Amazon illegally fired two employees who pushed for climate, labor action

An Amazon logo falls apart and catches fire.

Nearly a year ago, Amazon fired two employees who had criticized the company. The employees had publicly called on the company to do more to reduce its carbon footprint and had circulated a petition among Amazon employees supporting better compensation and support for warehouse workers. Now, the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, has found that Amazon acted illegally and in retaliation when it fired them, according to a report from The New York Times.

Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa were both designers at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, and their tussles with management began in 2018 when they joined a group of employees who vocally backed shareholder petitions urging the company to do more to combat climate change. (The group had received Amazon stock as part of its compensation.)

They and a handful of other employees rallied others to the cause. On September 20, 2018, thousands of employees walked out in protest of the company’s climate policies. Lawyers told Cunningham, Costa, and others that in speaking out, they had violated company policies that restrict employees from talking about Amazon publicly. The group ultimately wrote an open letter, which was signed by more than 8,700 Amazon workers, to CEO Jeff Bezos and the board of directors.

A little over a year later, as the pandemic gained steam, Cunningham and Costa grew concerned about conditions in Amazon’s warehouses. There, workers whose jobs were strenuous under normal conditions were under greater stress due to the pandemic. Supply chains across the world had been snarled, and many people under lockdowns turned to Amazon. Order volumes surged, increasing workloads at the fulfillment centers. Warehouse workers’ status as “essential” kept them picking orders even after their colleagues had been diagnosed with COVID-19. In one warehouse in Minnesota, infection rates were four times higher than in the surrounding community.

Cunningham and Costa joined with other Amazon tech employees to circulate petitions internally that sought expanded hazard pay, sick leave, and childcare for warehouse employees. The group also planned a virtual event for warehouse and tech workers, allowing the latter to hear firsthand about the former’s working conditions.

Shortly thereafter, Amazon fired both Cunningham and Costa, claiming that they had been “repeatedly violating internal policies.” The two women filed complaints with the NLRB.

The NLRB recently told Amazon that if it did not settle the complaints with Cunningham and Costa, the agency would formally accuse the company of unfair labor practices. Such cases can result in settlements, injunctions, or remedial orders.

Increasing scrutiny

The NLRB determination has come at a time when Amazon is under increasing scrutiny for the way it deals with its employees—and for how it responds to such criticism. Amazon recently settled another NLRB complaint, this time with a warehouse worker who helped organize a walkout at a Queens, New York, fulfillment center. Jonathan Bailey, the worker, says he was falsely accused of harassment in a company bid to stifle his union-organizing activities. He continues to work at the same Amazon warehouse, and Amazon has had to post notices reminding employees of their right to organize.

Amazon has been aggressively defending its actions in the court of public opinion. Amazon PR’s Twitter account was recently filled with a number of tweets that were so confrontational that a security engineer at the company filed a support ticket because he thought the account had been hacked. One of those tweets questioned the veracity of reports saying that Amazon employees and contractors used bottles to relieve themselves while on the job. “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” the tweet said in reply to a message posted by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI). The company later posted an apology to the congressman. “The tweet was incorrect,” Amazon said.

Bailey’s, Cunningham’s, and Costa’s cases are just three of at least 37 NLRB complaints filed against Amazon since February 2020, according to an NBC News investigation, which points out that Walmart had only eight over the same time period.

Typically, NLRB complaints are handled at each of its 26 regional offices. But the sheer number filed against Amazon has the agency considering a national investigation into the company’s labor practices.