Not long ago, Amazon made Tim Bray the face of its Amazon Web Services and a rising star within its VP ranks. Today, Bray takes aim at the global retailer in a resignation announcement in solidarity with warehouse “whistleblowers” who lost their jobs by complaining about working conditions in the COVID-19 pandemic. The move will cost Bray a million dollars, he claims, but says Amazon has become “toxic” as it imposes “a climate of fear”:
Tim Bray, a well known senior engineer and Vice President at Amazon has “quit in dismay” because Amazon has been “firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.” In an open letter on his website, Bray, who has worked at the company for nearly six years, called the company “chickenshit” for firing and disparaging employees who have organized protests. He also said the firings are “designed to create a climate of fear.”
Amazon’s strategy throughout the coronavirus crisis has been to fire dissenters and disparage them both in the press and behind closed doors. There have been dozens of confirmed coronavirus cases at warehouses around the country, and workers have repeatedly said the company isn’t doing enough to protect them. Last week, Amazon ended a program that allowed workers to take unlimited unpaid time off if they fear getting sick from the coronavirus. Last Friday, Amazon workers together with Target, FedEx, Instacart, and Whole Foods workers, went on strike to protest their working conditions.
In statements to Motherboard, Amazon has said its own protesting workers are “spreading misinformation and making false claims about Amazon,” and that it “objects to the irresponsible actions of labor groups.” Last month, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker in New York City. In a meeting, Amazon executives said that they believe Smalls is not “smart or articulate,” and that publicly they would focus on “laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal,” according to leaked notes from that meeting obtained by VICE News.
We covered the Smalls protests at some length a few weeks ago. Even if Smalls intended them as a legit workplace-conditions protest, though, he undermined his own status as a whistleblower by twice breaking quarantine himself to conduct public protests. The effort seemed much more intended to force union organizing than public health, and to take advantage of the crisis to boost the former.
Bray also riffs on “21st century capitalism” as one of the ills that finally drove him out of Amazon:
Amazon’s messaging has been urgent that they are prioritizing this issue and putting massive efforts into warehouse safety. I actually believe this: I have heard detailed descriptions from people I trust of the intense work and huge investments. Good for them; and let’s grant that you don’t turn a supertanker on a dime.
But I believe the worker testimony too. And 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. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.
On one hand, Bray’s right that Amazon is engaged in a massive PR campaign to sell customers on safety. Their commercials are all over television, proclaiming their commitment to worker safety and by extension customer safety as well. They know full well that their COVID-19 windfall is at risk if their warehouses are perceived as potential hotspots for viral transmission. (As a customer, I’m disinfecting everything that comes into the house anyway, but that may not be a widespread practice at this point.)
On the other hand, it also sounds like Bray has a somewhat broader agenda in his resignation letter too, although he also sounds sincere about workplace concerns in the warehouses:
Last year, Amazonians on the tech side banded together as Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), first coming to the world’s notice with an open letter promoting a shareholders’ resolution calling for dramatic action and leadership from Amazon on the global climate emergency. I was one of its 8,702 signatories.
While the resolution got a lot of votes, it didn’t pass. Four months later, 3,000 Amazon tech workers from around the world joined in the Global Climate Strike walkout. The day before the walkout, Amazon announced a large-scale plan aimed at making the company part of the climate-crisis solution. It’s not as though the activists were acknowledged by their employer for being forward-thinking; in fact, leaders were threatened with dismissal.
Fast-forward to the Covid-19 era. Stories surfaced of unrest in Amazon warehouses, workers raising alarms about being uninformed, unprotected, and frightened. Official statements claimed every possible safety precaution was being taken. Then a worker organizing for better safety conditions was fired, and brutally insensitive remarks appeared in leaked executive meeting notes where the focus was on defending Amazon “talking points”. …
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.
I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?
What’s Bray saying here — that he helped run a racist, bigoted outfit? Were there non-POC/male activists who did the same thing but still kept their jobs? It sounds like Amazon wants people to actually work in its warehouses rather than operate them as Wokehouses. And it sounds as though Bray has a different set of priorities for Amazon than retail business and profit.
As for “21st century capitalism, how exactly did that change in the “five years and five months” since Bray joined Amazon? Wasn’t it the 21st century in late 2014 too? In the past couple of years, Amazon has passed along tax credits to workers in the form of higher wages (albeit with lower bonuses) and is one of the few companies that is still massively providing stable employment in a global economic meltdown. That’s not a bad record for “21st century capitalism,” especially when governments are temporarily shutting down competing markets by force around the world.
Give Bray this much credit, though — he puts his money where his mouth is. Bray’s not heckling from the cheap seats here; if he really stands to lose a million dollars in this resignation as he claims, he’s not going to find many ways to recoup that in this economy. Nor will future employers be all that keen on promoting someone who publicly blasted his previous employers as a bigoted and cruel operator in industry.
In happier days, AWS created this video featuring Bray to promote its forward thinking and its R&D. It didn’t get many views in November 2018, but it’ll get more than a few views today.