Culture

Amazon's retaliatory firing of critical employees was illegal, labor board says

“It’s a moral victory and really shows that we are on the right side of history and the right side of the law.”

Emily Cunningham, former Amazon employee

AMAZON HUB, AVERSA, CAMPANIA, ITALY - 2021/03/22: The Amazon hub workers protest in front of the main gate  during the Amazon's workers national strike. thousands of  workers, including drivers, hub and warehouse workers, will stop for 24 hours on a strike claimed by trade unions. (Photo by Antonio Balasco/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KONTROLAB/LightRocket/Getty Images

Amazon’s firing of two employees critical of the company’s stance on climate change was illegal retaliation, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found. Both employees had been vocal in their hope that Amazon would reduce its impact on climate change — and so Amazon fired them.

The employees in question, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, both disregarded Amazon’s internal policies last year, which forbid Amazon workers from discussing the company publicly without prior approval. The NLRB is planning to accuse Amazon of unfair labor practices if the company doesn’t soon settle the case, Cunningham told The New York Times.

This isn’t the first time Amazon’s been hit with criticism for firing employees who are publicly critical of the company’s practices. Not by far. And yet the company continues to prioritize its public image over public good — and over the wellbeing of its workers.

Amazon’s not having it — As you might expect, Amazon isn’t taking kindly to the NLRB’s accusations.

“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,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “We terminated these employees not for talking publicly about working conditions, safety or sustainability, but, rather, for repeatedly violating internal policies.”

The TL;DR is that Amazon says its employees are free to criticize the company’s policies, as long as the criticism itself doesn’t go against the company’s policies. But public criticism does go against the company’s policies — you need to get formal permission to say anything disparaging about Amazon. These are just words.

Fair labor isn’t in Amazon’s vocab — Amazon’s stance on criticism from employees boils down to this: if you don’t like it here, you can leave. Amazon made this clearer than ever during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when employees protesting unsafe working conditions were swiftly fired from the company. This string of terminations led one of Amazon’s VPs, Tim Bray, to leave his post along with some very disparaging words for his former employer.

“Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets,” Bray said in an open letter. “It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.”

Bray told The New York Times that he hopes the NLRB’s decision here will force Amazon to change its ways. Given the most recent iterations of the company’s Twitter war and its forthcoming invasive delivery surveillance, we’re not so sure Amazon has learned any lessons at all.