Amazon employees walk out, seeking bolder climate action and end of return-to-office policy – GeekWire

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Kurt Schlosser
2023-05-31 15:40:39

A crowd gathers outside the Seattle Spheres on Wednesday as part of a planned walkout of Amazon employees. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Some Amazon employees in Seattle and other offices around the world walked out in protest Wednesday, urging the company to take bolder climate action and to reconsider its return-to-office policies.

Shortly after noon, a few hundred people had gathered for a rally in the courtyard outside the Seattle Spheres, near the company’s Day 1 headquarters tower, holding signs such as “Save the World, Stay Home,” “Amazon: Strive Harder,” and “Short-Term Thinking = Lost Trust,” and “Earth’s Best Employer? Stop the PR & Listen to Us.”

Similar protests were expected at other Amazon locations. Organizers said in advance that more than 1,900 employees had signed up to participate globally, including about 900 employees in Seattle.

Amazon has more than 65,000 corporate and tech employees in the Seattle area, part of a workforce of 350,000 corporate and tech employees worldwide.

One of the speakers in Seattle was Pamela Hayter, who has has been at Amazon eight years. She created the internal Slack channel that attracted 33,000 employees expressing frustration over the company’s return-to-office policy.

Amazon employee Pamela Hayter, who created the internal Slack channel about the company’s return-to-office policy, speaks to the crowd in Seattle on Wednesday. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Speaking to the crowd, Hayter said she initially wondered if there were others who felt like she did. She drew loud cheers when she called the channel “the largest concrete expression of employee dissatisfaction in our entire company history!”

The walkout, organized by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice and Amazon Remote Advocacy, is an unusual display of discontent from Amazon employees, who have traditionally been reluctant to publicly criticize the company.

“We are here because we want to build a better Amazon. Let’s make our voices heard by Andy Jassy and the S team,” said Emily Cunningham, co-founder of the climate group, using the internal name for the company’s senior leadership team. “This is our world! This is our company!”

Emily Cunningham, co-founder of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, addresses the crowd. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The groups sought to assure employees in advance that the walkout was a legally protected activity, precluding the company from retaliating against them if they took part. They said they would proceed with the walkout if at least 1,000 employees signed up in advance to join them.

On climate issues, the groups demanded that climate impact be “put at the forefront” of Amazon’s decision-making, and described the company’s Climate Pledge as “broken, in so many ways.”

“From severely undercounting our footprint to disproportionately polluting communities of color, to increasing carbon emissions 40% since 2019, to killing clean energy legislation, it’s clear that leadership still sees climate impact as an inconvenience rather than a strategic focus,” they wrote on a web page.

In a statement before the walkout, Amazon spokesperson Brad Glasser said the company is continuing to “push hard” to become carbon neutral by 2040.

“While we all would like to get there tomorrow, for companies like ours who consume a lot of power, and have very substantial transportation, packaging, and physical building assets, it’ll take time to accomplish,” he said. “We remain on track to get to 100% renewable energy by 2025, and will continue investing substantially, inventing and collaborating both internally and externally to reach our goal.”

Some employees are pressing Amazon to take bolder climate action. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The walkout comes amid a broader power struggle between workers and major tech companies that have been bringing employees back to the office, in some cases against their wishes, after collectively cutting tens of thousands of jobs.

Amazon on May 1 started requiring workers to return to the office at least three days a week. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy resisted internal pressure from employees to reconsider the policy, citing the benefits of in-person collaboration and serendipitous interactions.

“Amazon’s top-down, one-size-fits-all RTO mandate undermines the diverse, accessible future that we want to be a part of,” said the Amazon employee groups on the walkout web page.

They added, “Amazon must return autonomy to its teams, who know their employees and customers best, to make the best decision on remote, in-person, or hybrid work, and to its employees to choose a team which enables them to work the way they work best.”

A wide-angle photo of the crowd of protesters and media outside Amazon headquarters. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Many worker signs said the return-to-office mandate and commuting ran counter to the company’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

“It took me 1 hour, 40 minutes to come use the same internet I have at home,” one man’s sign read.

Amazon stood by its policy in advance of the walkout.

“We’re always listening and will continue to do so, but we’re happy with how the first month of having more people back in the office has been,” Amazon spokesperson Glasser said in a statement this week, citing positive feedback from employees and nearby businesses about the “energy, collaboration, and connections.”

A person outside Amazon headquarters wears a shirt favoring remote work. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

He added, “We understand that it’s going to take time to adjust back to being in the office more and there are a lot of teams at the company working hard to make this transition as smooth as possible for employees.”

The company in January announced an 18,000-person layoff, the largest in its history. An additional 9,000 layoffs were announced in March, bringing the total to 27,000 employees, focused primarily on its corporate and technology workforce at its Seattle headquarters and other offices around the world.

Amazon’s total employee base, including warehouse workers, numbered 1.47 million at the end of March, down 10% from the prior year.

Developing story, check back for updates.

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