Hours before Amazon fired Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa this month, they were among about a thousand of the company’s technology employees to accept an invitation to hear from warehouse employees about working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to firing the women — both visible leaders of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) who, the company said, had repeatedly violated internal policies — Amazon deleted the calendar invitation to the online event and took disciplinary action against another employee who circulated it. On Thursday, the conversation went ahead anyway, featuring warehouse workers from Chicago, New York and Poland.
“They clearly did not want this event to happen,” Costa, who spent 15 years at Amazon, rising to be a principal user experience designer, told the approximately 375 people watching the web conference. “They apparently do not want tech workers talking to warehouse workers. They fired us to silence you and to silence all of us.”
Costa called on her former colleagues to stage a sickout as a form of collective protest action on April 24.
The online discussion was one way disparate groups of Amazon employees, as well as emboldened labor unions and environmental groups, are building and strengthening connections with each other as the company is roiled by the pandemic. Costa, Cunningham and other climate activists said they see in the pandemic the same injustices bearing down first and hardest on the world’s most vulnerable — including in Black, Latino, indigenous and other communities of color — with each new season on a warming planet.
Lately, the company has started cracking down on dissent in its ranks. It fired organizers of walkouts in New York and Minnesota, in both instances saying the individuals, Christian Smalls and Bashir Mohamed, had endangered co-workers by violating social distancing guidelines. The company also cited “inappropriate” language and behavior and harassment of a co-worker in Mohamed’s case.
Many of Amazon’s warehouse workers in Europe are unionized, and labor groups there have forced a series of changes. Last week, a French court ruled in a case brought by unions that Amazon warehouses selling nonessential items must shut down or face a fine of a million euros a day. Amazon is appealing and temporarily stopped orders there until Monday.
Cunningham and Costa, who were warned in October for speaking publicly about the company without authorization, said they circulated a petition in late March started by warehouse workers in New York. It called for improved safety protocols, closures of facilities where employees had tested positive for COVID-19 — the illness caused by the coronavirus — and enhanced benefits. The women said when they were fired April 10, company representatives told them it was because they violated a policy on internal solicitation, which Costa said would also bar Girl Scout cookie sales and was widely ignored and rarely enforced.
“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,” Amazon said in a statement.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and other company leaders call its employees working amid the pandemic heroes. Despite disruptions and the unexpected surge in demand, Amazon has become a lifeline for the homebound and the growing ranks of the unemployed. The company said last week it had hired 100,000 people since mid-March and plans to bring on 75,000 more.
Through it all, Amazon’s stock price hit new highs last week and Bezos’ personal fortune has increased more than $30 billion so far this year.
As an essential business — albeit one selling much more than bare necessities — Amazon has kept most warehouses open even after employees have tested positive for COVID-19. The company has said it is following the recommendations of health officials on facility closures. But many of the company’s more than 840,000 employees, particularly its hourly workers living paycheck to paycheck, say they fear catching the virus at work. They say that their economic circumstances leave them no choice but to work.
Cunningham, Costa and other AECJ leaders draw a direct line from their activism on climate change to their support of warehouse workers, which they said has taken on an added urgency with the pandemic.
“We’re in the middle of both the climate crisis and a global pandemic,” Cunningham said. “This is the time to deeply care about one another. If we can’t fight for each other now, when can we?”
Scores of Amazon employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least one has died from the disease. The tech and warehouse workers mourned the death with a moment of silence at the beginning of Thursday’s web conference. They worry that the company’s response to the pandemic could become the blueprint for who is protected from the grinding impacts of climate change.
AECJ drew attention in 2019 for pushing Amazon to disclose its companywide greenhouse gas emissions and commit to science-based reductions. Cunningham presented the group’s first shareholder proposal at the company’s annual meeting last spring, pressing Bezos on climate directly.
Organizers said they have always been focused on climate inequities. That’s why they put climate justice in the group’s name and highlighted the “reduction of harm to the most vulnerable communities first,” among six principles laid out in an open letter to Bezos and the Amazon board of directors, co-signed by more than 8,700 employees a year ago. They were focusing on the impact of Amazon’s operations on the people working in and living around its facilities, even before the pandemic.
The group advanced another proposal, coming up for a vote at Amazon’s virtual shareholder meeting May 27, calling for a company report “to identify and reduce disproportionate environmental and health harms to communities of color, associated with past, present and future pollution from its delivery logistics and other operations.” The proposal cites several “majority minority” communities where Amazon facilities are located that also have poor air quality, and highlights a major Amazon hub in Southern California’s Inland Empire.
Sometimes called the nation’s shopping cart for its scores of retail and e-commerce warehouses, including 13 Amazon facilities, the area sees thousands of heavy trucks and dozens of flights a day, ferrying imported goods from the busy ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to be sorted, packed and shipped on to customers in the region and across the country.
The American Lung Association’s most recent State of the Air report gave San Bernardino County an “F” for ozone and small particle pollution, which cause a host of lung diseases. The Inland Empire suffered from unhealthy air long before Amazon began its rapid growth there about a decade ago, and while the company didn’t drive the transition to the warehousing and logistics industry by itself, it has emerged as one of the region’s largest employers.
Amazon is also a rumored tenant for a controversial air cargo expansion at the San Bernardino airport, which local community and environmental groups — including the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, which is working with AECJ — see as another potential blow to local health and are opposing with a lawsuit.
While the Inland Empire counties of Riverside and San Bernardino have not seen COVID-19 fatality rates exceed the national average, a recent analysis by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that people living and working in areas with poor air quality — specifically the fine particulates in diesel exhaust — are more likely to die of COVID-19.
“Before coronavirus, we already had a harder time fighting infections and disease, to the point of normalizing diseases like asthma, allergies,” said Anthony Victoria-Midence of the Center for Community Action. The longtime Inland Empire resident said he lost his mother to cancer. “It’s like a slow violence of the supply chain. The people that it’s hurting most are communities of color, people like my Mom.”
Earlier this month, Amazon employees in a San Bernardino warehouse found out that one of their number tested positive for COVID-19. One woman working there said, in an interview translated from Spanish by Victoria-Midence, that she worries she’s putting the health of her family at risk because of where she works. She has two daughters, 12 and 14, with asthma, elderly parents living with her and respiratory issues of her own.
The woman asked not to be named for fear of losing the $17-an-hour job she needs now more than ever, as her husband’s work is considered nonessential and the pandemic-wracked economy crumbles, leaving fewer alternatives.
She said the elevated coronavirus risk from air pollution is no surprise to someone living and working under smoggy skies, sharing albuterol inhalers with her kids for temporary relief. As a part-time Amazon employee, she doesn’t have health insurance. She said she wishes the company would do more.
AECJ activists want Amazon to eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions entirely by 2030. They fear that even as the company advances on the Climate Pledge that Bezos made last September to be “net carbon zero” by 2040, communities such as those in the Inland Empire will continue to be disproportionately harmed by air pollution. While the company plans to reduce emissions primarily through renewable energy and efficiency projects, the “net zero” goal still leaves room for pollution from air cargo flights, heavy trucking and other activities that don’t yet have scalable zero-emissions alternatives. The company intends to offset the emissions it can’t eliminate with projects that remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, such as planting trees.
Amazon wants to drive the market for zero-emissions vehicles, and ordered 100,000 electric package delivery vans from Rivian. The company’s board of directors, responding to the AECJ shareholder proposal, said Amazon is also investing in electrification of other equipment, including heavy haul trucks, and expects to have models on the road this year. A company spokesman said Amazon expects air cargo to become a smaller share of its delivery volume in the future and is seeking more sustainable fuels.
Bezos, who earlier this year committed $10 billion of his own fortune to fight climate change, said in his letter to shareholders last week that “Amazon faces significant challenges in achieving [the Climate Pledge] goal because we don’t just move information around—we have extensive physical infrastructure and deliver more than 10 billion items worldwide a year.” He nevertheless expressed confidence in Amazon’s ability to achieve the 2040 target — 10 years ahead of the decarbonization timeline in the Paris Agreement — and challenged other companies to do so too.