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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)

Amazon employees are responding to threats of termination for their climate advocacy by intentionally violating the company’s corporate communications policy.

More than 350 workers criticized Amazon’s contribution to climate change Sunday in a Medium post, violating corporate PR rules that prevent employees from discussing company business without approval. It’s the latest example of tech workers leveraging their position as valued assets in a tight labor market to pressure their employers on political issues. Employee activism in the tech industry is creating new challenges for corporations trying to balance business interests with the demands of the employees they’ve invested heavily in recruiting and retaining.

The advocacy group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice published the statements to show solidarity with two employees who say they were threatened with termination. Amazon’s human resources department told the employees their jobs could be in jeopardy if they continued to violate the communications policy by speaking publicly about Amazon’s carbon footprint. Amazon says its corporate communications rules are not new but confirmed updating the policy in September and notifying employees at that time.

The Washington Post first reported on the statements.

The blog post is the activist group’s latest escalation of an ongoing pressure campaign. They want Amazon to accelerate its sustainability goals, reach carbon neutrality by 2030, and end cloud computing contracts with fossil fuel companies. The activists co-filed a shareholder resolution at the end of 2018 calling on Amazon to create a climate plan. In 2019, they posted an open letter with thousands of employee signatures calling out the shortcomings of the company’s climate-related measures and asking for specific steps to reduce emissions.

“As Amazon workers, we are responsible for not only the success of the company, but its impact as well,” said Amazon software engineering Sarah Tracy in one of the statements. “It’s our moral responsibility to speak up, and the changes to the communications policy are censoring us from exercising that responsibility. Now is not the time to silence employees, especially when the climate crisis poses such an unprecedented threat to humanity.”

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice is part of a broader trend of employee activism occurring in the tech industry. Employees at Google, Microsoft, Tableau, and other tech companies are using their leverage to pressure their employers to take a stand on climate change and immigration. In September, Amazon and Google employees joined the youth-led Global Climate Strike and walked out of work in Seattle and other cities.

The day before the walkout, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed the company’s carbon footprint for the first time and announced new climate actions. Called The Climate Pledge, the initiative set new greenhouse gas emission goals and urged other companies to do the same. Amazon launched a sustainability website to bring previously lacking transparency to the company’s environmental impact.

An Amazon spokesperson pointed to The Climate Pledge in response to questions about the employee action planned Sunday. The company plans to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reach “net zero carbon” by 2040, Amazon said. Amazon encourages employees to share their concerns internally, by submitting questions during the company’s all-hands meeting and joining sustainability-focused affinity groups.

“While all employees are welcome to engage constructively with any of the many teams inside Amazon that work on sustainability and other topics, we do enforce our external communications policy and 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,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Amazon software engineer Weston Fribley said in a statement that the protest does not diminish his colleagues’ work on sustainability initiatives.

“We have so much gratitude for their work, and it’s so important for us to publicly cheer what our coworkers have accomplished,” he said. “But I’ve spoken with more than one who left that team because the big ideas we need right now did not have the support of leadership. This is not about them, this is about policies that prevent workers from speaking the truth about the entire company’s role in the climate crisis.”

Rather than a quieting effect, Amazon’s efforts to enforce its PR policy have only made employee activists louder. The dispute reached the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who enlisted the two employees whose jobs were threatened for a social media video.

 

The video features Amazon UX designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa discussing their advocacy — and what it could cost them. Sanders once again tweeted his support for the employees Monday.

“What corporate America knows, what many of us know, is the time is now to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy,” Sanders said in the video. “What we need is a strong grassroots movement protesting and saying that the future of this country is with other sustainable technologies.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details from the blog post and new developments.

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