Hundreds of Amazon employees have openly violated the company’s communications policy by publicly criticizing their employer, in what is arguably the largest act of collective disobedience yet by white collar workers at a major tech company.
On Monday, more than 30 Amazon employees, identified by their names, appeared in a video speaking out against the policy while holding signs that read: “We will not be silenced.”
“Amazon employees are hired for our ability to have backbone, to speak up when we hear something wrong,” the narrator of the video says. “Now...Amazon wants to silence us for speaking out to the press and on social media.”
The action began on Sunday when the Amazon worker-led environmental justice group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice published quotes from 357 Amazon workers, using their full names and job titles, in a post on Medium. The workers defended colleagues who have faced threats of termination from the company for criticizing the company’s climate footprint.
In early September—following an announcement of a mass walkout at Amazon in protest of the company’s carbon footprint —Amazon updated its external communications policy to prohibit employees from speaking publicly about the company without obtaining approval from higher-ups. The new policy requires employees who want to speak publicly about the company to provide a “business justification” and receive approval through a page on the company’s internal network—a process which can take up to two weeks. (Previously, Amazon’s communications policy, which required approval from senior vice presidents, had not been routinely enforced for activists.)
The letter and video are unprecedented protests for white collar tech workers. While workers at a handful of tech companies have publicly criticized their employers on their sexual harassment policies, military and immigration enforcement contracts, and ties to the oil and gas industries, this likely marks the first mass action at a major tech company in open defiance of company policy.
“As Amazon workers, we are responsible for not only the success of the company, but its impact as well,” Sarah Tracy, a software engineer at Amazon, wrote in one of the Medium posts. "It’s our moral responsibility to speak up, and the changes to the communications policy are censoring us from exercising that responsibility. Now is not the time to silence employees, especially when the climate crisis poses such an unprecedented threat to humanity.”
The action also illustrates the power of safety in numbers. Amazon workers are betting that the company won’t take action against them, even though it has threatened to do so against individual workers—because firing hundreds of engineers would be inconvenient and costly to the company.
“While all employees are welcome to engage constructively with any of the many teams inside Amazon that work on sustainability and other topics, we do enforce our external communications policy and will not allow employees to publicly disparage or misrepresent the company or the hard work of their colleagues who are developing solutions to these hard problems,” an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard.
It’s worth noting that in recent months, Google has hired an anti-union consulting firm and fired five engineers for violating internal policies. Those fired employees allege the company was retaliating against them for organizing, and have since filed federal complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
If Amazon workers have learned anything in recent months, it’s that collective action works. Following the announcement of a mass climate walkout led by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice in September, Jeff Bezos pledged to eliminate the company’s carbon footprint by 2040. “The day before we walked out, Amazon announced the climate pledge. We were the farthest behind our peers and now we are finally taking real steps,” the narrator of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice’s new video says. “This is only because we spoke up as employees.”