Amazon exec quits after company fires employee activists

Former Amazon vice-president Tim Bray has quit his role at AWS, sacrificing his salary and shares, in response to the way that Amazon has dealt with employee activists in recent months.

Tim Bray, a vice-president and engineer at Amazon Web Services (AWS) published a blogpost on Friday 1 May announcing that he has decided to quit his job after more than five years working at Amazon.

Bray said that by stepping down from the role and losing his big tech salary and shares, this decision will likely cost him “a million (pre-tax) dollars, not to mention the best job I’ve ever had”.

The former AWS vice-president cited a number of recent firings as his reason for quitting, referring to action that the company took against workers who publicly criticised the company’s environmental policies, as well as those who spoke out about working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Internal meeting notes

Bray wrote that during the Covid-19 era, many Amazon warehouse workers began to raise alarms about being “uninformed, unprotected and frightened” as they carried out their work. While official statements claimed every possible safety precaution was being taken, Bray notes that an employee organising for better safety conditions was fired.

Bray said that “brutally insensitive remarks appeared in leaked executive meeting notes”, which were later published by Vice News.  The remarks referred to warehouse employee Christian Smalls, who was involved in an Amazon worker’s union.

According to the leaked documents, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky said that Smalls is “not smart, or articulate”. Zapolsky added: “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.”

The engineer said that he “snapped” after learning about the remarks and that two Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) leaders were fired for promoting an internal petition and organising a video call featuring warehouse workers from across the world.

Resigning from Amazon

These actions grated on Bray, who said that he followed internal protocol to escalate that matter “through the proper channels and by the book”, as he believes that “VPs shouldn’t go publicly rogue.”

He said: “Management could have objected to the event, or demanded that outsiders be excluded or that leadership be represented, or any number of other things; there was plenty of time. Instead, they just fired the activists.”

“The victims weren’t abstract entities but real people; here are some of their names: Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed and Chris Smalls,” Bray wrote. “I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of colour, a woman, or both. Right?”

Bray said that after making his internal complaints about the company’s actions towards individuals who were fired or mocked, he decided to step down from his position.

“Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned,” he wrote.

What Bray hopes to achieve

The AWS engineer pointed out that it is not just employees who are concerned about conditions in Amazon warehouses right now, but also Attorneys-general from 14 US states. Bray shared a nine-hour video chat session held by AECJ activists in a number of different countries, including Poland, Germany, France and the US.

While Bray has heard detailed descriptions from people he trusts at Amazon, highlighting the “intense work and huge investments” going towards improving worker safety at warehouses, he said: “But I believe the worker testimony too.”

“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” Bray said. “Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”

The engineer said that if people are unhappy with what Amazon is doing, then legal guardrails need to be put in place to stop those things.

“We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward. Don’t say it can’t be done, because France is doing it,” Bray added.

While the engineer said that AWS treats workers quite differently to Amazon’s warehouses, helping them to find a work-life balance, this arm of the business “struggles to move the diversity needle”,  but beyond that he admires AWS leadership.

“The average pay is very high, and anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better,” Bray said.

However, the former AWS vice-president said: “Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the functions of free markets. It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.”

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