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Why Amazon Could be Investigated for Firing Two Activist Employees Last Year

As it awaits the results of a unionization vote for 5,800 Alabama warehouse workers, Amazon also could now be dealing with yet another labor-related probe from the federal government.

According to a New York Times report, The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found that Amazon illegally fired user experience designers Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, two prominent critics from within the company, in April of last year.

The agency told Costa and Cunningham that it would accuse Amazon of unfair labor practices if the e-commerce juggernaut did not settle the case, according to correspondence that Cunningham shared with the publication. NLRB confirmed separately to Sourcing Journal that it found merit in the allegation and if the case does not settle, the regional director will issue a complaint.

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

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

Cunningham said that despite this denial, she believed that she and Costa were prime targets for Amazon because they were the most visible members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), the venue through which they made most of their public criticisms. In April 2019, AECJ had more than 8,700 employees sign a petition that they wanted Amazon to address climate change.

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In October 2019, 3,000 Amazon tech workers worldwide joined in a Global Climate Strike walkout organized by the group, just after Amazon announced the first recipients of its Climate Pledge Fund.

After Amazon told the two employees in November 2019 that they had violated its external communications policy by speaking publicly about the business, their group organized 400 employees in January of last year to speak out in a post on Medium, intentionally violating the policy to make a point.

They also began raising concerns about safety in Amazon’s warehouses at the start of the pandemic. Amazon fired Costa and Cunningham, not long after their group had announced an internal event for warehouse workers to speak to tech employees about their workplace conditions.

Costa and Cunningham were among dozens of Amazon workers who in the past year told the labor board about company retaliations, but in most other cases the workers had complained about pandemic safety. Amazon is facing 37 NLRB complaints across 20 cities since February 2020, some of which accuse the company of interfering with workers’ rights to organize or form a union. That’s more than triple the number of cases of this kind filed to the agency about Amazon in 2019 and six times the number filed in 2018.

For comparison, Walmart, America’s largest employer, has had eight such charges in the same timeframe.

The NLRB also upheld a complaint involving warehouse worker Jonathan Bailey, a co-founder of labor advocacy group Amazonians United. The agency filed a complaint against Amazon based on Bailey’s accusation that the company broke the law when it interrogated him after a walkout last year at the Queens warehouse where he works. Bailey was ushered to a side office and interrogated for 90 minutes, according to testimony filed to the NLRB.

Amazon settled Bailey’s case without admitting wrongdoing and agreed to post notices informing employees of their rights in the break room.

The termination of Costa and Cunningham, largely in relation to the response to the company’s Covid-related problems, caused one exec to quit his position at the company in May last year. In a widely circulated blog post entitled, “Bye, Amazon,” then-vice president and engineer Tim Bray chided Amazon leadership for firing activists like Costa, Cunningham and Christian Smalls, the management assistant who led the walkout at a Staten Island Amazon distribution center in March 2020.

NLRB’s determination is part of the board’s ongoing response to a labor complaint against Amazon, although it’s not a legal ruling in itself. The labor agency told NBC News it could launch a national investigation into Amazon due to the number of claims of unfair labor practices.

Beyond the potential investigation, Amazon is already dealing with another high-profile racial and gender discrimination lawsuit by Charlotte Newman, a Black senior manager at Amazon Web Services. The suit also alleges repeated sexual harassment and the violation of the Equality Pay Act.

The e-commerce giant also is pulling a public about-face on allegations that workers have had to resort to urinating in water bottles instead of taking a bathroom break because of the pressure to meet productivity goals.

On March 24, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) took shots at Amazon’s retail chief Dave Clark on Twitter, saying “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.”

That day, the @AmazonNews Twitter account flat out denied the urination allegations, firing back at Rep. Pocan saying, “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one. We hope you can enact policies that get other employers to offer what we already do.”

In a blog post, Amazon apologized to Rep. Pocan, highlighting the tweet involved as incorrect. The company said it did not contemplate its large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on its fulfillment centers.

“If any employee in a fulfillment center has a different experience, we encourage them to speak to their manager and we’ll work to fix it,” the company said.

Amazon acknowledged that drivers often have problems finding public restrooms due to traffic or rural routes, a problem made worse during the Covid-19 store closures. But Amazon was quick to say in the post that it wasn’t alone in these flaws.

“This is a long-standing, industry-wide issue and is not specific to Amazon,” the post said. “Regardless of the fact that this is industry-wide, we would like to solve it.”