Professionalism/Tim Bray, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, and Amazon
Amazon is one of the richest companies in the world. Its success has propelled its founder Jeff Bezos to be one of the wealthiest individuals ever, with a 198 billion dollar net worth. The company has seen exponential growth, increasing from 340,000 employees in 2016, to 647,500 in 2018, and finally to 1,298,000 in 2020 . More than 800 processing centers are at its disposal throughout the US. The company has propelled itself to become such a titan of industry partly through treating its employees in unethical ways. A case of this can be seen in the story of Tim Bray, Maren Costa, and Emily Cunningham, which contains important lessons about professional responsibility.
Fulfillment Center ConditionsEdit
Employees have provided accounts of unsafe working conditions where they aren’t treated like humans or workers. Rather, they are considered a piece of data expected to provide unreasonable levels of output no matter what their personal ability is. Warehouse workers often have shifts lasting 10 or 11 hours straight, where they are standing essentially the entire time. Managers have shifts that can last up to 12-14 hours and are equally taxing . During this time, workers are expected to process a package once every 8-10 seconds, which adds up to a staggering 4,000 packages in a day .
They are given two 15 minute breaks, but the break rooms provided often take 10-15 minutes just to walk to and from. Their bathroom breaks are timed, and workers are tracked by an automated system and reprimanded if they take too long . Reports of working conditions have detailed that this resulted in workers resorting to peeing in bottles during their shifts . These practices have resulted in high injury rates as workers attempt to meet performance standards out of the range of their abilities.
Amazon attempts to divert attention from the poor working conditions they force on their employees. They instead point to their 15 dollar minimum wage, health insurance benefits, parental leave, and childcare programs .
Amazon Web ServicesEdit
Amazon Web Services is the other side to the company. It brought in 13.5 billion dollars of profit in 2020, making up 63 percent of the company’s profit.
In an article written for the publication Medium, an amazon engineer outlined his terrible experience working for the company. Their complaints included unnecessarily tight deadlines meant to motivate engineers to work faster, management caring more about how fast a project is completed rather than its quality, overburdened team members expected to complete multiple tasks at the same time, and managers controlling the trajectory of your career. Engineers are pitted against each other as the bottom 5-10 percent are fired in order to weed out the weak. This leads to coworkers actively sabotaging colleagues ideas to make themselves look better .
Other accounts of this side of the company detail it as a great place to work, where they emphasize a good work/life ratio. These accounts even say that Amazon has better working practices than other industry leaders . They credit Amazon’s leadership principles which promote workers putting in their best effort and inspire others to do the same. This leads the company’s products to be some of the most cutting edge and high quality .
Tim Bray is a Canadian software engineer who has made important contributions to his field, and is also an environmentalist and political activist. He was one of the creators of XML, which is widely used for transferring data across the internet. He worked as a Vice President of Amazon under the Amazon Web Services portion of the company. From his description of his time at Amazon, he loved working there and described it as a humane place where workers were treated ethically .
In 2019 a group of Amazon employees banded together to form Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ). Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham were two of the group's founders. They were user experience designers for Amazon, having fifteen years of Amazon experience between the two of them. Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham began their work in activism concerned about Amazon's role in contributing to climate change. The AECJ wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon board of directors detailing their issues and solutions for Amazon's climate policy. They sought to point out that:
- Amazon's previous goal to reach 100% renewable energy does not have a target date
- Amazon's Shipment Zero initiative only commits to net zero carbon, not an actual reduction
- Amazon has programs dedicated to assisting fuel companies expanding drilling operations and routinely makes donations to politicians that always oppose climate change legislation
Their solution was for Amazon to take an involved look at what the science community was saying and make timely goals that correspond with Amazon's responsibility as one of the larger contributors to the issue. Over 8,700 Amazon employees signed the petition, including high ranking Amazon managers. The letter came before the Amazon board of directors but was coted down. This resulted in the Global Climate Strike Walkout four months later on September 20, 2019, where some 3,000 Amazon workers walked out in protest. The day before the walkout, Amazon announced a new commitment to combating climate change by meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement ten years before it's target goal. Obviously Amazon knew when the Global Climate Strike Walkout was going to be. It is no coincidence the two events are only a day apart. Amazon's big splash took headlines by storm and drew negative attention away from their policies. By preemptively taking action, Amazon faced far less backlash and undermined the AECJ.
According to the Seattle Times, Costa was given a follow up email after one, telling the public through social media and news releases that Amazon was aiding oil exploration efforts and two, having a major part in organizing the Global Climate Strike Walkout, This email threatened that she could be fired if she continued to speak up. Facing these threats, she said “I spoke up because I’m terrified by the harm the climate crisis is already causing, and I fear for my children’s future.” and that “It’s our moral responsibility to speak up — regardless of Amazon’s attempt to censor us — especially when climate poses such an unprecedented threat to humanity.”
Activism and AftermathEdit
Warehouse workers reached out to the AECJ for help regarding the safety situation in the warehouses during COVID-19. Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, and others in the AECJ internally circulated a petition for better worker conditions, including more paid days off, fewer workers in the warehouse to facilitate social distancing, and other investments on Amazon's part to increase safety. In addition, Costa and Cunningham organized an open-to-public town hall with Amazon warehouse employees from across the world to discuss conditions and what could be done. On April 10, 2019, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham sent out internal announcements for the event, and were immediately fired. This news came only days after also posting to Twitter criticizing Amazon's coronavirus safety in warehouses and offering to match up to $500 dollars in donations towards worker safety. Amazon representatives insist to this day that the two were not fired for criticizing Amazon’s worker conditions, but rather because of repeatedly breaking internal company rules such as intimidation and social distancing. Despite the removal of AECJ leaders, the worker town hall went on as planned on April 24th, 2020, and can be watched here.
In response, on May 1st, 2020, Tim Bray snapped. After filing complaints through the proper channels internally, he resigned. Bray said, "remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised."  He characterized Amazon's decision to not object to the town hall, demand outsiders be excluded, or that leadership was represented, but rather just to fire the leaders was "evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture." He chose not to drink that poison.
On May 6th, 2020, several democratic senators including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris sent Bezos a letter pointing out the trend of public whistleblowers getting fired, including Costa and Cunningham, and raised the question of whether or not these former employees were truly justified in being let go.
On April 5th, 2021, a full year after their firing, the Seattle Branch of the National Labor Relations Board found that Amazon had illegally retaliated against Costa and Cunningham, saying they would force Amazon to settle or be brought before an administrative law judge under the claim of unfair labor practices.
Amazon has a long history of cutting corners in order to maintain profit margins, which have led to problems in safety, employee wellbeing, and ethical standing. As seen in cases like Boeing's 737-MAX, dire consequences can arise from companies being too concerned with profits and engineers being too worried about their careers. Even though Tim Bray was not directly in charge of COVID-19 safety in warehouses, he still felt like he could not continue to work at company who’s corner cutting practices put lives at risk. He felt like he needed to resign in order to bring attention to the worker’s conditions.
Being a whistle blower is often a career ending decision. Look no further than Rebekah Jones who was fired for not lying to the public or Edward Snowden who was fired and ostracized for exposing unconstitutional government actions. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa put their morals before job security, even when the responsibility wasn't theirs. As professionals, each of these people shouldered the responsibility of defending their peers' integrity and speaking up when their lives were at risk. The GitHub Employee Dismissal of January 8 is another example where an employee was unfairly fired. Fortunately they had the backing of many of their coworkers who saw this dismissal as a violation of their code of ethics. Careerism is a dangerous mentality and, as time has show, detrimental to the well being of life and liberty.
- Sabanoglu, T. (2021) Statista. Number of Amazon.com Employees 2007-2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/234488/number-of-amazon-employees/
- Lieber, C. (2018) Vox. The Human Cost of Labor, Explained by a Former Amazon Employee. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/11/20/18103516/black-friday-cyber-monday-amazon-fulfillment-center
- Solman, P., Koromvokis, L. (2021) PBS News Hour. A Look Into Amazon’s Employee Conditions as the Company Pushes Back Against Unionization. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/a-look-into-amazons-employee-conditions-as-the-company-pushes-back-against-unionization
- Picchi, A (2021). CBS News. Amazon Apologizes for denying that its drivers pee in bottles. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/amazon-drivers-peeing-in-bottles-union-vote-worker-complaints/
- Amazon (2021) Employee Benefits. https://www.aboutamazon.com/workplace/employee-benefits
- Geek Wire (2021) Amazon Web Services posts record $13.5B in profits for 2020 in Andy Jassy’s AWS swan song. https://www.geekwire.com/2021/amazon-web-services-posts-record-13-5b-profits-2020-andy-jassys-aws-swan-song/
- The Amazonian (2019) Medium. The Process Behind Amazon's Draconian Culture. https://medium.com/@theamazonian15/the-processes-behind-amazons-draconian-culture-e0fdfb6fb77
- Kim, E. (2016) Business Insider. Here's what people say about working at AWS, Amazon’s profit-pumping $12 billion cloud business. https://www.businessinsider.com/what-its-like-to-work-at-amazon-web-services-2016-11
- Amazon (2021) Amazon Jobs. Leadership Principles. https://www.amazon.jobs/en/principles
- Bray, T. (2020) Bye, Amazon. https://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/202x/2020/04/29/Leaving-Amazon
- Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (April 10, 2019). Open letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors. https://amazonemployees4climatejustice.medium.com/public-letter-to-jeff-bezos-and-the-amazon-board-of-directors-82a8405f5e38
- Greene, Jay (April 14, 2020). Amazon fires two tech workers who criticized the company’s warehouse workplace conditions. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/04/13/amazon-workers-fired/
- Conger, Kate (May 7, 2020). Senators Want to Know if Amazon Retaliated Against Whistle-Blowers. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/07/technology/amazon-coronavirus-whistleblowers.html
- Sillars, James (October 29, 2019). Boeing accused of 'cutting corners' over crisis-hit 737 MAX. https://news.sky.com/story/boeing-accused-of-cutting-corners-over-crisis-hit-737-max-11848370
- NPR (June 29, 2020). Florida Scientist Says She Was Fired For Not Manipulating COVID-19 Data. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/29/884551391/florida-scientist-says-she-was-fired-for-not-manipulating-covid-19-data
- Tsingos, Dimitris (Oct. 16, 2018). An illness called careerism. https://www.starttech.vc/blog/2018/illness-called-careerism/