Tim Bray, Early Internet Guru, And Amazon VP Quits Over The 'Chickenshit' Company's Targeting Of Employees Speaking Out About COVID-19

from the good-for-him dept

If you do anything internet related, hopefully you already know Tim Bray. Among tons of other things, he helped develop XML and a variety of other standards/technologies the internet relies on. He’s also been a vocal and thoughtful commenter on a wide variety of issues, especially in the tech policy space. For the past five years he’s been working at Amazon as a VP and Distinguished Engineer — but as he’s announced he has now quit in protest over the company’s retaliation against workers who were speaking up over the company’s handling of their working conditions during the pandemic. Bray gives some of the background of workers organizing and speaking up about their concerns, and then discusses the company’s reaction (firing the vocal ones and offering lame excuses).

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.

At that point I snapped. VPs shouldn?t go publicly rogue, so I escalated through the proper channels and by the book. I?m not at liberty to disclose 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 does not mince words about how terrible he thinks this response was, and even includes “some descriptive phrases you might use to describe the activist-firing.”

  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.??

Tim notes that while he does believe that the company has been “putting massive efforts into warehouse safety” the workers’ own testimony can’t be ignored either — and that firing workers for speaking out and trying to make things better is exactly the wrong response.

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.

For reasons beyond just the coinage of the phrase, I find it especially interesting that Bray made the Streisand Effect comparison. Amazon has a history of somewhat ruthless employee practices, but straight up intimidation of a workforce speaking out for their health and safety in the midst of a pandemic, when they’re more essential than ever… seems just insanely short-sighted and self-destructive. Hopefully, Bray taking a stand and quitting his job makes someone wake up within the company that this is the exact wrong approach.

While Amazon may be right that its warehouse workers have the short end of the power-balance stick, the company is still deep in competition for engineering talent. Bray quitting so publicly and with such clarity of purpose may certainly make a number of top engineers whom the company would like to hire think that they may feel better about their souls by choosing to work elsewhere.

On a separate note, Bray points out that the Guardian, somewhat bizarrely for a major publication like this, simply reprinted his entire blog post without first asking him:

Tim does have a CC BY-NC 2.0 license on his blog, where the post was originally made, but it’s not clear whether the Guardian’s use would really be considered “non-commercial.” Of course, for years we’ve called out the vagueness associated with what is and what is not “non-commercial” use, but the Guardian is at least on a very thin borderline. I find it somewhat surprising that it chose not to at least ask before publishing it. At the same time, the Guardian has tremendous reach, and if the most important part to Tim is getting his message out, the Guardian is not a bad way to do it.

Update: Tim took out his list of descriptive phrases after someone suggested it was too far. We’ll be leaving them in this post. Separately, he notes that the Guardian took down their post and apologized, and he seems content with this outcome.

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Companies: amazon

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Comments on “Tim Bray, Early Internet Guru, And Amazon VP Quits Over The 'Chickenshit' Company's Targeting Of Employees Speaking Out About COVID-19”

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45 Comments
OGquaker says:

Re: Bezos is the ONLY rich guy i can trust

Without a car and living on a small fraction of an income in the hood, Amazon is the only place i buy anything that is new, and comparison shopping is, for the FIRST TIME, possible for us inner-city losers. It’s one bus to Whole-paycheck, (Whole Foods) the only place to get anything but sugar-ized, plasticized & taxed liquor store ‘food’, and Baa-zoses has improved the prices. Three supermarkets (all Ralphs) and Walmart have closed in the last ten years, round trip to Winco is 50 miles, we have done it by bus in the past. The few books i buy (except at Goodwill) come from Amazon because the publishing industry, since the IRS changed tax law, only prints new titles. America has millions of us ‘outliers’. For the last 30 years, the stores around here won’t give your change, the ACE hardware chain sells junk tools and trash supplies; "buy what we have or get out of my store". Since we are sequestered at home now, and depend on the $$rich USC Ralphs, i have discovered: double-wrapped top-O-the-line "natural whole wheat multigrain" bread is packed with sugars, not fit for bugs IMO.
I bought a $1k Amazon rebuilt transmission shipped from Texas after decades of B.S. & returns & lies from auto-parts stores all around Los Angeles, and i would trust my $100 bank card to no one else on the internet, Alibaba expects a "Bank Transfer" for a $95 purchase.
Bezos has turned monopoly capitalism upside down, bo ho. Works great for us, fck the chains; they rent shelf space to vendors, who move their product from 1st grade to 2end grade, 3ed, et.al. stores as the product ages. We get the old crap, last in the supermarket’s graded store system. Our Home Depot works the same, and at least someone found a way to deflate WalMart’s toxic bulldozer.
The most wage i ever made was unloading boxcars for two years, so it’s to bad that we have been tought since high school that Union is a four letter word.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Bezos is the ONLY rich guy i can trust

"Bezos has turned monopoly capitalism upside down, bo ho. Works great for us, fck the chains…"

All of which is true. Doesn’t change the fact that Amazon meets that cheap bottom line by employing the equivalent of serfs which are intimidated into silence and compliance by the liberal use of examples made.

Those are the facts. You may be OK with that. Some people aren’t. Going "bo ho" to people who decided that institutionalized pseudo-slavery is something worthy of criticism doesn’t send a good message, bro.

Ironically your argument looks almost exactly like that which southerners made before the civil war about how going after the plantation owners would make the good stuff unavailable for the lower and middle classes. Doesn’t mean they were wrong about that – shit does get more expensive when you can’t treat the workers like powerless cattle.

It’s a tradeoff. One which ironically ensures the people with lower incomes feel compelled to defend the business model which exploits other low-income workers – because it’s the only way they can afford to buy decent stuff.

I guess the old saying still holds true – it’s an ill wind indeed which blows nobody any good.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Good on the Guardian. And I would say that what the Guardian did was commercial use (seeing as it is a for-profit company), so it violated the CC license (which I use as well for my original music) and therefore, Tim Bray’s copyright. The Guardian apologizing and taking down the article was the right thing to do, and I’m happy they did it.

Anonymous Coward says:

As so often happens, the top dog has too much power and cant handel it. The phrase ‘ with great power comes great responsibility’ is oh, so true and it dont look like Bezos is up to it. He’s proven that he is concerned with having power and money, but greed seems to have gotten the top most place on the list. The money being made was very subdtantial but not enough for him, having to introduce the charge for postage and the ridiculous Prime Time, just to make even more profit! Treating employees like this is not good. Watching his ad, truing to convince everyone what a wonderful company and wonderful boss he is dont work. When something like that has to be used to keep and attract customers, he’s hiding something! Guess we now know what!

Anonymous Coward says:

The bottom line

Amazon is simply too big to fail now. They can whatever the hell they want, take their beatings in the news and business will go on as usual. There is next to nothing that can tear them down at this point. They are free to act however they please and the public’s complaints, even those of its employees, are nought but impotent gnat farts in the breeze.

Not saying it’s "right". It’s just how it is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

and maybe the creation of a Not-Amazon company to foster a minimal degree of competition

Bangood and Aliexpress carry many of the same goods, out of the same factories. Oracle, Google and Microsoft offer cloud services. Audible, prime and books are somewhat unique to Amazon, but outside those, Amazon is exposed to competition.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"… but outside those, Amazon is exposed to competition."

Yet the issue is that the consumer is unwilling to vote with their wallets and take their business elsewhere. Simply put, Amazon knows damn well enough people won’t give a damn if they keep a slave farm in their supply chain and thus feel quite free to act like the crapsacks portrayed in the OP.

When "being a scummy asshat" isn’t enough to discourage the majority of consumers there’s a bit of a problem in just relying on the market.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"…and maybe the creation of a Not-Amazon company to foster a minimal degree of competition."

In the ideal world Amazon being a company company too unethical to use by many should give rise to a competitor filling that niche. Sadly this is where the free market paradigm breaks down. People in general simply don’t give a rat’s ass which means the wallet vote supposed to open the market to competitors simply isn’t happening.

Amazon is making full use of the fact that most of its warehouse employees desperately need the job, making them the new MacDonald’s burger flippers, just with less rights.

I’ve always wondered how libertarians keep clinging to an ideology which has been debunked to the same point communism was. The market won’t regulate itself and corporations can only be brought to follow minimum ethical codes of conduct by force. Because there’ll always be a shkreli willing to step in and walk across a few corpses if it brings a quarterly profit.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: The bottom line

"Haven’t you described every corporation?"

Not really, no. There are numerous corporations willing to subscribe to or write a stringent code of conduct on their own, while taking pains to ensure they keep winning the "best employer" awards. In the long run, that brings credibility and builds the brand.

Even oil companies, these days.

But there’ll always be a Turing Pharmaceuticals or an Amazon sticking out as the modern world’s answer to the robber baron or pre-civil-war plantation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The bottom line

"subscribe to or write a stringent code of conduct"
Words are cheap

"winning the "best employer" awards"
Not sure this is a good metric nor whether it is indicative of how well the employees are treated.

"Even oil companies"
Like BP, Exxon, etc … yeah sure, whatever

idk, it’s like a corporation doing the right thing is about as prevalent as a cop doing the right thing. Yes, it happens

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The bottom line

"Words are cheap"

Yeah. But there are corporations who walk the talk. If you want and need a certain type of person with a certain type of skillsets or a certain type of adaptability then it truly helps if you take care not to alienate those potential recruits. I know a few people who have been laid off and re-hired by one and the same company three times over their career as it grew, moved offices, etc. They kept telling me it’s the best employer they ever had.

I also know a few people whose experiences with certain other companies have been…dystopian and positively kafkaesque.

"Not sure this is a good metric nor whether it is indicative of how well the employees are treated."

Depends on who votes for the award. When watchdog organizations are the ones issuing the clean bill of health after interviewing former employees of a given company I’m inclined to extend it a certain amount of credibility.

"Like BP, Exxon, etc … yeah sure, whatever"

A few of whom are, today, more vocal about the dangers of climate change and global warming than a few governments we could all name. And why not? Oil today is rapidly slipping away from being an energy source so it’s in their benefit to ride the wave of renewables as hard as they can and retool their oil business towards lubricants and manufacturing fluids instead.

"idk, it’s like a corporation doing the right thing is about as prevalent as a cop doing the right thing. "

There’s a difference. You could argue that a cop will gain community cooperation whether he gains it by trust or by terror.
A corporation needs to either win competitively or by holding a deathgrip monopoly on something essential for many.

Ironically Big Oil has to compete with others so they are far more dependant on brand credibility than they used to be back in the day when contemporary realpolitik ensured a steady demand for as much carbon-based fuel as they could supply.
Todays monopolists who have no need to give a rat’s ass about what anyone thinks are instead the companies who depend on IP monopolization. As shkreli demonstrated, sitting on the one and only supply of a life-saving drug allows you to be an unapologetic monster.

Big Guns are…well, still pretty bad. Big Tobacco had its back broken a long time ago. Big Oil is busy reinventing itself as Big Energy. The remaining bogeyman in the closet from ye olden times would be Big Coal and Big Guns. Both of whom have seen some rather pathetic attempts to whitewash their continued existence by people like Trump, Murray and Cox.

The current monsters among corporations all rely on holding near or de facto monopolies on popular or vital products and the logistics thereof as their argument for treating both customers and employees like disposable cattle. Big Pharma and the Copyright Cult, mainly.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 The bottom line

The current monsters among corporations all rely on holding near or de facto monopolies on popular or vital products and the logistics thereof as their argument for treating both customers and employees like disposable cattle. Big Pharma and the Copyright Cult, mainly.

I would make an argument that Big Pharma is worse than the Copyright Cult because whereas the Copyright Cult can make your life worse, even Bob Iger is capable of feeling shame; whereas Big Pharma will make recovery or life-living impossible due to the stranglehold they have on life-saving drugs and medical equipment such as Epi-Pens.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 The bottom line

"I would make an argument that Big Pharma is worse than the Copyright Cult…"

Yes and no. I mean, I’ve seen firsthand how medical patents turned project HUGO into a shit-show where the participating hyenas first thing sent C&D’s to cancer research projects because they held a newly minted patent on the link between the BrC1 gene and breast cancer.

On the other hand I’ve seen the copyright cult lobby advocate, somewhat successfully, multiple times, for international "trade treaty" provisions which would, effectively roll back the legal status of free speech to 16th century france.

Medical patents kill and deprive massive amounts of people from lifesaving medication. Copyright seeks to deprive humanity as a whole from the ability to freely communicate.

Which is worse depends, imho, on which horrifying example you bring to the table at the moment. In my book that’s as glaring a condemnation of most of the "Imaginary property" concept as could be asked for.

In fact I’d say the only part of it which passes any form of sanity and proportionality principle is basic trademark law.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Upstream (profile) says:

I found the "descriptive phrases" quite refreshing. Some people, like journalists, diplomats, lawyers, politicians etc are often under great pressure to use only blandspeak. Tim Bray is none of those. I respect a Distinguished Engineer who speaks his mind in terms everyone can understand! Please, more of this!

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"Tim removed the descriptive phrases after someone he trusted told him it was over the line."

Ummm, fsck that guy you told you that.

The reason nothing actually ever changes is because people latch onto stupid shit like this.
You were very rude in how you called them on in firing people who were living in fear of dying because the company couldn’t be bothered to do anything until publicly embarrassed. If you call them chickenshit they will have hurt feelings.

Fuck em.

Global Pandemic.
The top brass are assuming everything is fine & these few naredowells are just agitators.
Except no one is being told they were exposed.
Workers are being told to not disclose if they are sick.
There has been NO PPE given to them.

Perhaps the top brass needs to come down from the lily white tower & see what its like on the ground floor. If they thought the publicity when people were dropping like flies in overheated warehouses was bad, this is another level.

Stop pretending you are doing enough, until you walk into every fscking warehouse & find out why the high morals you claim to the media somehow aren’t making it down the chain to actually help those you claim you helped.

Here is an example even an Amazon Exec. can understand.

Trump stands at a podium and says everything is okay.
In this example, you are Trump lying to everyone. You take potshots at anyone who tells the truth & claim its all fake.

Unless Cocaine Mitch manages to get the no you can’t sue the employers who refused to protect you bill passed, it might be in your best fscking interests to make sure what you said would be done is actually being done & not skipped by a manager looking to get a bonus on cost cutting.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, i think Bray did speak the harsh truth either way, but he caved on the list because he listened to some tone troll.

On the other hand, it was only this that caused him to have a problem with Amazon.

On yet another hand (possibly even the gripping hand), everyone has to work somewhere.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"On yet another hand (possibly even the gripping hand), everyone has to work somewhere."

Well, yeah, but possibly not with the Khanate if you could pick the Medina Traders instead as an employer.

Who and what you work with is, to some extent, still a choice. Sure, it might not be as true for the indentured serfs working the warehouses at Amazon as it is for Tim Bray – who can probably pick his choice of employment at will.

MinchinWeb (profile) says:

Canadian

I keep wondering what role the fact that Tim is Canadian plays into this. Canadian labour standards legislation, which Tim would have been surrounded by working in Vancouver, provide for better protections then Amazon was apparently offering their warehouse workers at issue here. As well, Tim doesn’t have to worry about losing his healthcare (because it’s not tied to his employment like is common in the US) or his visa (because he lives and works in his "native land").

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Canadian

Tim doesn’t have to worry about losing his healthcare (because it’s not tied to his employment like is common in the US)

Don’t believe the hype about Canada. He’ll likely—depending on the BC-specific details—lose "extended" healthcare, usually stuff like vision, drug, dental, and travel medical benefits. Other than foreign medical costs, that stuff won’t produce a $100,000 bill or anything, but a family could easily spend thousands per year.

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