An Amazon VP’s resignation has cast a spotlight on the company’s working conditions

In the latest instance of unrest at the company, several thousand Amazon workers walked off the job Friday. The occasion was International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, and the Amazonians joined workers at Instacart, FedEx, Target, and Walmart demanding better conditions for work that the government has deemed essential, and their own employers have frequently called heroic.

The protests to date have drawn attention to widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 in Amazon warehouses, the lack of protective equipment for warehouse personnel, and the low pay and draconian sick-leave policies that workers in fulfillment centers have endured for years. And they’ve been effective in at least two ways. One, Amazon increased pay and expanded sick leave as the pandemic spread. And two, as I noted here last month, they have created a sense of solidarity between Amazon’s fulfillment center workers and its white-collar workforce, which has increasingly been willing to speak out on their behalf.

Amazon played down the effectiveness of the walkout. “While there was tremendous media coverage of the protests we saw no measurable impact on operations,” the company told me. “Health and safety is our top priority and we expect to spend more than $800 million in the first half of the year on COVID-19 safety measures.”

But on Monday, we saw one of the most striking acts of solidarity between Amazon workers to date. Tim Bray, a well known technologist who served as a vice president at Amazon Web Services and held the title of distinguished engineer, quit the company in protest of the treatment of his coworkers. In a scathing blog post, Bray accused Amazon of repeatedly firing warehouse workers on flimsy pretexts after they complained about working conditions in public. (Amazon denies retaliating against the employees.) Bray writes:

Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power. If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails 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. […]

Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function 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.

Bray’s cannonball of a blog post landed just days after Amazon, historically clumsy at public relations, had begun to show signs that it was reading the room. With more scrutiny developing around both its working conditions and its pandemic-related surge in revenue, the company took pains not to appear as if it were profiteering off the recession. Here’s Cameron Faulkner and Jacob Kastrenakes:

Amazon expects to spend $4 billion or more — the predicted operating profit for the company’s entire coming quarter — just on COVID-19-related expenses. In a quarterly earnings release today, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the expenses will come from spending on personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning for facilities, “higher wages for hourly teams,” and expanding its own COVID-19 testing capabilities. […]

Bezos’ note tries to make Amazon sound serious about “keeping employees safe,” telling shareholders to “take a seat” while the company ramps up this spending. “The best investment we can make is in the safety and well-being of our hundreds of thousands of employees,” Bezos writes.

This is the right thing to do, of course, even if it’s also in the company’s best interests. It’s notable to me less for the size of investment, however large, than for the way it acknowledges and responds to mounting external pressures on the company. For its first two decades, Amazon was able to evade sustained scrutiny by robotically repeating its mantra of “customer obsession.” In the COVID-19 era, the company has finally been forced to find some new words.

A series of investigative reports in the press and regulatory pressure from Congress have surely played their part in the shift. But the real pressure to change has come from Amazon’s own workers. Tech giants can’t stay ahead of their competition without a brilliant, motivated, mission-driven workforce — and brilliant, motivated, mission-driven people tend to be highly sensitive to the treatment of their coworkers. Amazon is yielding to its workers because, in this fraught moment, workers have real leverage.

Facebook learned this lesson in 2018. The Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal, along with outrage over Russian interference on the platform during the 2016 US presidential election, ravaged internal morale. This, in turn, made it harder for Facebook to recruit — with acceptances of Facebook job offers dropping as much as 50 percent in 2019. And it led to a series of high-profile denunciations from company co-founders, early employees, and top executives.

That’s what makes Bray’s exit so significant. It signals the arrival of a new moment in Amazon’s crisis — one of open dissent at the upper echelons of the company. Amazon famously asks employees on the losing end of an argument to “disagree and commit.” Bray suggests that at least on the subject of working conditions, high-level employees who disagree would rather clear out.