Around lunchtime on Friday, anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 tech workers poured out of the big glass buildings in South Lake Union and gathered at the base of Bezos’s balls to support the youth-led global climate strike. Workers demanded more action from their companies on climate change, and encouraged other tech employees to join the movement.
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice and Google Workers for Action on Climate organized the event, which couldn’t help but have somewhat of a goofy corporate air. Organizers laid out pre-made picket signs they were “definitely planning to recycle later” according to someone manning the sign table. Speakers commanded the crowd to do ice breakers; the woman next to me thanked me for being there and called me “a badass,” and some guy beside me gave me a fist-bump. A few of the protest songs could have used another workshop or two. But an overall feeling of solidarity and fellow-feeling permeated a crowd that seemed excited to harness the powers of collective action.
Charles Lapham, the communications director for Martin Luther King County Labor Council, called the Amazon walk-out “one of the biggest labor stories of the year.” Most workers organize around wages, hours, and benefits, but these at-will tech workers, Lapham pointed out, were risking their jobs to advocate for an issue.
And they’re winning. The day before the scheduled protest, Level 12 Amazon employee Jeff Bezos announced the company would sign a Climate Pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2040, to plant a lot of trees, and to buy 100,000 electric delivery vans from a company in which Amazon has invested.
The goal, Bezos said, was to help reduce the size of the retail giant's carbon footprint, which, as many of us learned yesterday, is very big. The company’s 44.4 million metric tons of carbon emissions rivals “major energy companies and heavy-industry firms,” according to the New York Times, making it one of the top polluters in the country—and certainly in Seattle.
But organizers and other tech employees are demanding more.
Molly Spetalnick, a 27-year-old urban/architecture designer at ZGF, said Bezos has the funds to buy the carbon offsets they would need to attain carbon neutrality tomorrow. "Microsoft did that in 2012...but Amazon is just choosing to wait to do that, and it's purely a financial decision," she said. Spetalnick argues that going green doesn't have to hurt a company's bottom line, "you just have to be creative," she said.
Venkatesh Srinivas, 31, electrical engineer at Google, said he came out to tell tech companies to stop drawing up custom contracts with oil and gas companies. Srinivas said engineers have the “unique ability” to pull levers that can forestall “really dark outcomes,” and wanted to encourage his fellow engineers to join him in the fight. Otherwise, he said, "the miserable survivors will be left to contemplate the folly of man."
Bonnie, a 51-year-old database developer, said she came out to show politicians that the world is watching. “I think my generation and every older generation have kind of screwed things up,” she said. “We haven’t thought about the consequences of some of our inventions, including plastic.” Though she took the day off, she told her kids they should strike today even if their teacher wouldn't give them an excused absence. “I told them that sometimes protest means sacrifice,” she said.
Last summer’s wildfires were “a big wake-up call” for Baxter, a 24-year-old financial analyst for Amazon’s grocery delivery service who grew up in Seattle. He’s also “a big skier,” and the prospect of snowless mountains—in addition to a completely melted planet—bum him out. Like many others, Baxter said he didn’t fear retaliation from the bosses. “We have the opportunity to talk, and I personally trust that senior leadership is listening to us if we choose to do that,” he said.
Only a few of the protesters I interviewed feared any kind of retaliation from bosses. One was happy to be interviewed but certainly did not want their picture taken for the blog. But almost all said they didn’t feel as if their jobs were truly at risk. When Robert, a product manger with Amazon, told his boss he was striking, his boss replied, “Great!”
After a few rousing speeches from tech workers, the crowd funneled down 7th Ave to join the 10,000 protestors heading to City Hall. They abandoned the somewhat overly complicated march song an organizer tried to teach the crowd for a simpler and more direct chant. "Hey Hey / Ho Ho / Fossil fuels have got to go."