Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex Blumberg: I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the show on what we need to do to address climate change, and how we make those things happen.
Alex: Hey, everyone. It is just me this week. Ayana is out working on other climate-saving projects, so I'm hosting solo. But on today's episode we are going to be featuring an interview that Ayana and I did together, so you're still gonna get some of that Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson magic. You're gonna be hearing her voice throughout the episode. And this is an episode I'm really excited about because it addresses a feeling that a lot of people get, I think. A feeling we've talked about on this podcast before. The feeling of, like, what can I, a simple individual do, right?
Alex: Climate change feels like this big problem that a lot of big powerful people in corporations are causing. So what can you, a regular person with a regular job, do about it? And today, we're gonna talk to a couple of regular people, Emily Cunningham and Eliza Pan, who had that same feeling. They were people with regular jobs, cogs in the corporate machine, and the machine in this case was one of the biggest machines out there: Amazon.
Alex: Emily and Eliza were just two of the roughly one million people who work at Amazon. They weren't high placed executives or anything; Emily Cunningham worked in user design, Eliza Pan worked in transportation. But they both cared deeply and worried a lot about the climate crisis. And their efforts actually helped move one of the biggest corporations on the planet to decisively act on climate change. And what they and their colleagues accomplished at Amazon, it can serve as a template for other people who want to push their own organizations and workplaces to change. So today on the episode, their story, and how it can serve as a step by step guide for the rest of us. It's all coming up after the break.
Alex: Welcome back. When Ayana and I spoke with Emily and Eliza, they told us that they met for the first time in late summer or early fall of 2018 in Seattle.
Ayana: How did you all go about finding each other? I mean, it's a big company. You don't just, like, run around the cubicles yelling, "Climate justice! Who's in? Let's take it all down!"
Eliza Pan: [laughs]
Alex: Or did you?
Ayana: Or did you? Or was there like an all-staff email?
Emily Cunningham: Yeah. Well, I did that. I don't know about Eliza, but I, every day I would run around my floor just screaming, like, "Join us!"
Eliza Pan: "The climate crisis is here!"
Emily Cunningham: No, I—we met through other people, basically.
Alex: Both Eliza and Emily had been involved separately outside of work with climate justice organizations in the area. But in 2017, a small group of people within Amazon had started wondering if there was a way to get their workplace to start changing its practices and policies around climate. Here's Emily.
Emily Cunningham: I think it's important for people, no matter where you are, to make a difference where you are. And I happened to be at Amazon, one of the most powerful companies in the world, making some of the biggest impact on the climate with the CEO, which is the richest man in the world.
Alex: So Emily thought surely there's a way to direct Amazon's substantial resources into becoming a cleaner and more sustainable company. And if Amazon goes that route, she thought, because it's so huge, perhaps it would spur other companies to follow.
Emily Cunningham: I mean, you can just look at it, you know, the broad swath of how much Amazon's tentacles are in the global economy, that if we were to shift a company like Amazon, it would have a huge ripple effect, not only just on this company, but on the larger culture and on the global economy.
Ayana: And on carbon emissions.
Emily Cunningham: Yes.
Alex: So that's Emily. Eliza, meanwhile, had gone so far as to switch jobs within Amazon. She had been working in the web services department, but she moved to a new role in transportation, hoping that that would give her the opportunity to have a bigger impact on Amazon's climate footprint. After all, Amazon was this huge corporation and had a fleet of roughly 30,000 cargo vans, 20,000 trucks, and around 70 cargo planes—which is more airplanes than lots of countries have. She figured if she was dealing directly with those massive fleets of almost exclusively fossil-fuel-burning vans, trucks, and planes, that maybe she could get them to be more efficient, or switch over to electric.
Alex: But she found that at Amazon, there was just no system in place for dealing with the company's climate impacts.
Eliza Pan: My job there, when I switched over, was a lot of coordinating, a lot of talking with a lot of people across Amazon to get Amazon's transportation business, make it more efficient. And efficiency meant lower costs, faster delivery. It did not mean lower emissions.
Eliza Pan: I remember a meeting I had with somebody where I asked, "Hey, can we look at how do we reduce emissions?" And their response was, "You know, that sounds great, but that's not in our goals. That's not in our plans. Basically, we don't have bandwidth to do that." And I don't blame this person at all. Like, I don't doubt for a moment that they are full of integrity and care about the climate crisis, but they were just like, "We can't do it because we don't have the data, and our goals don't track that." So for them to do that would be taking extra time out of their already very busy workload to try to do this and track this down. And I had many moments like this throughout my time at Amazon.
Eliza Pan: You're always going to be butting your head against what people's mandates are from the top, what their goals are.
Alex: And Amazon's footprint goes well beyond just its fleet of trucks and planes. Amazon has this whole suite of digital operations, like running the servers that powers a lot of the cloud that allows us to save our pictures and stream Netflix and all the other stuff that we do online. All of those servers, they use a ton of energy. Another aspect of Amazon's business involves providing data services to big fossil fuel companies to help them better extract fossil fuels from the ground, which, you know, making it easier and faster to get fossil fuels out of the ground is sort of the last thing we want to do when it comes to addressing climate change.
Alex: So Emily and Eliza, they're on the same mission. And as they met more and more people in the company who felt like they did, they eventually found each other. And as we said their story, it's a template for the rest of us for how to make change inside large organizations. This is step one. Just finding other like-minded people, and sharing your thoughts, concerns and ideas with each other.
Eliza Pan: I think in our—especially at Amazon, there is this tendency where you want to do something? The recommendation is you write a paper, and you write a paper and you submit it to your management. And, you know, you iterate on it and you make it a better idea and more people will then approve your idea. And it goes on. And that does work for Amazon in a lot of ways, but it's a very individual way of kind of solving a problem. And what was very different from that is from the beginning, it was let's find people, other people and bring in first, and then we'll work on whatever the plan or idea is. Let's start from a place of we all care about this and we want to do something.
Alex: And for about a year, they were on this step. Step one. That's what they did. They met, they talked, they shared lessons they'd learned from mentors they'd met in other environmental groups that they'd been a part of. And they tried to figure out what is the best way to influence this massive, powerful company that they all worked for to be part of the solution on climate change. And somewhere in the fall of 2018, they hit on an idea, an idea that would become step two. They would introduce a shareholder resolution.
Alex: Okay, so a shareholder is anyone who owns at least a single share or stock in a company. And a shareholder resolution is a proposal submitted by shareholders for a vote, usually at the company's annual meeting, to suggest changes in how a company is run.
Alex: And as salaried Amazon employees, Eliza and Emily and the other Amazon employees that they were talking to had Amazon stock, so they were all shareholders. So Eliza and Emily and the others thought, we can submit a shareholder resolution to try to push the company to be more active on climate. And Eliza says there was some reason to believe this could be effective.
Eliza Pan: One of the things we realized was that there was a shareholder resolution that year that had already happened, and Amazon had made some changes as a result of it. And so we felt like, okay, this is something that we can try, and try to make it about climate.
Alex: And so the informal group gave itself a name: Amazon Employees for Climate Justice—AECJ. And they wrote up the resolution.
Ayana: And what did the resolution say? What were you trying to get the shareholders to approve?
Eliza Pan: It's very basic and very simple. We were just asking Amazon for a plan. What is Amazon's plan? What is Amazon's climate plan? What is Amazon's plan to address its climate impact? That was it. And, you know, supporting evidence, but the ask is: Amazon, show us your climate plan.
Ayana: That seems reasonable.
Eliza Pan: [laughs] You would think, right? You would think it's reasonable. Up to that point, Amazon, like many companies, have just made these kind of, one-off, like, "Oh, we're gonna have a solar farm here." Or "Oh, we're testing EVs in this one city over here." "Oh look, we have some reusable packaging here." And those are all great things, but that's not a comprehensive climate plan. So the ask was very simple: "What is your comprehensive climate plan?"
Alex: And Amazon, by most measures, really didn't have one of those. In fact, unlike a lot of companies at the time, it wasn't even disclosing its carbon footprint. So in 2016, the Carbon Disclosure Project, which is a global non-profit that tracks these things, gave Amazon an F for failing to disclose its emissions. You know, and disclosing your emissions, that seems like a pretty basic first step in lessening your climate impact. First figuring out, like, what your climate impact even is. And to be clear, lots of other familiar companies were doing that: Colgate, Palmolive, Microsoft, Google, the electronics giant Sony. They were all disclosing their emissions.
Alex: So Emily and Eliza and the rest of the folks in their group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice or AECJ, formally submitted their shareholder resolution in December of 2018 in preparation for publicly presenting it for a vote in the annual shareholders meeting in May. And not long after they submitted the resolution, they say Amazon's leadership reached out to them.
Eliza Pan: Before the shareholder meeting, we did have two meetings with leadership. And in those meetings, it was very clear that they wanted us to go away.
Ayana: What kinds of things were they saying?
Emily Cunningham: Amazon had asked us to withdraw the resolution.
Emily Cunningham: We said no. And they also asked us to keep the meeting confidential at the very beginning of the meeting, and we said, no, we can't do that.
Eliza Pan: They were pretty condescending in those meetings, actually. One of the things that we asked was, when is Amazon going to have a date for when it'll achieve 100 percent renewables? And I remember the response was, "Well, we don't have a date because, you know, when we release products, for example, we want the flexibility, we want to do things Amazon's way. Not, you know, what some other third party says we should do. So because we have, like, the best methodology and we have the best mechanisms for making these things happen. So we want to decide our own dates, so that's why we're not committing to them publicly." And I remember one guy with our group, his response was, "Well, the thing is, with the climate crisis, we have a deadline."
Emily Cunningham: You know, from that meeting, we just realized, oh, they're really dug in, and they really are not going to change.
Alex: And so the group decided they needed to rally support for this resolution, which led them to step three. After the meeting, they took a draft of an open letter that they'd written to Amazon's then-CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him and the board to support this shareholder resolution. And they started circulating this letter around Amazon, asking for other employees to sign on. Eventually, more than 8,000 Amazon employees signed it.
Alex: So this open letter, I'm looking at it right now. It starts, "We, the undersigned 8,702 Amazon employees, ask that you adopt the climate plan shareholder resolution and release a company-wide climate plan that incorporates the principles outlined in this letter." There's a lot about sort of the customer-centric focus and how you say, "Our customer obsession requires climate obsession."
Ayana: That's a good line!
Emily Cunningham: Yeah. And people responded. Like, it was so heartwarming. Like, we got so many emails back from people of like, "I'm so proud to be part of this." I mean, somebody wrote me saying, like, it made them cry. Like, it was very emotional, and it finally gave people an outlet to try to make an impact, because many people across the country have been trying to do that for a long time.
Alex: And just days after the letter started circulating, Amazon announced a new climate initiative called "Shipment Zero," aimed at reducing the emissions from shipping its packages, after which Emily and Eliza say Amazon again reached out to AECJ—Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, and again, asked them to withdraw the resolution.
Emily Cunningham: We said, "Oh, you know, we weren't planning on doing that. We're kind of curious why you're asking that." And then they're like, "Well, because of the announcement for Shipment Zero."
Ayana: And Shipment Zero was a commitment to zero-emissions shipping?
Eliza Pan: No. It was Amazon's first-ever commitment to reduce 50 percent of their shipments to net zero.
Ayana: That's a tricky name.
Eliza Pan: It's misleadingly named. It should be called "Shipment 50." But yes, it's 50 percent of their shipments to zero emissions.
Alex: Tricky! Anyway, so Emily and Eliza and the rest of AECJ went ahead with their plan. And on May 22 of 2019, the group formally presents their shareholder resolution at Amazon's annual shareholder meeting. The meeting was in this big auditorium. Theater-style seats, a stage with a big screen for showing PowerPoints, where various Amazon executives were making speeches. The shareholders—including Emily and Eliza and the other folks from AECJ—were sitting in the audience.
Alex: Do you remember the day when the shareholder resolution was like—is it like a big meeting? Is everybody there?
Ayana: Do you, like, stand up and read it? Like, what happens?
Eliza Pan: You know, we all wore white. And we all stood, and we—typically, the shareholder meeting is a very kind of stodgy event. It's, you know, lots of investors in suits. And we all came in with our white t-shirts, and we all stood and took over that meeting space.
Emily Cunningham: I was chosen to present our shareholder resolution. And I went up there shaking like a leaf, because I was very scared. And at the beginning, because Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, wasn't actually even present there for the presentation, and so I asked him to come out to listen to us, and that I represented 7,700 of his employees. And we talked about how can we—what will we say to our children when we knew that Amazon had an opportunity to make a difference, and that we knew that it was Indigenous communities, Black and brown communities, people in the global South that were under such attack from the climate crisis, and that we decided to do nothing, that we decided to continue to work with oil and gas companies. And I asked him at the end to make one of the most important decisions he could ever make, which was to stand with us and to change his vote. And ...
Ayana: And support your resolution.
Emily Cunningham: Yeah. And to support the resolution.
Eliza Pan: I had tears in my eyes. I know that there were other people in that meeting who cried because of that moment, because of the power of what Emily was saying. When Emily started speaking, she had asked people to stand if they supported the resolution.
[NEWS CLIP: Amazon shareholders had 11 resolutions to consider at the company's annual meeting today. Many of those resolutions asked for more corporate citizenship from the tech giant.]
[NEWS CLIP: Some of Amazon's employees wanted more action on climate change. It looked like half the room literally stood with them.]
Eliza Pan: Halfway through her speech, more people started standing.
Eliza Pan: And by the end of it, you know, most of the people in that room were standing.
Alex: During all of this, Jeff Bezos himself, then Amazon's CEO was backstage.
Eliza Pan: And Emily asked her question of Jeff Bezos: are you going to stand with us, or are you going to stand aside and watch everything we love die out?
Eliza Pan: It's probably not a surprise what Jeff Bezos responded with.
Ayana: What did he say?
Alex: What did he do?
Emily Cunningham: He didn't come out. He didn't even meet us.
Alex: And he voted against the resolution. But, of course, while Jeff Bezos is a very large shareholder in Amazon—he owns roughly 10 percent of the company—there are still lots of other shareholders out there. In order to pass, a resolution needs 50 percent of the shareholders' vote. Emily and Eliza and the employees in AECJ, they owned just a tiny fraction of a percent of Amazon's total stock. So their votes by themselves are not gonna move the needle on what Amazon does. In order to get this thing to pass, they needed these huge financial firms that owned or managed huge blocks of Amazon stock, you know, five or 10 percent chunks, they needed those big, huge firms to vote with them, and in so doing, to go against the very powerful CEO, Jeff Bezos. And not surprisingly, that didn't happen. They didn't get 50 percent of the vote. But even though the resolution didn't pass, it did a lot better than many people expected. It got almost 30 percent of the vote.
Eliza Pan: And to be clear, that's actually huge in the shareholder resolution world. And anything really over, like, five percent is huge.
Alex: Right. It didn't pass but, like, for a shareholder resolution, it did incredibly well. And when you talk about shareholders, it's important to sort of say what a shareholder is. A shareholder is, like, not a bunch of climate activists. Like, a shareholder is like a big, stuffy institution that is holding lots and lots of Amazon stock as like, you know, part of the pension fund or something.
Ayana: Yeah, these are big investors.
Alex: These are not radicals by any stretch of the imagination, right? Like, these are the most staid sort of like buttoned-up financial people in the world.
Emily Cunningham: You know, the financial world is seeing more and more the impact of the climate crisis is having on the global economy. So more and more people and financial institutions, central banks are seeing yikes, this is going to really ...
Ayana: It's going to affect our profits.
Emily Cunningham: Yeah. The idea wasn't just to win this, but as a tactic to be able to organize around. This would be a way to galvanize employees, and to use our capacity both as workers and as owners in the company to really speak out.
Eliza Pan: One of the things we wanted to do is shift culture at Amazon, right? Before we started organizing, nobody really talked about Amazon's climate impact or Amazon's climate plan. But what ended up shifting during and after the shareholder resolution is that people were asking, "Wait, so what is Amazon's climate impact?" And people were talking, asking these questions internally. People started talking to coworkers about it too, right? And that's the culture shift that we were looking for.
Alex: In other words, the resolution hadn't passed, but it had still succeeded in many ways. It galvanized more and more people inside the company, and created a sense of momentum. Emily and Eliza and the folks at AECJ wanted to capitalize on that momentum, so they met to talk about what should be their next step. Step four, for those keeping track at home.
Eliza Pan: After that meeting, a lot of people were very angry, and were very amped up that Jeff Bezos was ignoring it. And very obviously ignoring it, and not prioritizing climate. And so after that we, you know, started talking. And out of those conversations, we thought maybe we needed to do a walkout. Maybe we need to escalate further because clearly, they are still not getting the message. And so we knew that the global climate strike, the youth-led global climate strike was coming up that fall in September.
[NEWS CLIP: In less than 24 hours, thousands of students are expected to take part in the county's largest ever high school walkout on climate change.]
[NEWS CLIP: The New York Times reports that over one million students from New York City's schools were planning on attending the climate strike.]
[NEWS CLIP: Students around the world are ditching school today for a cause. They're worried about their future in a world that's getting hotter.]
Eliza Pan: So we thought, well, what if we did a walkout coinciding with that, to support the youth, show up and also do our part, right? I think one of the core messages that they have is, yeah, great, you can be inspired by us, great, but do your part, too. Like, don't just leave it all to us, the kids, right? They're just trying to be kids, and they're being forced to do this. And I think with us, the walkout was, yes, we want to show up for the kids and we want to do our part. Our part is getting our company to do a lot more on climate, to take responsibility.
Alex: And taking responsibility, to Emily, Eliza and the group, meant aligning with that youth climate strike.
[NEWS CLIP: Over 1,000 Amazon employees are pledging to walk out of work today, protesting the tech giant's environmental impact.]
Alex: Emily and Eliza and the group started meeting with workers at other tech companies to see if they'd join that walkout. They talked to people from Microsoft, Google. Those conversations eventually spread to workers at other tech companies like Facebook and Twitter. And as the day of the walkout finally arrived, Emily says she had butterflies.
Emily Cunningham: So I was actually coordinating with another organizer at Google who was literally, like, a block away from me. And I was like, "Oh God, are people gonna come? And I'm sure people are gonna be ..."
Ayana: This is like me at every birthday party I've ever had. I'm like, "No one's gonna come. It's gonna be like me and an entire cake."
Emily Cunningham: Exactly! [laughs] But then, like, literally hundreds of people from my building came out. And then I was, like, waiting for the Google organizer to text me to say that they are outside. And then they were like, "Yeah, we're outside." And so then I was like, "All right, it's time to go!" So we go out there, and I see this mass of Google workers out there with their, you know, Google signs and really cute, like, had their, like, Google shirts to make it clear that they were Google workers in the climate strike. And I just remember going like, "Hey Googlers!" And they were like, "Wah!" And they, like, cheered. And then Amazon workers cheer and, like, we're together. And then we all marched down, and we had all of these chants. And it was just—my heart just swelled. It was just so incredible.
[NEWS CLIP: I just didn't want it to, like, sit down on the desk and do nothing about it, while I was working for one of the biggest companies who should be leading the way.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: Climate change is and must be a work-appropriate conversation.]
Ayana: I read this news story and I was like, "Holy shit!" Because this is a massive corporation. And as you described, like, if Amazon changes their practices, it changes a whole industry's, right? You change—you can change supply chains, you can influence the transportation sector, you can influence what products are out there and being sold, and all of these different things. You can, like, change logistics and efficiency. And I was just like, they went right to the core of so much that is wrong with the way that our economy is structured. And I was so excited! [laughs] I was like, "Yes! Go, go, go!" And because it was that number, right? It was, like, over 3,000 employees walked out to say, "We want our company to do more." And, you know, you care about your coworkers. You thought the work was often, like, really interesting. It's not like you hate everything. You just want your place of work to be part of the solution. And I was just so blown away by this. I was like, "This is dope. What's happening next?"
Alex: Thousands of tech workers walked out that day, in Seattle, in Silicon Valley, in New York. And the walkout, or even the idea of it, certainly seemed to have had an impact, because the day before the walkout, the day before thousands of his employees were planning to protest, Jeff Bezos had finally announced Amazon's first-ever company-wide climate pledge.
Eliza Pan: Amazon committed to net-zero emissions by 2040. And we demand zero emissions by 2030. So it doesn't quite meet our demand, but before that Amazon had no company-wide plan to reduce emissions.
Ayana: This is quantifiably better than nothing, for sure.
Emily Cunningham: And literally, like, hadn't even released its freaking carbon footprint. I mean, it was incredible.
Ayana: And how did you know that those two things were connected? Like, what made you say, "Oh, this wasn't just, like, part of their plan. This is not just a coincidence." What made you think this is a result of our organizing?
Eliza Pan: Well, in those meetings that we did have with leadership, they said that they had no plans to release a carbon footprint, that they didn't have a date for when they would do that. And with the climate pledge announcement, Amazon did say yes, we're going to release our carbon footprint. And I think the timing of that announcement is definitely not coincidental. 24 hours before a walkout? They knew that the walkout was happening. We weren't being secretive about it at that point. And even in Jeff Bezos's press conference about the climate pledge, he used our language that we used in the letter.
Eliza Pan: Like, in our letter, we talked about we were asking Amazon to be a leader, to be bold, and not to be kind of middle of the pack. And Jeff Bezos used those words in the press conference. He said he wanted Amazon to be a leader in climate, and that Amazon was middle of the herd, but he didn't want to be that anymore. Not to say that Amazon hadn't been planning various sustainability-related efforts, but I think the—I definitely think that our organizing at the very least sped it up dramatically. And I think that's at the very least. I think actually in reality, what happened is that Amazon's commitments got bolder and bigger than they were before because of our organizing.
Emily Cunningham: Because of its influence on the economy and our culture, when Amazon decides to take a strong stand, then it's going to get a reaction from other companies and other workers at other companies. And so you saw soon afterwards then Microsoft comes out with an even bigger, bolder plan than Amazon had. And it's like these sort of pissing matches between these companies.
Ayana: The "Who can save the planet faster pissing match" is my favorite pissing match.
Emily Cunningham: [laughs] Exactly.
Eliza Pan: And the only one.
Emily Cunningham: Yeah. You never know what the impact that you will have and the ripple effect it will have, not just in your own company, but in other companies in the larger culture.
Ayana: Yeah. Across your industry, across culture.
Eliza Pan: Yeah. And I want to emphasize that, you know, we're just normal people. Like, we just started with, you know, five of us in a living room.
Alex: Now Amazon has stated that its action on climate has nothing to do with the organizing of its employees, that these were changes that were already put in place, and they were going to happen no matter what. Emily and Eliza don't buy that. Either way, this is a story of a group of people who cared a lot, asked their company to change and the company did, in fact, change. And at this point, it seems like a happy ending. But, in fact, the legacy of this organizing is more complicated—both for Amazon and for Emily herself. For Emily, what started with organizing climate protests would eventually have profound personal consequences. What those consequences were? That's coming up after the break.
Alex: To understand what happened to Emily next, we have to rewind a tiny bit, back to the run-up to the walkout, to a time before the walkout actually happened, but when organizers had already made clear their intentions that they were going to walk out. In that period, Amazon had updated its policies regarding employees talking to the press. Among other things, the policy more clearly laid out how external communications about Amazon business—including media interviews and social media posts—must be approved in advance by the company's public relations team.
Alex: Amazon says the policy was not new, that the update simply served to streamline the approval process. Either way, the updated version clearly stated that tweeting about Amazon's climate policies or sharing a post on Facebook or giving an interview to a reporter all required approval from the company. So in other words, a lot of the stuff that Emily and her colleagues had done previously while organizing this walkout was now potentially grounds for dismissal. So that was the policy. And in October of 2019, after the walkout, Emily says that she and another AECJ member were called in to separate meetings with HR.
Emily Cunningham: And we're told that we'd broken this policy, and that if we continued to speak out that we could risk further discipline up to and including termination from Amazon. And so that happened.
Alex: That happened. But despite this meeting, Emily and her colleague named Maren Costa did continue to speak out. Emily says she was scared of losing her job, but felt like if anyone was in the position to take that kind of hit, she was.
Emily Cunningham: At the very beginning of this, I also thought to myself, I'm in a really privileged position right now. You know, I'm a user experience designer. It's a field that is really highly valued. And if I need to go back to grad school and do some kind of climate policy thing, I can always do that. But I'm much, much, much more scared of the climate crisis than I am about losing my job at Amazon, and about not seizing an opportunity to make a big impact when I could.
Alex: But for months, nothing happened. Despite the warnings, Amazon didn't take any action against Emily or Maren. Until, in early March of 2020, as much of the country was shutting down because of the coronavirus, things inside of Amazon warehouses were starting to pick up. So unlike the office workers, warehouse workers at Amazon couldn't work from home. And increasingly, some workers felt that the company was not protecting them from COVID. In late March of 2020, Amazon fired a man named Christian Smalls, a warehouse worker who's Black, after he publicly accused the company of failing to disclose that a worker in the Staten Island warehouse where he worked had tested positive for the coronavirus.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Christian Smalls: It's not just this building, it's buildings all across the nation. As you can see, there's cases popping up one by one, building by building. That should be a red flag that there's something very wrong with the process and the safety procedures that's going on in these buildings.]
Alex: He took it on himself to contact public health officials, and eventually organized a warehouse protest.
Emily Cunningham: Warehouse workers in March reached out to us talking about how scared they were about the safety conditions around COVID in Amazon warehouses, and how impacted they were, how scared they were about getting the virus themselves, spreading it to their families and their community, and asked us to stand with them. And we said, "Of course. Of course, we'll stand with you."
Alex: As a first step in supporting the warehouse workers, AECJ helped organize a panel designed to connect the two parts of the company: the tech workers and the warehouse workers, who often don't work in the same environments. The panel was gonna discuss the connections between the climate crisis, the pandemic and racism. For example, that Black and brown Amazon workers were more at risk from COVID because they couldn't work from home, and were more likely to be exposed. And the Amazon trucks, those same trucks that have a climate impact are also spewing pollution that makes those workers more susceptible from dying from COVID if they were infected. So that was what the panel was going to be discussing. And an Amazon worker—not Emily—sent out a calendar invite with a virtual meeting link.
Emily Cunningham: Within a couple hours we had 1,500 workers who had accepted the meeting invite. But within those couple hours, Amazon fired Maren and I, and deleted the calendar invite.
Emily Cunningham: Yeah.
Ayana: And what did they give as the reason that you were being fired?
Emily Cunningham: Basically, that we had violated multiple Amazon policies. So I'm assuming the first one was around the communications policy, around speaking to the media about Amazon's role in the climate crisis. But two weeks prior to that, we also had forwarded an email that had a link to a petition from Amazon warehouse workers asking for certain safety conditions.
Emily Cunningham: They didn't say anything to us at that time, but that was the excuse that they used to fire Maren and I. And this is also around the time that there's this leak about a memo from David Zapolsky, the general counsel at Amazon, where he calls Chris Smalls, who was a fired Black Amazon warehouse worker, who calls him inarticulate and not smart.
Ayana: Yeah, those are pretty, pretty coded. We all know what those code words mean.
Alex: Now an Amazon spokesperson has said that, despite the seemingly coded language, that quote, "Mr. Zapolsky didn't even know the race of the person at the time he made his comments," end quote. But Emily says that the racism went beyond language. It was structural. And she points to the different treatment that these two different protests received as an example. So the protests about the working conditions in the warehouses, it did not involve a big walkout that included thousands of people very publicly. And yet, at least nine warehouse workers involved in those protests were fired. The climate protests, on the other hand, which did involve a large, very public walkout, and clear violations of Amazon's stated policies, resulted in only two dismissals: Emily and Maren, who are two white women. But nearly all the warehouse workers who were fired were Black.
Emily Cunningham: It's not an accident that that was happening. And it's part of the structural racism that's part of Amazon's makeup.
Ayana: How did you feel when you got this sort of message that you were fired? What went through your head?
Emily Cunningham: I was honestly shocked that that would be the thing that would make Amazon fire Maren and I, because we weren't actually part of any of the messaging that went out about that particular action that we did. You know, I've done a lot more bold things, in my opinion, in the past around the climate crisis and Amazon, you know, speaking directly to Bezos and all of those things. But if you think about it, you know, the concessions that they made around climate were, you know, 20 years in the future, like, in 2040, where what we were really asking for were greater safety conditions to protect people ...
Emily Cunningham: Now. And what people forget about with the pandemic because we're so numb to it, these are friends, these are sisters, these are grandmothers, these are cousins and brothers, and real people that are facing such hardship and, like, literally death. And it's the same, you know, people that are most impacted by the climate crisis that are also most impacted by the pandemic, at least in the US.
Ayana: You clearly have brought this intersectional approach to your work, right? It's not the, you know, Amazon Employees for Climate, it's climate justice in particular. It's in the name. When you think about your organizing, do you think that incorporating justice and intersectionality so deeply has made it more effective?
Eliza Pan: You can't have a solution to the climate crisis without justice. Otherwise it's an incomplete solution, because the problem is injustice. To have a long-term sustainable solution to the climate crisis, you need to talk about how the climate disproportionately impacts certain groups of people, and how to rectify that.
Ayana: Mm-hmm. Got to solve the actual problem as it exists.
Eliza Pan: Right! Right, exactly. And with Amazon's current climate pledge, you know, they committed to net-zero emissions by 2040, which is great, better than nothing, like we said, right? But there is nothing about justice in Amazon's climate pledge. I grew up in Southern California in the Inland Empire, which is one of the most polluted areas in the country because of the huge logistics infrastructure there. There's tons of warehouses where I grew up. I grew up, you know, a mile away from a warehouse, and it's normal, right? Lots of people worked at warehouses. But I didn't realize this until I left, how polluted my hometown is, compared to the rest of the country. And that pollution is a result of giant companies like Amazon concentrating their operations in certain pockets across the country where it's mostly people of color, mostly lower income.
Eliza Pan: And Amazon's climate pledge does not account for the hundreds of thousands of diesel trucks that are thundering through towns like that every day, and the pollution that that generates. Net zero means that there's still pollution from trucks. Net zero means you're just buying offsets. Maybe you have a solar farm in some other neighborhood, but you're still polluting in the source of your operations. So when it comes to the climate crisis, like, you can't talk about solving the climate crisis without talking about justice.
Ayana: So I am here for that. And I also know that, in this moment of outlandish unemployment, when so many people are losing their jobs, losing their homes, often having trouble putting food on the table, that risking your job right now is something a lot of people simply can't do.
Emily Cunningham: It's not all about people getting fired left and right. Like, there are thousands of us that walked out, that signed the letter, and only two of us got fired. And they did that to try to scare people. And I'm here to say that, like, I have absolutely no regrets about that. I would stand with warehouse workers over and over and over again. Our safety is actually in standing with each other.
Alex: Shortly after Emily and Maren were fired, Tim Bray, a long-serving and distinguished VP at Amazon quit, writing in an open letter titled, "Bye, Amazon," that he quit in dismay over, quote, "Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19." He said that the decision would likely cost him over $1-million in pre-tax dollars, as well as the best job he ever had. After we recorded this interview, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency tasked with enforcing United States labor law, found that Amazon had illegally fired Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa. Maren had worked for Amazon for more than 15 years.
Alex: An Amazon spokesperson told us in an email quote, "We support every employee's right to criticize their employer's working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies. We terminated these employees not for talking publicly about sustainability, working conditions or safety, but rather, for repeatedly violating internal policies."
Alex: The company has several weeks to either settle the case, or it will proceed to trial. Christian Smalls, the Staten Island-based Amazon warehouse worker who says he was fired after speaking out about conditions during COVID, and who Amazon lawyer, David Zapolsky called "inarticulate" in a leaked message, he's filed a class action suit against the company, which one of his lawyers told CNN centers on racial discrimination by Amazon. An Amazon spokesperson told us by email that they quote, "Work hard to make Amazon a company where our Black employees and people of all backgrounds feel included, respected, and want to grow their careers."
Alex: Amazon is making changes to lessen its climate impact. Just this year, the company placed an order for 100,000 electric delivery vans—which is a lot. Their entire van fleet currently is only 30,000 vehicles. And AECJ—Amazon Employees for Climate Justice—is still active, and pushing Amazon to go even further. For example, at Amazon, there are still tons of diesel trucks pulling in and out of all its warehouses on a daily basis. And so just this week, AECJ circulated an internal petition for employees to sign, asking Amazon to address the disproportionate harm the pollution from these warehouses has on the Black, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant neighborhoods where they're often located.
Alex: So that's where things stand at Amazon. But most of us won't be taking on the largest company in the world. And given what AECJ was able to accomplish, we wondered if Emily and Eliza had tips for the rest of us.
Eliza Pan: Something concrete that people can do, I think, is meet people, and try to put yourself in the path of other people, and get involved with community groups around climate justice and in the labor movement, so you can start learning from people and making those connections. Once you start getting your crew, you can start writing a letter like we did, about what it is that you want your company to do, what it is that you want to see, what kind of vision that you have for your company when it comes to climate.
Eliza Pan: And I want to be very clear, like, you have your crew working on that with you. It's not just you writing by yourself off in a corner and then trying to get people to sign onto it. It's you are drafting this and working on this with other people. I think a huge resource to us has been other people who have organizing experience in the climate and labor movements.
Emily Cunningham: You know, just a really basic thing is listening to one another. When you have meetings, there are always going to be some people that dominate a space, and usually that has to go along oppression lines. So white people, men, white men, you know, because of issues around oppression, some people will feel more comfortable speaking up in groups, and some people will be more silenced. And so thinking about those dynamics, thinking about just because someone volunteers to do something doesn't necessarily mean that they're the best person to do that. Or if there's some people always speaking up, to really think about ...
Ayana: Whose insights are you not hearing?
Emily Cunningham: Yeah. And so, like, just whose voices you hear and how you go about making sure that you hear all voices. And so we talked to different experts in anti-racism, and had them work with us about that, because we all need help and resources with that.
Emily Cunningham: I think it's also important to think about who are the people that are good at relationships, have integrity, are fun to be around, are willing to both, like, lead and follow. I think it's also important to say that there were women that were really leading this from the very beginning, and having a feminist lens, having an anti-racist lens, having just love for people, and leading with love and vulnerability. And I think we lead with our humanity.
Ayana: I'm just gonna note that this sounds very cheesy, but it's completely true in my experience.
Emily Cunningham: Yes!
Ayana: Because this work is so hard, right? Like, you need a good crew or else, like, you know, you're tilting at windmills without your homies. Forget it. So I think it's important to acknowledge the sentimentality, but then, like, sort of flip it on its head and say, like, that's what keeps us going, right? It's our relationships with each other, and our sort of responsibility, our honoring our commitments to each other that you're like, okay, I gotta keep showing up tomorrow. Like, Emily and Eliza are depending on me and, like, we made a plan so—and I like them. I would like to be friends with them when this is all done.
Emily Cunningham: Absolutely.
Eliza Pan: But I will also add a book. It's called The Long Haul by Myles Horton. It's a really personal story, kind of semi-autobiographical, by Myles Horton, writing about his experiences organizing in the South. And it gets into a lot of detail. And even though our organizing contexts are very different, I have learned a lot from what he writes in this book.
Ayana: We love a good book recommendation. We can put that in the show notes.
Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg, and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. This episode was produced by Kendra Pierre-Louis. Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our intern is Ayo Oti. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.
Alex: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard, Bobby Lord, and Emma Munger.
Alex: Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib. Super special thanks to Rachel Strom for helping with this episode. Thanks to all of you for listening. We'll see you next week.