Amazon Employees Try a New Form of Activism, as Shareholders

Amazon employees are using their company-issued stock to pressure top executives into reducing contributions to climate change, in what may be an unprecedented effort to expand tech-worker unease into a new front of shareholder activism.

Amazon’s proxy statement, released Thursday, includes an employee-backed resolution asking the company to report publicly on how it plans to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and manage the risks posed by climate change. On Wednesday, supporters released an open letter signed by more than 5,200 employees calling on CEO Jeff Bezos and the board of directors to support the resolution. In the letter, the employees also asked Amazon to stop offering its cloud services to the oil and gas industries.

The resolution will be a tough sell. In the proxy statement, Amazon’s board recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal, saying the request to reduce fossil fuel dependency and think critically about how it plans to tackle climate-change-related disruption was unnecessary, “given our commitment to disclose our overall carbon footprint.”

Still, the move could be a harbinger of a new genre of activism for stock-laden tech workers, as employees grow more outspoken about the direction of their employers, from petitions and walkouts to group organizing.

Politically or socially motivated shareholder proposals are usually the territory of outside activist investors or advocacy groups, according to Professor David Larcker, director of Stanford’s Corporate Governance Research Initiative, so it’s particularly unusual to see a coalition of employees using their earned shares in this way.

Tech giants like Amazon may have their companies’ own ethos to blame. For tech workers, shares of stock (or stock options) are a common part of compensation packages, allowing employees to use their stake in a company as more than just a golden ticket to millionairedom.

“Because it’s Silicon Valley, you’re giving shares to lots of young millennial types [and] tech-oriented people and they may have very different objectives than very traditional shareholders or even institutional investors,” says Larcker. He thinks the idea is likely to catch on with tech workers elsewhere.

“Obviously they want to make some money on the shares they’re [holding], but a lot of them have really embraced environmental and social issues and they’re using their voice to say that,” he adds. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see other things crop up that are like this, particularly if the group gets some sort of desirable outcome from their perspective.”

Amazon workers’ climate change shareholder proposal was filed in December, and will be put to a vote by shareholders at the company’s annual meeting on May 22, along with 11 other shareholder-backed proposals. The litany of issues raised in these proposals speak to many of the most pressing controversies facing the company. One asks the board to stop selling facial recognition technology to government agencies until an independent evaluation confirms that it isn’t a human rights violation. Another asks Amazon’s board to commission an independent study to determine the extent to which its facial recognition tech disproportionately targets people of color and immigrants, and is being marketed to authoritarian regimes. A third asks the company to produce a report on its plan to address hate speech and the sale of offensive products—including “racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic items”—on its platforms. Another requests a review of the company’s sexual harassment policies; one asks for more transparency regarding the lack of ideological diversity on the board; and yet another asks for data on the global median pay gap between male and female employees.

Amazon’s board recommended voting against all of them in the proxy statement released Thursday.

Jamie Kowalski, an Amazon software engineer who was among the employees who filed the resolution, called the board’s opposition “a step in the wrong direction and sends the wrong message to our employees.” Kowalski said “it’s clear by the fact that over 5,400 employees have signed our letter that we’re passionate about Amazon becoming a leader on climate change.”

It’s worth noting that shareholder proposals aren’t binding, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. “If one passed, most boards would [recognize] that the shareholders have a very specific viewpoint, and would probably take some action,” says Larcker.

Most boards initially recommend against shareholder proposals, he notes. But he acknowledges the proposal and company response are just the first stage of a debate between Amazon employees and management that will evolve over the next month. “A lot of people [and] employees are going to be watching to see what the consequences are. It could be a remarkable event to see how the board handles it and whether the employees have the power—the persuasion—to influence the board.”


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