A vice president and distinguished engineer at Amazon Web Services resigned in protest against the corporation’s firing of whistleblowers who spoke out against deplorable warehouse conditions.

Tim Bray wrote in a post on his personal website that terminating whistleblowers was “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.”

Bray’s narrative further confirms how executives are creating a chilling effect against workers who dare to dissent. He estimated taking a stand would cost him over a million dollars in salary and shares.

As the coronavirus spread through Amazon warehouses in March, workers grew more and more afraid of risks to their safety. By April, Christian Smalls organized a demonstration on Staten Island for better workplace conditions and was fired. Leaked executive meeting notes showed Amazon’s plans to demonize Smalls in order to discredit employees demanding changes.

Bray recalled warehouse workers “reached out” to Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) “for support. They responded by internally promoting a petition and organizing a video call for Thursday, April 16, featuring warehouse workers from around the world, with guest activist Naomi Klein.”

“An announcement sent to internal mailing lists on Friday, April 10, was apparently the flashpoint. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two visible AECJ leaders, were fired on the spot that day,” Bray added. “The justifications were laughable. It was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing.”

Bray went “through the proper channels” and engaged in discussions with the “appropriate people,” but he was left with no choice other than to resign. “Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions [he] despised.”

He lists off several employees, who in addition to Smalls were fired because they raised their voice: Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, and Bashir Mohamed.

The corporation informed Bryson, who was a warehouse employee on Staten Island, that he was fired for using “vulgar language.” But Bryson, who worked for Amazon for a year and a half, told CNET, “It was just retribution for me organizing and protesting. I’m disgusted. I feel violated.”

Bowden was fired after she advocated for paid vacation for part-time workers. Mohamed, who is of Somali descent, was involved in organizing workers at a warehouse in Minnesota, and Buzzfeed reported he pushed for “more rigorous cleaning and other measures to protect against the transmission of the coronavirus.”

According to CNN, “Mohamed distributed paper petitions to workers in Somali and English and said he expressed concerns to management about what he called the impossibility of practicing social distancing in the facility. To his surprise, Mohamed said he was given a ‘final warning’ in late March for allegedly not following the recommendation for six feet of social distancing while speaking to a colleague in the parking lot, an incident he said he asked for proof of but was not given.”

“They fired me to make others scared,” Mohamed declared. “I was the top target.”

Costa and Cunningham were targeted because of their organizing in 2019 against Amazon’s climate policies. They were part of AECJ’s effort to promote a shareholders’ resolution that urged the corporation to take dramatic action to confront the “global climate emergency.”

“I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both,” Bray quipped.

Smalls was involved in a protest that demanded a facility on Staten Island close after cases of the coronavirus were confirmed.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has investigated Amazon’s retaliation against workers. Her office confirmed in a letter to Amazon that workers are more fearful of speaking out since Smalls was fired.

“This is a particularly dangerous message to send during a pandemic, when chilling worker speech about health and safety practices could literally be a matter of life and death,” her office contended.

Bray recognized whistleblower retaliation is a result of a larger problem—that “Amazon treats humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st Century capitalism is done.”

“Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”

“If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things,” Bray proposed. “We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living wage and worker empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."