Amazon vice president resigns to protest firing of employee activists
May 4, 2020 Updated Mon., May 4, 2020 at 6:55 p.m.
Tim Bray, a veteran technologist and one of Amazon’s top engineers, resigned from what he called “the best job I’ve ever had” to protest the company’s dismissal of two leaders of an employee climate group who had spoken out about treatment of warehouse workers.
He described the firings as “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.”
“I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19,” Bray said in a post on his personal blog late Sunday, noting he was walking away from over $1 million in pretax income and stock, and from valued colleagues.
Bray, a vice president and distinguished engineer, objected to the terminations of Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, leaders of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, or AECJ, on April 10, as well as of warehouse workers who have organized walkouts. Bray was the highest ranked of more than 8,700 Amazon employees to sign an AECJ letter in spring 2019 urging CEO Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s board of directors to take the lead on climate change. His climate activism includes protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline project, for which he was arrested in 2018.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Costa and Cunningham circulated petitions from warehouse workers seeking improved safety conditions and policies, helped organize video conferences in which warehouse workers could share their experiences with Amazon’s tech and corporate employees and called for employees to take a sick day in protest. The women and other AECJ leaders see a direct link between climate change, air pollution and elevated COVID-19 risks.
Amazon said Costa and Cunningham were fired for repeatedly violating company policies.
Bray called the company’s justifications “laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing.”
He said he made his objections known “through the proper channels and by the book” internally. “That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised,” Bray said. “So I resigned.” He told the New York Times he had no specific goals for publicizing his decision and didn’t expect it to receive much notice.
Bray worked as a senior principal technologist for Amazon Web Services in the company’s Vancouver, B.C., office, beginning in December 2014, following more than three decades in computer science that included stints at Sun Microsystems and Google and contributions to an important internet specification in the late 1990s. At Amazon, he was promoted to vice president and distinguished engineer, joining a small group of individuals recognized as the company’s top technical talent and leaders.
Amazon had no comment on Bray’s resignation. The company has hundreds of vice presidents, but a spokesperson would not say how many people at the company hold the distinguished engineer title. A LinkedIn search of Amazon employees who list their title as “distinguished engineer” returns eight results. Amazon has more than 935,000 full- and part-time employees globally, most of whom are hourly employees in the company’s enormous retail fulfillment and logistics business.
Bray said he believes the testimony of frightened warehouse workers, and also Amazon’s corporate messaging that the company is “prioritizing this issue and putting massive efforts into warehouse safety. … I have heard detailed descriptions from people I trust of the intense work and huge investments.” (Bezos said last week that Amazon’s costs for coronavirus response could reach $4 billion in the current quarter alone.)
Bray said the underlying issue is not how Amazon is handling COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, but something more fundamental to the power structures in the company and the system in which it flourishes. He said that while Amazon is “exceptionally well-managed” and skilled at finding and exploiting business opportunities, the company “has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”
“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response,” Bray said. “It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”
He suggested the company’s power could be reined in through “a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced.”
Bray noted that his experience working in Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company’s highly profitable cloud-computing division, is vastly different from that of the hourly workers in the company’s warehouses and delivery stations, who “are weak and getting weaker, what with mass unemployment and (in the US) job-linked health insurance. So they’re gonna get treated like crap, because capitalism.”
AWS, by contrast, treats employees humanely, strives to provide work-life balance, has tried to improve diversity in its ranks and “is by and large an ethical organization,” he said.
“Of course, its workers have power,” Bray said. “The average pay is very high, and anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better.”
Bray said he didn’t know what he would do next. His last day at Amazon was May 1. “I’m sad, but I’m breathing more freely.”
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