Amazon VP VIP Tim Bray Quitfires Self Over 'Chickensh*t' Activist Quitfirings

Now with fun update: Tim Bray approves of this story.See end of post.

After so many stories about terrible rich greedheads grabbing up money that should be helping small businesses, let's raise a glass to former Amazon Web Services VP Tim Bray, who last week quit his job in protest over the company's retaliation against warehouse workers who just wanted safer working conditions. As Techdirt explains, Bray was a big name in internetting, having "helped develop XML and a variety of other standards/technologies the internet relies on." But Bray said he couldn't let himself be a part of any company that would respond to legitimate criticism by firing and smearing the workers calling attention to the problems. Fittingly, he left on Friday, International Workers' Day.

Come the revolution, let's remember not to eat this one.

In a post on his personal blog, Bray explained the recent firings have roots in last fall's actions by Amazon workers calling on the company to get its act together on climate. They started a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), sent an open letter calling for greener practices, and participated in the global Climate Strike walkout. Amazon eventually released a plan to decarbonize, but it also threatened to fire employees who called for the company to do better.

When COVID-19 broke out in the US, workers in Amazon's big warehouses complained they weren't getting good information or protection, and that the company wasn't responding to their concerns. Amazon insisted it was being super safe and taking every possible precaution. But the company also fired warehouse worker Christian Smalls, who'd been organizing calls for better worker safety, and leaked meeting notes showed Amazon executives planning to smear him and the entire labor organizing effort at Amazon:

"He's not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we're trying to protect workers," wrote Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in notes from the meeting forwarded widely in the company.

Bray details what happened next:

Warehouse workers reached out to 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 10th was apparently the flashpoint. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two visible AECJ leaders, were fired on the spot that day. The justifications were laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing.

Management could have objected to the event, or demanded that outsiders be excluded, or that leadership be represented, or any number of other things; there was plenty of time. Instead, they just fired the activists.

He says that was the breaking point for him. He notes that he's well aware that "VP's shouldn't go publicly rogue," so first he took his objections through the proper channels inside Amazon. Bray says he isn't able to go into details about those discussions, but

I made many of the arguments appearing in this essay. I think I made them to the appropriate people.

That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.

Bray also points out that all of the organizers Amazon fired were people of color, women, or both, but "I'm sure it's a coincidence [...] Right?"

He then listed a few "descriptive phrases you might use to describe the activist-firing," such as:

  1. "Chickenshit."
  2. "Kill the messenger."
  3. "Never heard of the Streisand effect."
  4. "Designed to create a climate of fear."
  5. "Like painting a sign on your forehead saying 'Either guilty, or has something to hide.'"
He later removed that list, after "voices I respect told me it was mean-spirited" and he decided it didn't add anything. But Techdirt editor Mike Masnick (who happened to coin the term "Streisand effect") preserved 'em, and we respectfully disagree with Mr. Bray. Sometimes mean-spirited is exactly what you need. Masnick also notes that, beyond his personal connection to the term, Amazon's firing the activists may do the exact opposite of covering over the problem, what with Bray's resignation calling even more attention to it. Consider this story right here our contribution to the pointing and shouting.
Bray goes on to say that he really does believe that Amazon management is trying its best to make conditions in the warehouses as safe as possible, but that the workers deserve to be heard, and, above all, that firing them was unconscionable. The larger problem, he says, is that
Amazon treats the 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.

This is something we can fix, Bray says. While it's very much an Amazon problem, it's not only an Amazon problem:

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.

Don't say it can't be done, because France is doing it.

Firing whistleblowers isn't just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets. It's evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.

To his credit, Bray also recognizes that, as a VP in Amazon's most profitable division, Amazon Web Services, he has a voice that's just structurally louder than the voices of warehouse workers. His own workplace is full of well-paid techies who get listened to, because the company thinks they're important, not just replaceable cogs.

At the end of the day, it's all about power balances. The warehouse workers are weak and getting weaker, what with mass unemployment and (in the US) job-linked health insurance. So they're gonna get treated like crap, because capitalism. Any plausible solution has to start with increasing their collective strength.

Sounds like the Patriotic Millionaires should be recruiting Tim Bray, our Class Traitor of the Day.

Update: In a new blog post, Tim Bray says he likes us, he really likes us!

Favorite response? · [Nobody] asked, but I'll answer anyhow. I could drop a dozen portentous media-heavyweight names and yeah, pretty well everyone weighed in. But it's not close, my fave was Wonkette: Amazon VP VIP Tim Bray Quitfires Self Over 'Chickensh*t' Activist Quitfirings. It says, of yr humble scrivener, "Come the revolution, let's remember not to eat this one" and "Class Traitor of the Day". These lodged in what I thought was a thoroughly lucid and spirited take on the situation.

Hear that Ma? I'm LUCID!

[Techdirt / Tim Bray / Vice Update: Tim Bray]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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