This is the first edition of our new interview series, “Discourses.”
Maren Costa worked at Amazon for 15 years—nearly her entire professional career. She was the company’s first principal designer, who spent years developing its user experience as part of the white collar workforce helping to power Amazon’s global dominance.
But Costa was also an organizer and a troublemaker. In recent years, she became one of the loudest voices in the internal Amazon Employees for Climate Justice movement, which pressured the company to adopt more sustainable policies and to divest from big oil contracts. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, she and other organizers shifted their focus to advocating for the massive staff of under-paid, over-worked and barely-protected warehouse workers who make up the backbone of Amazon’s workforce.
On April 10, the company fired Costa and another white-collar organizer, Emily Cunningham. The company claimed that the women had “repeatedly” violated internal policies, including its “no solicitation” rule, after Costa and Cunningham circulated a petition in support of their warehouse colleagues. (In a statement to The Cut about the firings, Amazon said that though it respected “every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions,” this “does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies.”)
But Costa and Cunningham’s termination is part of a pattern: throughout the pandemic, Amazon has repeatedly cracked down on dissent and fired workers who attempted to organize for better job protection, sick leave policies, and workplace safety. It doesn’t take a huge leap to conclude that Costa and Cunningham were let go because their morals and activism were getting in the way of Amazon’s profits.
Costa and I talked on the phone on Tuesday about how white-collar employees at big tech companies can advocate for the gig workers and warehouse workers whose jobs put them on the front lines, ahead of a planned “sick-out” by workers at Amazon, Target, Whole Foods, Instacart, and FedEx on Friday.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me a little bit about your experience at Amazon and the events that led up to your firing.
I practically grew up with Amazon. The company I joined was optimistic, energetic, hopeful, wide-eyed, [with] innovative people wanting to really do do amazing things, but do good things as well.
But as time went on, it seemed like my path and Amazon’s path were diverging. I started to get extremely concerned about the climate crisis; I’ve always been an activist, but I started to put all of my energy behind climate. I found a small group of employees, including Emily [Cunningham], who had started to come together [at Amazon Employees for Climate Justice]. Our first action was the shareholder resolution, asking Amazon to become a climate leader. We had 8,700 Amazonians sign an open public letter to Jeff Bezos in support of that resolution. At that point, even the internal sustainability group at Amazon weren’t even willing to give a date on publishing their carbon footprint. They were way behind their peers.
When did that split happen — when you started to not recognize who you were working for anymore?
I was sitting at a bar at a happy hour with some friends, and they were sort of hammering me about “how can you work at Amazon, it’s such an awful company — the way that they treat warehouse workers, the way that they treat contractors, how they source their products.” Just hammering on me, and I actually broke down and cried.
“We have tech workers volunteering to send out the next email that will probably get them fired. I do think that workers will win this fight. A few more people may need to be fired, but I do think we’re standing on the right side of history, and it’s just a matter of time.”
Nobody wants to believe that they work at an evil company. You know, you’re there trying to do a great job, giving your 40 to 50 to 60, 70 hours a week and your blood, sweat, and tears. You want to believe that you’re working for a good company, and that’s what I wanted to believe for a long time. And then it just… I could no longer fool myself into believing that that was true.
How do you think companies use policies like external communications and no-solicitation to influence workers who want to change a company from within?
The pushback is very real. And it’s very scary. You know, corporations have a ton of power over workers in this country. With at-will employment, they can fire you for no reason at the drop of a hat, let alone for some mushy policy that they can kind of interpret however they want, whenever they need to, to get rid of somebody that they want to get rid of. These policies are written to be intentionally vague, and they’re really overstepping what becomes an issue of free speech. They’re just flat-out targeting leaders in order to, you know, try to silence or fire a few people in order to silence everyone.
What’s incredibly heartening is that we have seen more and more workers still standing up. Even after Emily and I were fired, we have tech workers volunteering to send out the next email that will probably get them fired. I do think that workers will win this fight. A few more people may need to be fired, but I do think we’re standing on the right side of history, and it’s just a matter of time.
“If Amazon is going to fire me for standing up for my coworkers’ safety, then Amazon is not a company I ever want to work for.”
Why do you think you were in a position to push for change, and what drove you to speak up?
You know, there were moments when I got my first warning that I felt some fear. I felt like, gosh, I don’t really know if I want to end my career at Amazon right now, I’m a single mom, I have two kids, I have a mortgage. But that said, I feel extremely privileged compared to my warehouse colleagues. And I think that people in positions of privilege have that much more responsibility to stand up and stand with the warehouse workers who are putting their lives on the line right now in this time of COVID and asking for the most basic forms of safety. And for me, that increasing outrage overcame the fear. If Amazon is going to fire me for standing up for my coworkers’ safety, then Amazon is not a company I ever want to work for.
What would be your recommendation for white collar workers and others, at firms like Amazon, like Facebook, like Google, who want to support the gig workers and the warehouse workers and the other labor that their company depends on to perform its services?
One of the mechanisms that we used is a shareholder resolution. And that’s a pretty safe and and sure way to go. That is an absolutely certified way to get a message to the leadership of your company and the shareholders to try to make a change.
Amazon is very invested in keeping tech workers siloed from warehouse workers, which is what we saw by how quickly they fired Emily and I and deleted [a] calendar invitation that 1500 tech workers had already accepted [to organize to support warehouse workers]. If Amazon was so proud of how well they’re treating their heroes in their warehouses, then why were they so terrified of this conversation happening?
We need to protect workers who are speaking up. I can only hope that my colleagues will continue to be brave, and continue to band together, and continue to push these issues further.
It really does come down to strength in numbers. It’s about making connections with your colleagues, making connections with other human beings, and building a broad base of support from where you can safely stand up for what you believe in. Making sure that you have that base takes time and effort, and everybody has to be working on it. That’s what we’re doing, and that’s what we’ll continue to do, within Amazon and without.
Photo by E.V. Munsson/Courtesy of Maren Costa.