Amazon fired two highly visible employee activists who regularly criticize the company's position on climate change and conditions inside its fulfillment centers. The employees were terminated for "repeatedly violating internal policies," an Amazon spokesperson said.
User experience designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two leaders of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group, were let go Friday. They helped form the organization inside Amazon over a year ago.
Amazon has fired at least three employee activists this month who criticized the company's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The third employee, Christian Smalls, organized a walkout at a New York fulfillment center calling for broader safety precautions after several of his coworkers tested positive for the virus. Amazon says Smalls was fired for breaking quarantine, a claim several U.S. senators dispute. The string of firings come as Amazon faces immense pressure to keep up with a surge in orders and criticism for its handling of the crisis.
"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," an Amazon spokesperson said. "We terminated these employees for repeatedly violating internal policies."
Cunningham spoke during Amazon's annual shareholder meeting last year, addressing CEO Jeff Bezos directly and calling on the company to implement a more aggressive strategy for reducing its carbon footprint.
After Amazon Employees for Climate Justice began agitating, Amazon unveiled the size of its carbon footprint for the first time and launched the Climate Pledge, programs the company says were already in the works before the activist group formed. The initiative is a promise to reach carbon neutrality by 2040, 10 years ahead of the deadline set by the Paris Agreement. Cunningham and her peers continued to push for broader environmental reforms.
More recently, Cunningham and Costa have been critical of conditions inside Amazon's warehouses, where a growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks have put the company under a microscope. Both said they would match donations up to $500 to support warehouse workers who choose to stay home to avoid exposure to the virus.
I'm matching donations up to $500 to support my Amazon warehouse worker colleagues. "The lack of safe and sanitary… https://t.co/sMJYGuLPQo— Emily Cunningham (@Emily Cunningham) 1585294645.0
Amazon is rolling out temperature screening across its warehouses and Whole Foods grocery stores to identify workers who may be ill. The company says it has implemented 150 other process changes to keep workers safe.
"Amazon is focused on protecting the health and safety of our employees while continuing to serve people who need our services more than ever," the company's COVID-19 website says. "Our employees are heroes helping people get the products they need delivered to their doorsteps, products they might not otherwise be able to get while maintaining social distancing."
Amazon fired me and @marencosta. As Mary Oliver wrote, "oh! how rich it is to love the world." It's a gift to be… https://t.co/NZV1PJYcgH— Emily Cunningham (@Emily Cunningham) 1586850671.0
Before the firings, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice sent out an invitation asking Amazon warehouse and tech workers to join a webcast discussion of the COVID-19 situation. Cunningham, Costa, and celebrity activist Naomi Klein plan to host the virtual event. Costa said Amazon deleted emails about the webcast in a statement released by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.
"Why is Amazon so scared of workers talking with each other? No company should punish their employees for showing concern for one another, especially during a pandemic," Costa said in the statement.
Earlier this year, Amazon warned Costa and Cunningham that they could be fired for violating the company's external communications policy. Hundreds of employees responded by publicly criticizing Amazon in defiance of that policy. Cunningham and Costa discussed the threat of termination in a campaign video for Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In addition to scrutiny, Amazon is fielding a huge spike in demand for its products and grocery delivery services as thousands of people stay home to avoid exposure to COVID-19. The company appears largely immune to the economic headwinds plaguing so many other businesses. Amazon stock reached an all-time high Monday, hitting a record price of $2,262/share and eclipsing a previous mark set in February. The company has hired 100,000 new warehouse workers since the crisis began and plans to add an additional 75,000.
Bill Gross wants to save the world.
The inventor, entrepreneur and founder of Pasadena-based IdeaLab, an incubator that has birthed more than 150 companies, is on a mission to make the world carbon free and upend the reliance on fossil fuels.
Gross, speaking to a crowd at the opening day of the eighth-annual Upfront Summit, created a slew of startups to help make the next generation safer in the face of carbon emissions and global warming. And his companies are attracting investments that will help develop alternative power sources and cleaner manufacturing.
"We are trashing the earth," he said. "The world is completely ready (for clean energy). I am very passionate about making this a reality in my lifetime."
And Gross, who created CitySearch and is widely considered the father of the "paid click," thinks there's money to be made in solving the planet's ecological problems.
In 2017, he said solar and wind energy became cheaper to generate and he's now focused on how to store and capture energy. For instance, Energy Vault — a company he co-founded — is now building a unit in Switzerland because to meet demand. The venture has already attracted $110 million from Softbank's Vision Fund.
And he has other projects, including Carbon Capture, for mitigating carbon from the atmosphere for use as renewable energy in the manufacturing process. Heliogen, another company backed by Gross with partner Bill Gates, is looking to create clean energy through solar power.
These companies are hardly Gross' first foray into the sector. Gross, who was always captivated by inventors like Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci, created a solar company while in high school in the midst of the 1970s oil crisis. Long lines at gas pumps across the country inspired him to look for alternative energy sources and left a lasting impression on him.
But the amount of carbon dioxide released into the earth's atmosphere — which he says creates the equivalent amount of heat as three Hiroshima bombs every second — has created a new urgency. Dire predictions and protests inspired by Greta Thunberg have changed the tenor around climate. Gross said this was evident during his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this month. The event, usually filled with talks about economic growth and financial returns, has now taken an environmental undertone.
"The conversation is finally about climate change," he said.
The Upfront Summit is expected to attract more than 1,200 attendees flocking to the Rose Bowl Jan. 29-30. The invite-only event brings together a diverse mix of entrepreneurs networking with venture players armed with billions of dollars in capital, and headlined by presentations from business leaders including Steve Ballmer, Quibi Chief Executive Meg Whitman, and Union Square Ventures' Fred Wilson.
Links to the conference agenda and the livestream can be found here.
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- 340 Amazon workers call out the retail giant's impact on climate change in show of solidarity with fellow employees whose job was threatened after criticizing the company's carbon footprint
- Amazon Employees for Climate Justice is pushing the behemoth to accelerate sustainability goals, reach carbon neutrality by 2030 and cut contracts with fossil fuel companies
- The Takeaway: Tech workers from Google to Microsoft have been leveraging the tight labor market to pressure their employers to take a stand on political issues from climate change to immigration
Amazon employees are responding to threats of termination for their climate advocacy by intentionally violating the company's corporate communications policy.
More than 340 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.
And that may not go over well with the giant e-commerce's Hollywood wing.
Some of Amazon Studios biggest stars include Rachel Brosnahan, star of the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The actress recently narrated the climate change documentary "Paris to Pittsburgh" on The National Geographic Channel. Other environmentalist stars whose shows stream on Amazon Prime include "Veep's" Julia Louis-Dreyfus and "Big Little Lies" star Laura Dern who told The Los Angeles Times that she's "always been an environmentalist and very involved with Oceana and the [National Resources Defense Council."
The Medium 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.
Amazon's workers are speaking out to say: Jeff Bezos should not be in the business of fossil fuel extraction.
The company's response? Retaliate with threats of firing.
I stand with these employees who are fighting to protect the only home we have. pic.twitter.com/bvgsEH7nHj
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 6, 2020
The video features Amazon UX designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa discussing their advocacy — and what it could cost them.
"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."
This story first appeared on Geekwire.