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Amazon is cracking down on internal communication after a surge in worker activism

Vox.com logo Vox.com 4/30/2020 Shirin Ghaffary and Jason Del Rey
a group of people holding a sign posing for the camera: Amazon and other tech employees protesting during the global climate strike in September 2019. © Karen Ducey/Getty Images Amazon and other tech employees protesting during the global climate strike in September 2019.

Amazon’s corporate employees have started to question the e-commerce giant’s business and labor practices more than ever before. In response, the company appears to be cracking down.

This week, Recode has learned that Amazon has started strictly enforcing rules that limit its employees’ internal communications with each other on several large company email listservs, where workers have been criticizing how the company is treating its warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic and have organized protests in response.

On Monday, Amazon’s IT department notified some employees who manage listservs of more than 500 people that they are required to have employee moderators pre-approve any posts on their mailing lists — a rule that the company says previously existed but several sources told Recode was rarely enforced until now. Employees who create or manage listservs can pick who they want to designate as the moderators, but those moderators have to be an “L6” manager-level employee or above, limiting the gatekeepers of the discussion.

A spokesperson for Amazon said that its policies about moderating large email lists are not new, but that after a routine audit, the company has started enforcing its policies for all mailing lists that either weren’t following the rules or had been previously granted exceptions.

Amazon’s listservs — which number in the thousands — are places for employees to discuss a wide range of topics, from climate change to parenting. Recently, some of these forums have also become places for workers to critique the company’s operational handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in how it treats warehouse workers, who have asked for higher pay and more safety protections. Some inside the company see the new communications rules as a way to muzzle corporate employees who are increasingly organizing on behalf of their lower-paid colleagues.

“It’s obviously and transparently being done to shut down employee communication,” said one corporate Amazon employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of company policies barring employees from speaking to the press without prior approval. “If we wanted to share information about a firing internally or publicize an event, we would need to convince a moderator to let us do it — and that would be mean them risking getting fired.”

Another corporate employee who’s active on internal listservs agreed that the move appeared to be aimed at the organizers, but that there were likely other factors at play, too. Recently, there’s been a rise in employees spamming these distribution lists with other kinds of requests, the employee said, and the organizers’ mass invites were likely the final straw rather than the only reason for the move.

Related video: Amazon faces health concerns despite roaring stock prices (provided by KING-TV)

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Whether or not Amazon’s renewed enforcement of these rules is mainly meant to restrict internal activism, many Amazon employees perceive it that way. They worry that the company’s recent actions will be a barrier to having meaningful discussion on important topics like warehouse worker rights and the company’s environmental policies.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment specifically about concerns that the rules are limiting employees’ speech on working conditions.

In recent weeks, hundreds of Amazon warehouse employees at more than 50 sites around the US have participated in protesting working conditions during the pandemic, demanding greater pay, access to protective gear, and more generous time-off policies. Amazon’s corporate employees have used listservs to share their dismay over the escalating labor disputes and to organize events that bring together blue-collar and white-collar workers.

In turn, the company has fired at least six employees involved in recent protests — including two longtime corporate employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa. Cunningham and Costa were prominent leaders of an internal climate activism group, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), with an active listserv of more than 8,000 members.

Last Friday, AECJ members used dozens of Amazon internal listservs to invite thousands of their colleagues to skip work in a mass sickout and instead attend a virtual panel discussion about Amazon warehouse working conditions and environmental policies. Although the invites to this event mysteriously disappeared from workers’ calendars and two organizers were fired for organizing a similar event the week prior, it went on as planned with more than 300 people attending virtually.

With the new enforcement about these rules on email communications, employees say it will be impossible for workers to use listservs to mobilize their colleagues in a similar fashion.

“Everyone seems to acknowledge (subtly or overtly) that this was in response to the employees getting fired and the sickout,” another Amazon employee told Recode. “I think part of what Amazon is trying to do is make average employees upset at AECJ because of this new inconvenience.”

Aside from the concerns about censorship of discussions about worker rights, several employees have also expressed concern in internal emails about how the rules will slow down forums dedicated to supporting underrepresented employee groups. Many of the most popular listservs at Amazon are ones for women in engineering and racial minorities who work at the company to virtually convene and support each other.

In an internal email one employee moderator sent to a listerv for discussing diversity and inclusion, the employee acknowledged that additional requirements will cause a “slower flow of communication” and that the moderation team may start rejecting certain emails, which will be “a very different dynamic” for the mailing list.

Last year, Amazon’s tech giant peer Google similarly limited employee speech on internal forums following a rise in worker activism. While the move was met with a fair share of criticism, the lockdown ultimately was not enough to stop workers from continuing to organize and publicly leak controversial company initiatives. In contrast to Google, the recent organizing on Amazon’s internal forums is relatively new to Amazon’s buttoned-up workplace culture, particularly on the corporate level.

If moderators of employee discussions find the policies too laborious, they could move the discussion to off-corporate platforms, as tens of thousands of Amazon warehouse workers have done in private Facebook groups. And while Amazon’s decision may stop contentious worker discussions in the short term, it also draws more attention to worker organizing and signals how seemingly threatened Amazon’s management is by open discussion among its employees.

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