process to make it easier for employees to participate in external activities such as speeches, media interviews, and use of the company’s logo,” said Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson by email.

Anderson added that the company is working to make it easier for employees and “approvers” to navigate the pre-approval process, including building an intranet page for approvals to streamline the process and reduce the number and seniority of managers required to green-light communication.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced a Climate Pledge in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19, 2019. (Amazon Photo)

University of Washington political science professor Aseem Prakash was surprised and disappointed by the news. In raising concerns about Amazon’s efforts to address climate change, workers “are not disclosing any confidential information,” he said. “There is no breach.”

Prakash, who is the founding director of the UW Center for Environmental Politics, noted that the employees Amazon wants to recruit and retain “are quite concerned about climate change.”

Over the course of more than a year, Amazon employees have been taking steps to pressure the cloud computing and retail juggernaut to improve its transparency regarding its climate impacts and to promise to reduce its carbon footprint. Those steps include:

  • The co-filing of a shareholder resolution at the end of 2018 calling on Amazon to create a climate plan.
  • Posting an open letter in April 2019 addressed to Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos and his board of directors. The missive has been signed by 8,700 employees and calls out the shortcomings of the company’s climate-related measures, asking for specific steps to reduce emissions.
  • Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, who were part of the shareholder resolution, protested outside Amazon’s annual meeting in May. During the meeting’s Q&A portion, one of the employees asked Bezos if he would support initiatives to address climate change.
  • In September, Amazon workers, as well as employees at other tech companies, joined the youth-led Global Climate Strike and walked out of work.

And Amazon, one the the most valuable companies in the world, has in recent months taken steps to respond to what many call a climate crisis.

With great fanfare, Bezos in September — one day before the planned walk out — announced new climate actions, including the creation of a Climate Pledge that sets ambitious greenhouse gas emission goals for the tech giant and urges other companies to do the same.

“We’re done being in the middle of the herd on this issue — we’ve decided to use our size and scale to make a difference,” said Bezos in a prepared statement shared for the announcement.

The initiative included launching a sustainability website to bring previously lacking transparency to Amazon’s actions. The company disclosed details of its carbon footprint: 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent released in 2018. (The U.S. emitted roughly 5,000 million metric tons of CO2e in 2015 while the UK, for example, emitted 389 million metric tons of CO2e.) The company also pledged to reach 80% renewable energy for its global infrastructure within five years, and use entirely renewable power by 2030.

But while Bezos is expressing enthusiasm for these environmental efforts, the squeaky-wheel tactics of employees is clearly still rankling leadership.

Amazon plans to roll out a fleet of electric vans. (Amazon Photo)

The Amazon employee group shared a statement critical of the company’s partnership with fossil fuel companies for a Washington Post article published in October. The statement was attributed to Costa and Jamie Kowalski, an Amazon software development engineer (Bezos coincidentally owns the Washington Post).

After Amazon officials investigated the matter, the employees were given an email warning in November sent from a principal of employee relations. Costa was cautioned to abide by company policy requiring that she get pre-approval from the company before speaking out, or face “formal corrective action.”

Emily Cunningham, a user experience designer for Amazon, has been an active employee leader on climate issues. She noted that the communications policy was updated one day after Amazon Employees for Climate Justice announced that it would participate in the September climate strike. Anderson, the company spokesperson, said the process to update the policy began in the spring.

“It’s no surprise that Amazon rolled out this change to the communication policy the day after we announced the walkout,” Cunningham said today by email. “We know that the change in the policy was a result of how successful we have been by publicly speaking out about the climate crisis.”

Amazon isn’t alone in clamping down on employee speech. Google recently fired workers for alleged violations of its data security policies and code of conduct, though employees claim the real cause was their decision speak out against Google on issues including pay disparity and government contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and others.

Workers have two options if they don’t like their employer’s actions: quit or exercise their voices and fight the system from within, Prakash said.

“I hope some senior managers who have more clout will say that this is wrong,” Prakash said of the Amazon stance.

“Even if they silence the employees,” he said. When it comes to climate change, “the problem will not go away.”

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