December 1, 2023

SEATTLE – Amazon illegally battled two of its most prominent internal critics when it fired them last year, the National Labor Relations Board found.

Employees Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa had publicly urged the company to reduce its impact on climate change and address concerns about warehouse workers.

Agency staff told Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Costa that they would accuse Amazon of unfair labor practices if the company did not resolve the case. This emerges from correspondence Ms. Cunningham shared with the New York Times. The case would then go to an administrative judge.

“It is a moral victory and it really shows that we are on the right side of history and the right side of the law,” said Ms. Cunningham.

The two women were among dozens of Amazon workers who told the Labor Department of the company’s retaliation last year, but in most of the other cases the workers had complained about the safety of pandemics.

“We support the right of every employee to criticize the working conditions of their employer, but that does not imply blanket immunity from our internal guidelines, which are all lawful,” said Jaci Anderson, a spokeswoman for Amazon. “We fired these employees because they did not speak publicly about working conditions, safety or sustainability, but because they repeatedly violated internal guidelines.”

Allegations of unfair labor practices at Amazon were common enough for the employment agency to convert them into a national investigation, the agency told NBC News. The agency usually conducts the investigation in its regional offices.

While Amazon’s starting wage of $ 15 an hour is twice the federal minimum, its labor practices in Washington and elsewhere are under scrutiny. The focus has increased over the past year as online orders soared during the pandemic and Amazon expanded its US workforce to nearly a million people. Amazon’s warehouse workers are considered key employees and have not been able to work from home.

This week, the National Labor Board is counting thousands of ballots determining whether nearly 6,000 workers will unionize at an Amazon warehouse outside of Birmingham, Alabama. This is the largest and most viable work threat in the company’s history. The union has stated that workers are under excessive production pressures and are closely monitored by the company to ensure quotas are respected.

The results could change the shape of the labor movement and one of America’s largest private employers.

Ms. Costa and Ms. Cunningham, who worked as designers at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, began publicly criticizing the company in 2018. You were among a small group of employees who wanted the company to do more to manage the climate impact. The group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, has more than 8,700 colleagues to support their efforts.

Over time, Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Costa have expanded their protests. After Amazon told them that they had violated its external communications guidelines by speaking publicly about the company, their group organized 400 people to speak up and deliberately violated the guidelines to make a point .

At the start of the pandemic, they also raised concerns about the safety of Amazon’s warehouses. Amazon fired Ms. Costa and Ms. Cunningham last April, not long after their group announced an internal event where warehouse workers would speak to technical staff about their working conditions.

After the women were released, several Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, wrote to Amazon of concerns about possible retaliation. And Tim Bray, an internet pioneer and former vice president of the Amazon Cloud Computing Group, stepped down in protest.

Mr Bray said he was delighted to hear the employment office’s findings and hoped Amazon had settled the case. “The policy so far has been ‘don’t admit anything, don’t admit anything’,” he said. “This is your chance to think it over a little.”

Ms. Cunningham said that despite the company’s rejection, she and Ms. Costa felt that they and Ms. Costa were primary targets for Amazon as they were the most visible members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

The Labor Authority also upheld a complaint involving Jonathan Bailey, co-founder of Amazonians United, a workforce advocacy group. The agency filed a complaint against Amazon based on Mr Bailey’s allegations that the company was breaking the law when it interrogated him after a strike last year at the Queens warehouse where he works.

“They realized that Amazon violated our rights,” said Bailey. “I think the message that employees should hear and understand is, yes, we all experience it. But many of us struggle too. “

Amazon has resolved Mr Bailey’s case without admitting any wrongdoing and has agreed to post notices informing employees of their rights in the break room. Ms. Anderson, Amazon’s spokeswoman, said the company contradicts allegations in Mr. Bailey’s case. “We pride ourselves on providing an inclusive environment in which employees can perform excellently without fear of retaliation, intimidation or harassment,” she said.

Kate Conger contributed to the coverage.