Bezos says Amazon should “do a better job for our employees” after union vote

A man in a suit gestures during a presentation.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos used his final letter to Amazon shareholders to focus on employee well-being and the company’s significant carbon footprint.

Bezos’ new emphasis on employee well-being comes on the heels of a contentious unionization vote at one of its warehouses in Bessemer, Alabama. Though Amazon won, with 1,798 employees voting against unionizing out of 3,041 total ballots cast, participation was low, with just over half of eligible voters participating. Labor organizers have made it clear that even if unionization votes continue to go against them, they’ll keep pressuring Amazon through other means.

That strategy may be working. Bezos dedicates a significant portion of his letter to both the unionization vote and to employee well-being. Whereas Bezos wrote a single paragraph about a tuition reimbursement program three years ago, he wrote nearly 1,200 words about pay rates, employee satisfaction, and workplace safety this year.

“Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t,” Bezos wrote. “I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees—a vision for their success.”

Among his proposals are new staffing rotations that he hopes will reduce repetitive stress injuries at warehouses. Injuries aren’t uncommon at warehouses—many actions are repeated hundreds of times per day—but Amazon’s fulfillment centers seem to be particularly prone to injuries, according to an investigation by Reveal. Because Amazon’s warehouse robots move quickly, workers move faster, too, giving their muscles less time to rest between repeated movements.

Bezos also touts the company’s decision to increase Amazon’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, a rate that labor groups have been advocating for since at least 2012. He cites a recent study that says that pay in low-wage areas increased by 4.7 percent when the company bumped rates to $15 per hour.

Climate Pledge

Amazon’s enormous carbon footprint has also drawn scrutiny in recent years, and Bezos again spills a fair number of bytes discussing the matter. The company’s carbon footprint surged in 2019 to over 51 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is only about 6 percent less than Peru’s annual emissions. 

Bezos points out that Amazon helped co-found the Climate Pledge, which commits companies to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. As part of that pledge, Amazon has installed or purchased 6.9 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity that produce 20 million gigawatt-hours of electricity per year. The company has also invested $1 billion in automaker Rivian and has placed an order with the startup for 100,000 electric delivery vans. By 2030, the EVs will shave the company’s footprint by an estimated 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Amazon has also invested $2 billion in a climate tech fund, and Bezos himself has committed $10 billion in grants for climate-oriented companies and organizations.

The Climate Pledge also calls for companies to offset emissions “to compensate for economic activities where low-carbon alternatives don’t exist,” Bezos wrote. Offsets span a range of activities, from planting trees and protecting forests to burning methane from landfills, though most revolve around trees. As a whole, offsets are contentious because of a number of their shortcomings. Some offsets might end up being double-counted, others may not be as permanent as originally intended, and still others may count forests that were already protected, which won’t lead to any net reductions. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has recently come under fire for the way it was calculating offsets from its program, which includes many properties it already owned and protected.

End of an era

This letter is Bezos’ last, since he will be stepping down as CEO later this year, more than 20 years after founding the company that has changed e-commerce. He left an indelible mark on Amazon—one that isn’t likely to fade, as he’s not really leaving. Rather, he’ll be serving as executive chair, a role that will find him overseeing the board and advising the incoming CEO, current AWS head Andy Jassy.

“In my upcoming role as Executive Chair, I’m going to focus on new initiatives. I’m an inventor,” Bezos wrote.