Amazon illegally fired two activists in a “David vs. Goliath” fight.
Claims of unfair labor practices at Amazon have become very common over the last few years. Although Amazon’s starting wage of 15$ an hour is twice the federal minimum in the US, the working conditions and the labor practices implemented by the Seattle based company have raised concerns in Washington and elsewhere.
The scrutiny intensified after Amazon fired two employees after they publicly denounced the treatment of warehouse workers during the pandemic. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa were fired after having circulated, among the workers at Amazon, a petition that aimed at raising awareness of the health risks faced during the Covid crisis.
“I don’t regret standing up with my co-workers,” Costa stated. “This is about human lives, and the future of humanity. In this crisis, we must stand up for what we believe in, have hope, and demand from our corporations and employers a basic decency that’s been lacking in this crisis.”
The two activists had publicly pushed the company to reduce its carbon emission and its environmental impact. In fact, they received multiple warnings for the way they publicly addressed Amazon’s practices regarding environmental issues. In April 2019, together with Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, they coordinated an open letter signed by over 8700 employees in which they criticized Amazon’s climate records.
Amazon’s response was very aggressive. In addition to the firing of the two activists, the company also deleted all invitations regarding a virtual event in which workers could have freely expressed their concerns over the working conditions during the pandemic.
“We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against our internal policies, all of which are lawful,” said Jaci Anderson, an Amazon spokeswoman. “We terminated these employees not for talking publicly about working conditions, safety or sustainability but, rather, for repeatedly violating internal policies.”
This firing was followed by other cases of employees that were removed after having spoken out about the unsafe conditions at Amazon. In all these instances, the company “admitted nothing and conceded nothing” as Tim Bray, former VP at Amazon stated. After the two women were fired, several democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, wrote Amazon to express their concerns over the company’s retaliation.
This event is just a part of a broader picture involving the potential formation of working unions in Amazon’s warehouses. The retail giant engaged in an aggressive anti-union campaign through posters, text messages and compulsory meetings during working hours. In the meantime, the NLRB should scrutinise closely whether those tactics already breached laws.
Although Amazon has won the first round of the fight against the efforts to unionise its Alabama warehouse, the consequences of this turmoil may reach well beyond the boundaries of this case. The results of this fight could alter the shape of the labor movement and one of America’s largest private employers.
The National Labor Relations Board has determined that Amazon illegally retaliated against the two internal critics and informed Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Costa that it would accuse Amazon of unfair labor practices if the company did not settle the case. “It’s a moral victory and really shows that we are on the right side of history and the right side of the law,” Ms. Cunningham said.
This story shows how big employers who fail to treat staff fairly, and those who arbitrage rules to manipulate gig workers, will rightly come under mounting pressure.