Jeff Bezos will step down as Amazon’s CEO on July 5, 27 years to the day after founding Amazon in his Clyde Hill garage, he revealed at the company’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday.
Bezos had announced this spring that Amazon Web Services chief Andy Jassy would replace him as CEO, but the precise date of the transition was unknown until Wednesday’s meeting. Bezos will remain chair of Amazon’s board of directors, a position in which he is expected to continue to exert considerable influence on the company.
“I guarantee that Andy will never let the universe make us typical,” Bezos said at the meeting, echoing sentiments from his most recent letter to shareholders. “He has the energy needed to keep alive in us what has made us special.”
But, Bezos predicted, Jassy will not find the CEO role easy.
The many challenges besetting Amazon were a focus of Wednesday’s meeting, which featured testimony from two leaders of a rare union campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
Though the campaign ended in defeat, union organizers Jennifer Bates and Darryl Richardson seized the meeting as an opportunity to take their concerns about worker safety and Amazon’s hiring practices directly to shareholders, speaking in favor of proposals urging Amazon to elect a warehouse worker to its board of directors and assess the company’s impact on racial equity.
Neither of those proposals, or nine others put forward by outsiders, received a majority of votes cast, despite unprecedented support from institutional shareholder-advisory firms amid a rising tide of shareholder activism. Amazon had recommended votes against all 11 shareholder proposals.
Activist investors say they’re less concerned about “passing” a resolution than they are with generating publicity, putting Amazon on the record about the issues at hand and showing the company that a sizable percentage of its shareholders — even if not a majority — support changes to Amazon’s business practices.
This year, large shareholder advisory firms for the first time backed a proposal from the New York State Common Retirement Fund urging Amazon to reckon with its practices regarding racial equity and civil rights.
“If Amazon was actually committed to ending racism, it would listen to its Black workers, not campaign against them,” union organizer Richardson said in support of the resolution at the meeting. Recent testimony in a legal battle over Amazon’s conduct during that campaign suggest the vote count could be overturned due to the commerce giant’s aggressive anti-union tactics.
Bates, the other organizer, testified in favor of a resolution for Amazon to put a warehouse worker on its board of directors, saying it had been her experience that the company does not listen to or value its workers.
Other shareholder resolutions included proposals for Amazon to rein in use of its facial recognition technology, report on gender and racial pay and promotion discrepancies, account for its increased use of plastic packaging and assess risks from rising antitrust scrutiny. A perennial proposal to bar Bezos from serving as chair of Amazon’s board of directors was also refiled this year.
Vote totals were not immediately available after the meeting.
Amazon executives defended the company’s track record on worker safety and employment diversity.
At its warehouses, Amazon has reduced the incidence of muscle, joint and ligament injuries caused by repeated motion 32% between 2019 and 2020, Bezos said during the question-and-answer session.
“We are committed to the safety of our employees, to zero injuries. We want people to go home the way they came in,” added Alicia Boler Davis, Amazon’s vice president of global customer fulfillment. Executives pointed to the recent rollout of a suite of worker safety programs, called WorkingWell, that include an “AmaZen” mindfulness app and signs encouraging healthy eating.
None of Amazon’s publicized safety initiatives, though, respond to what Washington state’s workplace regulator found this month was at the heart of the company’s above-industry-average injury rates: its relentless focus on speed.
There is a “direct connection” between the incidence of warehouse injuries and Amazon’s expectation that warehouse employees “maintain a very high pace of work” or else face discipline, Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries concluded in its citation report. The agency said Amazon was breaking workplace safety laws and issued the maximum allowable fine, $7,000. Amazon has said it intends to appeal the citation.
At Wednesday’s shareholder meeting, Amazon also pointed to its progress on boosting recruitment of underrepresented minorities for high-paying tech and corporate positions.
“We spent several months diving deep into how we hire, develop and promote employees, and we have set new 2021 goals focused on increasing diversity in our hiring, building the most inclusive work environment that we can, and ensuring equitable access for all,” said Amazon human resources chief Beth Galetti. “Our data shows us there’s more work to do, but also demonstrates year-over-year progress.”
Amazon has been hit in recent months with six discrimination lawsuits from current and former employees represented by the same high-profile New York firm that sued media mogul Harvey Weinstein in his sex-abuse cases. And while Amazon’s public data shows incremental progress in the representation of Black, Native American, Hispanic and Latino, and female employees at the company, some employment law practitioners have questioned how Amazon has chosen to report its demographics.
Shareholders also reelected all 10 directors sitting on Amazon’s board for another yearlong term, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky said at the meeting.