Amazon workers begin to gather in front of the Spheres, participating in the climate strike Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Seattle.

Amazon workers begin to gather in front of the Spheres, participating in the climate strike Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Seattle.
Photo: Elaine Thompson (AP)

The laundry list of fired organizers at Amazon has grown suspiciously lengthy, and the National Labor Relations Board has noticed.

A regional director for the NLRB has found merit for two activists’ claims that Amazon unjustly fired them last year. From 2019-2020, user experience designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa prominently advocated for climate justice and warehouse workers’ safety, along with thousands of other workers. In tandem with their protests—particularly calling out AWS for facilitating oil and gas extraction—Amazon tightened its rules on employee speech. Amazon later used the rules to justify threats to fire Cunningham and Costa.

The NLRB doesn’t offer specifics on the regional director’s finding. But if the case involves the rule change, it’s exceptional: it suggests that Amazon can’t simply rearrange its policies in order to silence protests.

The New York Times first reported the news on Monday.

If Amazon refuses to settle with its former employees, the case proceeds to a hearing, which could eventually wind through the courts.

Cunningham and Costa defied Amazon’s order to remain silent, arguing that the issue supersedes Amazon’s PR policies. “I spoke up because I’m terrified by the harm the climate crisis is already causing, and I fear for my children’s future,” Costa told the Washington Post in January. (A Gizmodo review of internal documents showed that in 2019 Amazon dropped its plans to develop wind farms while it chased deals with the fossil fuel industry.)

Amazon has consistently talked a big game about reducing pollution and washed its hands with pledges and philanthropy. It even went to so far as to install a big ass sign on an arena to remind us it cares. Meanwhile emissions rose in 2019, unrecycled cardboard piled up, and the company continued to cozy up to Big Oil.

As public-facing leaders of the 8,700-member group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, Costa and Cunningham spoke publicly at protests, shareholder meetings, on Twitter, and to the media. In April 2019, AEJC published an open letter to Jeff Bezos demanding that the company commit to setting a timeline for its 100% renewable energy goals, eliminate emissions rather than lean on carbon credits, stop providing tech for oil and gas companies, and withhold donations to members of Congress who consistently vote against progressive climate policy.

In September 2019, AECJ announced that around 1,800 Amazon employees committed to walk out in solidarity with the global climate strike. When Amazon caught wind of the event, it forbid employees from non-sanctioned conversations about the company with the media. In January 2020, Amazon threatened to fire Costa and Cunningham. They appeared in a Bernie Sanders video and spoke to the Washington Post about it nonetheless.

“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,” Costa told the Post.

Amazon finally fired Cunningham and Costa in April 2020, shortly after they invited warehouse workers and tech teams to a video conference. (A few weeks earlier, Cunningham and Costa had tweeted that they would match donations of up to $500 for warehouse workers at higher risk of contracting covid-19.) The company then told the New York Times that it fired them for “violating internal policies.”

In a statement shared with Earther, an Amazon spokesperson argued that the company did not fire Costa and Cunningham for speaking out but again, for unspecified “internal policies.”

“We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against our internal policies, all of which are lawful,” they said. “We terminated these employees not for talking publicly about working conditions, safety, or sustainability, but rather, for repeatedly violating internal policies.” We asked Amazon for clarification.

If Amazon doesn’t settle, the regional NRLB director will issue a complaint, and the case moves on to a hearing with an administrative law judge. If Amazon loses, the judge could award backpay or compel Amazon to offer Costa and Cunningham their jobs back. If Amazon wants to drag this on, it could ask the NLRB to rule, then possibly go to the court of appeals, and even the Supreme Court.

Cunningham and Costa have continued to pressure Amazon on climate and organizing after their firing. Costa spoke at Amazon’s May 2020 shareholder meeting, and Cunningham has led an effort to support the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama.

After Amazon’s frontline workers protested nationwide against alleged inadequate covid-19 safeguards, a growing chorus has demanded that Amazon explain itself for habitually rooting out organizers. A group of Democratic senators called on Amazon to explain a spate of firings of organizers, and New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a lawsuit in part regarding alleged retaliation against two protesters. Motherboard reported on an attempted smear campaign against a protest leader, as well as numerous attempts to stamp out a unionization effort. The NLRB has found previously fired organizers’ complaints legitimate.

Last week, NBC News found that at least 37 complaints accusing Amazon of stifling organizing attempts have been filed with the NLRB. The Bureau confirmed to Earther that it’s looking into various cases in Brooklyn, which could lead to a consolidated nationwide investigation.

This is bigger than a few allegations. If we’re going to avoid catastrophe, workers need a seat at the bargaining table alongside a scant few uber-rich dudes who can pick and choose investments in the global future.

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