Here’s why the Amazon climate walkout is a big deal

On Friday, over 1,500 Amazon workers plan to walk out of work to protest their company’s environmental impact. It will be the first time in Amazon’s 25-year history that its corporate employees have participated in a walkout demonstration. Employees are calling on Amazon to reduce its carbon footprint as part of a larger, youth-led global climate strike that has planned hundreds of events around the world.

Even ahead of their walkout, protesters have already seen results. On Thursday morning, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced in Washington, DC, that the company is making a pact to follow the Paris climate agreement — a cross-country pledge for nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and it is also pledging to be carbon neutral by 2040.

But Amazon employees who plan to walk out of work say it’s not enough. Organizers told Recode they want to see Amazon set a more aggressive plan for the company to reduce its carbon emissions to zero; they want it to stop selling its cloud services to the oil and gas industry; and they want it to stop donating to politicians who deny climate change’s existence. (Bezos said he would “take a hard look” at whether donations are going toward climate-change deniers but made no promises.) Amazon declined to comment directly on the strike.

“I would love to be in a meeting where one of the criteria or goals around the design that I’m proposing is, ‘How much carbon does this remove from our footprint?’” Weston Fribley, a software engineer at Amazon and one of the organizers of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, the group organizing the walkout, told Recode. “Our work is interesting and challenging, and it’s tough to see the company not prioritizing things that are so important.”

Employees from several other major tech companies have joined Amazon’s lead, calling on their companies to change business practices to reduce climate change. So far, 700 Google employees have pledged to walk out, along with others at several other major tech companies including Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter. (Google announced a day ahead of the walkout that it’s making a major investment in wind and solar energy.)

These employees’ coordinated involvement is a sign of how far the growing tech labor movement has come since rank-and-file workers began organizing over the past several years. In 2019, as public and political scrutiny of their companies increases, these employees have mobilized to pressure their companies on political issues ranging from selling AI tech military use, providing products to oppressive governments, and discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Several leaders of the Amazon protest say they were inspired by last year’s Google walkout in which 20,000 employees left work to protest the company’s payout of high-powered executives accused of sexually harassing employees. The walkout was a historic moment for tech activism and the largest-ever company protest by workers in the industry. It’s remarkable that employees at Amazon, known for a grueling work culture in which employees put on a unified public front and are sworn to secrecy, are now leading a protest in their sector.

“The tech climate strike is proof that tech workers across the industry are becoming more confident in our power to shape the future,” the organizing group Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) said in a statement to Recode. TWC helped coordinate employees at major companies who planned to join Amazon workers in participating in the strike. “This is a historic milestone for our industry and shows that we will only continue getting stronger until tech treats everyone equitably.”

The walkout is indeed a sign of a growing, cross-industry movement by employees to move the needle on their employer’s business practices on social and political issues. A few months ago, employees at e-commerce home decor giant Wayfair walked out of work to demand their employer stop providing beds to children in US immigration detention facilities. Similarly, employees at the advertising firm Ogilvy protested their company’s contract with US Border Patrol, prompting the CEO to hold a lengthy meeting addressing concerns to a room full of angry employees. (Neither Ogilvy nor Wayfair have said they will cancel their contracts.) And at Amazon, workers have also formed a “We Won’t Build It” organizing group to protest the company’s Amazon Web Services contracts with companies like Palantir, which provide a technological infrastructure that helps US immigration agencies enforce deportation policies.

At a time when many of these workers are feeling doubtful about politicians’ ability to pass laws enforcing changes they want to see, they’re increasingly calling on their employers to set the ethical standard.

“It goes beyond climate change,” one Amazon employee who plans to walk out and who requested anonymity told Recode. “It demonstrates that, ‘Hey, you guys can organize on something together that you feel strongly about that maybe your managers don’t like but that you think is the right thing to do.’

“And then you realize in your organization that you have some power, you have some sway, you can push for things. That kind of consciousness hasn’t existed in the corporate space a lot, and it’s really exciting to see that get some traction.”

What Amazon employees are asking for and what they might get

Amazon organizers are demanding three main things:

  1. Amazon to commit to zero carbon emissions by 2030. This would be a big move for Amazon. Back in February, the company announced its Shipment Zero program to make 50 percent of all shipments net-zero emission by 2030. And with Bezos’s new announcement Thursday, he’s additionally pledged to get to net-zero emissions overall by 2040. But walkout organizers want total emissions, not net zero. Net-zero emissions means that emissions can still happen but would be offset by things like planting trees (Amazon just committed $100 million to reforestation). But organizers say that this means that specific areas, specifically low-income regions, can become dumping grounds that bear the burden of environmental damage, turning the people who live there into “climate refugees.” Some also say 2040 is too far out. In a report last year, the world’s leading climate scientists warned that there are only 12 years for the world to act and limit global warming that could cause climate change catastrophe.

Seeing as how Amazon has already announced its own timeline, it seems unlikely that workers will see the company change its climate impact goals.

2. Amazon to stop selling its lucrative cloud computing Amazon Web Services (AWS) to oil and gas companies. Organizers take issue with how the company pitches its services to oil and gas companies. At a recent company conference, AWS marketed a custom computing product that uses the company’s machine learning technology to predict new oil field locations.

It’s unlikely Amazon is going to stop selling products to oil and gas companies. On Thursday, Bezos said he wants these companies to “have the best tools possible” to transition to being more environmentally friendly but that “to ask oil and energy companies to do this transition with bad tools is not a good idea and we won’t do that,” according to the New York Times.

3. Amazon to stop funding politicians who deny the existence of climate change. Organizers say Amazon funded 68 members of Congress last year who voted against climate legislation 100 percent of the time. Amazon funds dozens of politicians on both sides of the aisle, as is par for the course for a major company. But there is widespread scientific consensus that climate change is a real phenomenon and Amazon has committed to helping prevent it, so employees are calling for the company to stop supporting leaders who deny its existence.

While Bezos fell short of making a promise on this one, he did say on Thursday that he would “take a hard look” at donations going to “active climate deniers.”

An ongoing movement

Friday’s walkout builds on work Amazon employees have been doing in recent years.

Last year, a group of employees submitted a shareholder proposal tasking Jeff Bezos with creating a comprehensive climate-change plan for the company (shareholders voted down the proposal in May). And as of September, over 8,000 employees signed a public petition supporting the proposal and asking the company to demonstrate bold climate change leadership.

But the climate walkout shows a real step up in the seriousness of employees’ actions, one that places Amazon’s corporate employees, perhaps an unlikely group, in the center of some of the most important debates around tech, politics, and social change in our time.

As one Amazon employee participating in the walkout said: “The labor movement is on the ascendancy in this country and this is starting to hit the tech sector. I don’t think that is going to stop anytime soon.”