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.”
?Kill the messenger.?
?Never heard of the Streisand effect.?
?Designed to create a climate of fear.?
?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.