Amazon employees call for online walkout to protest working conditions amid coronavirus pandemic

Employees who want to join the walkout would all take a day off en masse, currently scheduled for April 24

Published April 17, 2020 7:56PM (EDT)

Amazon Echo Dot (AP/Mike Stewart)
Amazon Echo Dot (AP/Mike Stewart)

A group of current and former Amazon employees have called for an "online walkout" to protest the company's alleged mistreatment of workers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Employees who want to join the walkout would all take a day off en masse, currently scheduled for April 24.

A worker advocacy organization called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice is behind the protest, which was announced during an online panel the group hosted Thursday, CNBC reported. Amazon fired two of the group's leaders, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, for "repeatedly violating internal policies" last Friday. The employees — both tech workers and company veterans — claim they were sacked as retribution for their steady criticism of the company and circulating an employee petition that brought attention to warehouse working conditions.

The walkout is an attempt to pressure the company's infamously restrictive brass to revise policies, which protesters claim are intended to intimidate workers from speaking out. Protest leaders also want the company to make its temporary pandemic benefits and raises permanent, publish a list of all coronavirus cases discovered at its facilities and rehire all workers fired "based on selective enforcement of policies and behavior guidelines."

Amazon last month fired Chris Smalls, who organized a walkout at the company's Staten Island warehouse, which had reported a coronavirus case, in protest over protective equipment and pay rates during the pandemic. The company said it fired Smith for "violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk."

Worker advocacy groups and political officials blasted Amazon for the firing. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called it "disgraceful," an accusation echoed in a tweet from New York Attorney General Tish James, who said she was weighing possible legal remedies.

It is illegal for a company to retaliate against employees for trying to organize in the workplace to "improve terms and conditions of employment," even without a union.

In notes from an Amazon executive meeting, which CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly attended, general counsel David Zapolsky argued in advance why the company should fire Smalls, who is black.

"He's not smart or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we're trying to protect workers," Zapolsky wrote in a leaked memo obtained by Vice News.

Amazon fired another warehouse worker this month for staging a protest in Minnesota. However, the company maintains that none of the firings were in retaliation.

"We want to tell Amazon that we are sick of all this – sick of the firings, sick of the silencing, sick of pollution, sick of racism and sick of the climate crisis," Costa said during Thursday's online panel, which was covered by CNBC.

She also claimed that Amazon had deleted internal email invitations to the panel, which the organizers set up as part of an effort to establish dialogue between hundreds of Amazon corporate employees and company warehouse and fulfillment workers.

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice has successfully lobbied the company in the past. They helped convince Bezos last year to announce policies committing the world's largest retailer to meeting the objectives of the Paris accord 10 years in advance

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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