Several of Amazon’s corporate employees are urging thousands of their colleagues to defy their employer by taking this Friday off of work en masse to instead gather virtually and discuss how to push for more rights for the company’s warehouse workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, several Amazon employees have told Recode that invitations to the virtual event have mysteriously disappeared from their calendars and inboxes.
Workers told Recode that they believe Amazon’s management has deleted the event in an attempt to quash a growing collaboration between corporate and warehouse level employees over workers’ labor rights and environmental concerns.
Amazon declined to comment when asked if it had deleted the event.
After an Amazon corporate employee emailed invitations to the event to thousands of colleagues on Tuesday afternoon, the invite had been deleted from many (but not all) employees’ inboxes by Wednesday morning. The controversy around the event demonstrates escalating tensions within Amazon’s workforce, both white-collar and blue-collar, during an unprecedented public health disaster. It’s a critical time for the company to grapple with intensifying internal dissent around how it treats some of its most vulnerable employees.
Amazon has become an essential service for millions of Americans who are on lockdown during the pandemic, which has thrust the company in the spotlight in both positive and negative ways. Amazon’s leadership has called warehouse and delivery workers “heroes” and raised their wages by $2 per hour, but the company has also faced scrutiny from both internal and external critics who say it isn’t doing enough to compensate or protect the health of its workers who are risking their lives to keep its businesses running.
“Amazon has begun making significant improvements in COVID-19 protections in warehouses, but after hearing from our colleagues working in warehouses throughout the world, we believe there needs to be more protections, transparency, and uncensored, supported space for dialog and deep listening,” the now-deleted invitation said. “If we’re censored and can’t talk with warehouse workers, how can we work with them to make things better?”
The event, which its organizers are calling a “sickout,” will still continue as planned on Friday, and the group organizing it, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, has said in a public blog post that at least 100 employees so far plan to attend, out of Amazon’s tens of thousands of corporate employees.
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Amazon warehouse workers have demanded greater protections from the company, such as easier access to sick leave and protective gear. While the company has responded to some of workers’ concerns and is now providing masks and checking employees’ temperatures when they show up for shifts, many workers say these efforts are not enough. The number of Amazon employees who have tested positive for Covid-19 has grown to include workers from at least 50 US Amazon facilities that remain open for business. Over 300 warehouse workers across 50 sites nationwide have pledged to call in sick this week to put pressure on Amazon to meet demands for greater paid leave and sanitation measures at warehouses that employ over 250,000 warehouse workers.
In recent weeks, Amazon’s corporate employees have been increasingly organizing to show support for the company’s warehouse workers. In response, Amazon management has been cracking down on such activity. Last week, the company fired two of its most vocal tech employee critics, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, who were leaders of the worker group that helped organize a similar warehouse worker panel discussion to the one planned for this Friday. Employees say that invitations to that event were also deleted, but it went on as planned with over 400 attendees. Cunningham’s and Costa’s firing angered some of their colleagues, who have continued to organize the sickout despite fears that they’ll lose their jobs as a result.
“It’s hard to think of any stronger way to discourage something than deleting a bunch of invites and emails out of the entire companies’ inboxes and calendars and firing everyone involved,” one Amazon employee told Recode, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
With regard to Amazon’s dismissal of Cunningham and Costa, a spokesperson sent the following statement: “We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies. We terminated these employees for repeatedly violating internal policies.”
The spokesperson declined to respond to a follow-up question about what specific internal policy was violated.
Organizers of Friday’s sickout are calling for Amazon to reinstate “any worker who was fired based on selective enforcement of policies and behavior guidelines.”
Since Amazon’s corporate employees are largely divided from warehouse workers, Friday’s event provides a rare opportunity for software engineers, business analysts, and other white-collar workers to hear directly from their warehouse colleagues about their concerns. Employees also plan to discuss Amazon’s policies around environmental sustainability, which in the past was the primary focus of the group organizing, AECJ.
Amazon has long faced criticism and questioning over its labor practices for warehouse and delivery workers. And in the past, it has successfully dissuaded its workforce from nascent attempts at unionization. But Amazon’s sharpest critics on labor conditions have historically come from outside the company. Unlike some other major tech companies like Google, Amazon’s corporate culture hasn’t been as politically outspoken and until recently, workers have refrained from publicly criticizing company policies. That’s been changing in the past year, as more of its corporate workers have begun pushing back against their employer. Now, during the pandemic, these concerns have intensified — as have management’s attempts to push back.
In recent weeks, the company has fired at least two warehouse worker activists. One of those fired activists, Chris Smalls, was the target of an executive plan to smear his reputation as a “not smart or articulate” leader, according to a leaked memo notes from an internal meeting. The circumstances around Smalls’ firing have prompted an investigation by the New York City Human Rights Commission and the New York State Attorney General.
And Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, has also reportedly been building a heat map to track the likelihood of different stores that might attempt to unionize, demonstrating again how much the company is fighting against a growing threat of worker activism.
Amazon is more powerful than ever during this pandemic, as more people depend on its services and it faces less competition from now-shuttered brick-and-mortar stores. But as this event and the controversy surrounding it show, the company’s reputation will also be impacted by how it treats its own workers, who, despite the risks in doing so, continue to press the company for greater transparency and rights for their colleagues on the frontlines.
Jason Del Rey contributed reporting to this article.