Amazon's worldwide worker walkout is just the tip of employee activism
Worker movements have grown across the tech industry, with at least half a dozen taking hold at the world's biggest online store.
Ben Fox RubinFormer senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
An energetic crowd of hundreds of
workers gathered around the Spheres, a 90-foot-tall glass building at the center of Amazon's Seattle headquarters, to hold up signs reading "No AWS for Oil and Gas" and practice chants like "Climate change is not a lie, do not let our planet die." Just before marching to City Hall, employees spoke on a podium in front of a large "Climate Leadership Now" banner, calling out their company for not doing enough on climate change.
The workers, part of a group of nearly 1,800 Amazon employees who pledged to march in places including Los Angeles, Melbourne and London, were organized by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. They were taking part in the Global Climate Strike, a worldwide walkout that took place Sept. 20. But on top of that, they were showing the organizational strength of the many employee-led activist movements percolating inside the world's largest e-commerce company.
The increasing willingness to speak out contradicts tech giants' long-held culture of secrecy. But that culture is changing across the industry, with far more tech workers now starting grassroots efforts to speak out about social issues. Over 20,000 Google employees last November joined a walkout to protest the company's handling of sexual harassment allegations, while Microsoft, Wayfair and Salesforce workers have spoken out on their companies' work with federal immigration authorities.
At Amazon, at least half a dozen worker groups have cropped up across the US, with employees raising concerns about a wide variety of issues. They include the climate group; Whole Worker, made up of Whole Foods employees pushing to unionize; and We Won't Build It, which fights against Amazon's work with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They're joined by at least four local warehouse groups trying to improve working conditions, an issue that US Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2020 presidential candidate, has routinely highlighted.
According to interviews with organizers from three of these groups, the movements are mostly disconnected from each other, due in part to geographic distances and differing goals. But organizers said they're trying to find more ways to work together, building on a few small collaborations, to marshal their combined energies. Amazon's US workers aren't unionized, but some of these organizations receive support from outside advocacy groups and unions.
"That's why more Amazonians are speaking out. We do have high standards for Amazon because Amazon has high standards for us," said Bobby Gordon, a finance manager in Seattle who's part of the climate group. He later added: "The sentiment that I've heard is, yes, we're interested in working with other groups, because I think there's connectivity throughout the issues."
As they grow, these groups could create a counterweight to Amazon's official actions, offering a new challenge to the company's leadership and shifting more power to rank-and-file employees. Some groups may even become fertile ground for unionization, which Amazon doesn't encourage. These movements can already claim a handful of victories where they've been able to sway Amazon management, such as founder and CEO
announcing a major climate initiative, and small but meaningful improvements at local fulfillment centers.
These rumblings from employees also come at a difficult time for tech giants like Amazon, which are already under the spotlight from Congress and US attorneys general over their potential monopolies.
"With more than 650,000 employees at Amazon, we have people with a wide range of opinions," an Amazon spokeswoman said. "This diversity of opinion makes us a better company."
On workers' unionization efforts, she added: "Amazon respects its employees' right to choose to join or not join a labor union. Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution. We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce."
Nora Madjar, a University of Connecticut management professor, said worker demonstrations tend to snowball, especially if employees see their colleagues getting results. That's one reason why she thinks so many of these groups now exist at Amazon. She suggested these movements can gain even more influence if they get their messages to resonate with Amazon shoppers, which include over 100 million Prime members worldwide.
Watch this: Amazon's next big adversary is its own workers (The Daily Charge, 10/17/2019)
"As soon as they realize Amazon is providing them with a platform to communicate to customers, then they can get customers on board and influence a lot of change," she said.
Still, these groups face considerable hurdles, since Amazon is so big and power is largely consolidated by top bosses like Bezos. Significant, lasting changes will be hard to come by.
Well aware it's getting attacked from many sides, Amazon earlier this month published an "="" blog="" post"="">"Our Positions" blog post, in which it laid out 11 statements that hit on nearly every issue raised by the worker movements. In the post, Amazon called for a higher federal minimum wage and more work on climate change, and expressed its support for diversity and inclusion.
The company also pushed back against calls for it to cut ties with oil and gas corporations and law enforcement like US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying companies and government agencies deserves access to the best technologies. The company previously expressed many of these views, but it hadn't pulled them all together in one place.
Warehouse protests proliferate
On Prime Day this year, Amazon's annual summer sale became a lightning rod for protests against the company. One of the most watched demonstrations was in Shakopee, Minnesota, where warehouse workers organized a strike in the middle of the sales event.
The strike wasn't huge, with an organizer saying about 35 employees walked out, but these workers around Minneapolis have become some of the most vocal employees pushing for improved warehouse conditions. They've put together a handful of demonstrations in the past year, helped by the local Awood Center advocacy group.
"We wanted to send this message to Amazon to do something about safe, reliable jobs, about the speed of the work," said William Stolz, an Amazon worker and protest organizer in Shakopee.
Demonstrators have pushed for local improvements, such as Chicago employees fighting for air-conditioning and Eagan, Minnesota, workers protesting for more parking outside their warehouse. In some cases, they've succeeded in getting management to make these changes.
Sanders and US Rep. Ilhan Omar in July called for a Labor Department investigation of all US Amazon warehouses. Amazon has repeatedly defended itself, saying it provides a $15 minimum wage, health care packages, up to 20 weeks of parental leave, a $700 million retraining initiative and several layers of safety protocols to protect its warehouse workers. It's also stepped up public warehouse tours.
Minnesota protests have also offered some small, early signs of different Amazon grassroots groups finding ways to work together. To help the Minnesota Prime Day protest, a few workers from Amazon Employees for Climate Justice flew in to picket with warehouse workers, and many employees from the climate group offered words of support in a Medium post.
These groups have also found ways to amplify one another's messages through social media, with different Twitter handles retweeting and sharing information from other movements.
Additionally, efforts by We Won't Build It to stop Amazon's work with ICE, which has been criticized for mistreating undocumented immigrants, has been supported by street rallies from a variety of outside advocacy groups, such as Make the Road and ALIGN.
"Our company should not be in the surveillance business; we should not be in the policing business; we should not be in the business of supporting those who monitor and oppress marginalized populations," We Won't Build It wrote in a letter to Bezos last June.
The origin of Whole Worker
Another group that's taken inspiration from the warehouse demonstrations is Whole Worker, a group trying to organize Whole Foods employees.
In September last year, a few workers for the Whole Foods grocery chain, which Amazon purchased for $13.2 billion in 2017, started a group chat on Slack, then sent out an email inviting fellow employees to join to share their concerns.
"In the last three years, we have experienced layoffs, job consolidations, reduced labor budgets, poor wage growth, and constantly being asked to do more with fewer resources and now with less compensation," the letter read, highlighting the disparity between Bezos' staggering wealth and some employees' need to live paycheck to paycheck.
The email was shared widely among workers at the grocer, with some even printing it out to pass around in stores. That's how Whole Worker started.
Sam, who works for Whole Foods in Chicago and asked that her last name not be published, joined Whole Worker a few days after it started and is now in the group's administrative circle. From that one email and a few others since then, she said the group chat, now on Telegram, has grown to about 300 people all over the country.
"We've got a pretty sizable group and a lot of energy and we're now focused on directing it," Sam said.
Whole Worker started as a way for employees to share issues they're having at their specific stores, and they soon found these worries about cutbacks existed across the company, Sam said. A year later, the group has turned into a loosely organized movement, with a handful of working groups started to focus on social media, unionization and different US regions. Still, there aren't big numbers of Whole Worker employees in any particular store, so pulling together demonstrations or unionizations has been difficult.
Sam said her goal for the group is to create an Amazon-wide union. Before reaching for that broader effort, Whole Worker has tried to highlight workplace problems at the grocer through its website, on social media and by sharing internal information with media, such as a Whole Foods training video that taught managers to tell employees that unions weren't in their best interests. Whole Worker hasn't yet opened direct communication with management, which has largely ignored the group, Sam said.
"We are in a situation of Amazon doing whatever it wants," she said. "And if there's going to be any check on power, it will have to come from within. It will have to come from us, the workers."
A push for climate action
There could be several reasons why so many employee groups have come together. Perhaps it's because Amazon has grown so quickly, with plenty of problems bubbling up along the way. Or maybe these movements are part of a more politically active atmosphere during the administration of US President Donald Trump.
Madjar, the management professor, said a few broader trends are at play. Employee demonstrations in a variety of industries, like the GM strikes, have grown because of the positive economy. Employees have seen their companies do well, but these good times haven't translated to bigger paychecks, resulting in more worker activism.
"Amazon and a lot of the big tech companies are doing great, and their employees see it," she said.
All the best signs we saw at the Climate Strike in NYC
Added to that, the omnipresence of social media has allowed employees to organize without the need for union bosses, she said.
That's one way Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, which started late last year, has grown into one of the largest and most organized of the grassroots groups, using Twitter and Medium to get the word out.
It's also used more-traditional venues, like calling for more climate action at Amazon's annual shareholder meeting. Gordon, from the climate group, said Amazon management has spoken to his group about more ways to improve the company's carbon footprint. While the group's shareholder proposal was rejected in May, Bezos just a day before the climate strike unveiled an ambitious new effort to make Amazon carbon neutral by 2040, invest in 100,000 electric delivery vans and spend $100 million on reforestation.
At a press conference in Washington, DC, Bezos signaled his support for the climate demonstration. "It's totally understandable people are passionate about this issue and, by the way, they should be passionate about this issue," he said.
In a press release sent out hours after Bezos' announcement, the climate group said: "We're thrilled at what workers have been able to achieve in less than a year. But we know it's not enough." The release added that the group still planned on joining the strike the next day, where those hundreds of Seattle employees were joined by workers walking out at Amazon offices all over the world.
"Today, we celebrate," the release said. "Tomorrow, we'll be in the streets to continue the fight for a livable future."
Originally published Oct. 17, 5 a.m. PT. Update, 10:42 a.m.: Adds more details on We Won't Build It.