We interview former Amazon employee and corporate activist Maren Costa about how she and her colleagues called their company leaders to account.
“I don’t want to live in a future that is led by Jeff Bezos, I want to be able to look my kids in the eye twenty years from now and say: at least I tried.” Maren Costa
In 2018, Amazon employees set up the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice advocacy group. Its main goal was to bring people together who wanted the company to take responsibility in tackling climate change. Among them were Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, now global leaders in workplace activism.
For Maren and her co-activist Emily Cunningham, who have since left Amazon, the workplace group was the beginning of their corporate activist journey; one that reached the global media, got them fired and for which the company eventually paid a settlement fee. Since then, Maren has moved on to Microsoft, where she is still advocating for climate justice.
We spoke to Maren and asked her to share with us what employee activism means to her and which strategies have helped her challenge the status quo.
To Maren, workplace activism means standing up for human and planetary rights within the system you know, and sometimes that means taking risks. She talks about how building ally-ship was fundamental and she credits the group’s success and resilience to being outspokenly inclusive and diverse.
I asked her to tell me about her time at Amazon, a place she never thought she would have worked given her background in gender studies and ecofeminism. She started early as a designer for Amazon, then moved on to freelancing after a couple of years. When she became a single mom she decided it would be beneficial to return to Amazon, which she described as “the devil she knew”. However, at the time she returned, Maren was increasingly aware of the impact the company had on climate change.
How the workplace climate activism group got started
After speaking to the media about climate justice in the context of Amazon and laying out the reasons why climate justice was becoming increasingly important, Emily Cunningham wrote an internal email. This email marked the beginning of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group.
The activist group was initially formed in preparation for a shareholder meeting, demanding that those in senior management positions, such as CEO Jeff Bezos, come up with a diligent and all-encompassing climate plan for the company in order to diminish their impact on the climate. They coordinated a petition to raise awareness and show there was a lot of support internally for a climate action plan. What started out as an email to every single person in the company, managed to gather the signatures of 8700 employees!
After coming together for this initial reason, the group continued organising and advocating for more serious climate action and worker’s rights. When the Global Climate Strike reached the offices of Amazon in September 2019, Maren and the group staged a walkout with colleagues, meant as a sign of solidarity with the students of ‘Fridays for Future’.
To lay out the importance of creating changes in the company’s policies,
Maren told us how important it had been to use facts, and to lean into the frustration employees were feeling about the lack of action with company management in the face of the climate crisis.
As the employee action prompted no immediate retaliation by senior management, Maren and Emily kept speaking out against (climate) injustices in the context of Amazon on twitter and in the media. As a result, they both received a warning, stating that they were violating company policy when revealing information and voicing criticism outside of the company. They decided to continue their work within the company.
And then Covid happened…
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses were reported to be unsafe within the company. Maren, outraged by the actions of Amazon, used the community she’d created with the Climate Justice group to address the situation. They decided to generate attention for the issue by organising a ‘sick-out’.
A sick-out is similar to a walk-out, but the options of leaving the office or joining a protest had been minimised by Covid, and so they created this alternative protest of calling in sick. Meanwhile, the group coordinated an online conversation about the issue at hand between tech and warehouse workers, both of which were to happen on the 10th of April 2020.
The goal of the meeting was to exchange knowledge and ideas and to see how they could create a better workplace for everyone by understanding each other’s circumstances better.
With a lack of centralised organisation in a company that didn't have a union, Maren and Emily used all the internal group communications they could find. Over the years, people had organised employee resource groups around different issues and interests, such as mom’s at Amazon, to LGBTQ+ at Amazon, to people of colour at Amazon. In order to organise for collective action, they reached out to everyone to talk about the lack of workplace safety.
A colleague then offered to send it via his email address, because he was planning to leave the company soon anyway. That way, they could spread the risk. However, as soon as the invitation was sent out, Maren and Emily received a request for a meeting from senior management. They were fired within minutes.
The management claimed that as there had been a previous warning, the continued activism and signing of petitions warranted them being fired. Their contracts were terminated. Maren and Emily then filed for unemployment and continued to organise. They managed to create their sick-out later on that year with 300+ employees. And with the help of their former colleagues, they also coordinated a day-long livestream with virtual talks from people like Naomi Klein and Robert Reich, and more conversations with warehouse workers.
A year after being fired, the National Labour Relations Board found that the actions of Amazon were illegal and the two women received a settlement.
Amazon’s missed opportunity to be a climate leader
Amazon is a billion-dollar company with a reputation for inadequate health and safety conditions. Its global operations are huge and so is its C02 footprint. Yet, horrible stories circulate about employees, like having to pee in bottles because they can’t leave the conveyor belt. During the COVID-19 crisis the warehouse workers had no paid time off, no protective equipment, no extra safety measures. The employees at the warehouse were extremely affected by the pandemic and received no help or reassurance from their company.
Amazon has since drafted a Climate Pledge that sets out its plans to take action. The plan is considered neither greenwashing nor a game changer. However, there is no legal obligation to actually attain the set goals and according to Maren, Amazon won't change unless it has its back to the wall. She noticed that those in power seem untroubled by climate change, the health and safety of their workers and in general about anything that doesn’t generate money.
What kept them going?
Resistance from management and absence of leadership from shareholders didn’t dim Maren’s drive to address issues internally. In fact, it probably fanned the flames to advocate for change. Her very conscious choice was to be an workplace activist and change the company from within. Becoming a workplace activist was not without danger nor personal consequences. But she never questioned her role. Instead, Maren reasoned that given her privileged position of being able to risk being fired, where others perhaps couldn’t, it was her duty to speak up for human and environmental rights.
When I asked Maren to share some of the most important lessons and approaches, she mentioned these:
In order to create sustainable workplace activism, you need to have peers, people who you can rely on. There will always be people who are leaders and followers, and both are integral to the process. By actively seeking out allies within the company and reaching out via company-wide emails or the intranet, you can find common ground with people and start organising. The more allies you have and the more trust you create, the safer it is to participate in workplace activism. For example, to ensure that people wouldn’t stand alone and to make it more attractive to sign a petition, the group promised to only publish the petition when they had secured over two hundred signatures.
Pulling the wagon.
You need people who are willing to take risks and pull the wagon. Maren and Emily spoke to the press, against company policy and found people who were willing to do the same. By being brave, sticking your neck out and taking risks, you might suffer short-term consequences, but she believes you need it for positive impact in the long run. The example of the colleague who offered his email address is a good way of showing you don’t need to be in the limelight to take an active role.
Being an activist in the workplace can be very lonely and a lack of action or change can make you cynical. It takes a lot of effort to reach people and make them aware of their responsibility in making change possible. A good way to keep going is to stay positive and feel the love. Maren was extremely frustrated with the lack of action within the company and fearful of impending climate change. But when she read Emily Cunningham’s email, which was full of inspiration as well as a call to action and more importantly loving and positive, she turned that frustration into action!
We thank Maren for taking the time to talk to us in her busy schedule, and congratulate her former colleague Chris Smalls and his team for their magnificent win in establishing the first US union ever at Amazon.