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Society Watch: How employees take their companies to task for climate change

Society Watch: How employees take their companies to task for climate change

COP26 in Glasgow

April 11th – Employee activism is moving out of the shadows into mainstream. Through staff meetings and forums, a new wave of consciousness is emerging that addresses issues such as climate change, social inequality, and other related topics. And whether employers are looking to bring in new investment, recruit new talents or just do the right thing, they know it’s a movement they can’t ignore.

Much of this new corporate empathy stems from events at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters in April 2020, when the company fired two workers, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa. The company cited persistent violations of internal policies as the reason for the sackings, while supporters claimed it was a knee-jerk reaction to the pair’s vocal efforts in calling the company to task over its lack of action on global warming.

Cunningham and Costa had argued that Amazon had no real system in place to deal with its climate impacts, yet many of the world’s other corporate behemoths had committed to radical plans to cut their carbon emissions. The pair started to meet with colleagues and organise, eventually creating Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), and putting a resolution for shareholders.

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Although their resolution was rejected by shareholders, 30% of shareholders supported the resolution, though Jeff Bezos wasn’t among them. The pressure continued with the AECJ organising a walkout at the Seattle plant, along with workers from other tech companies such as Google, in support of 2019’s global climate strikes. Coincidentally, the day before the walkout, Amazon committed to becoming net zero by 2040, a plan management said had been in place for a while and hadn’t been influenced by the AECJ.

Eliza Pan, another former Amazon worker and still active in AECJ, said that it was this collective action that was the key. “Companies will respond when lots of employees come together to demand change,” she explains. “What we have learned through our work at Amazon is that we do have power to influence what Amazon does but only if we all work together. If companies like Amazon are forced by its own employees to go further faster, that also sets the stage for other companies to follow.”

As Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, gestures during a speech at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland (Britain), November 2, 2021. Paul Ellis/Pool via REUTERS

Project Drawdown, a climate consultancy published last year a guide for employees on how to apply their skills to the crisis of climate change while holding their employers accountable.

Jamie Beck Alexander, a Project Drawdown director who runs Drawdown Labs’ programme, was a volunteer with the fledgling AECJ. “I saw how powerful employees organising is,” she explains. “The Amazon employees really did break the mould.”

She also worked for Uber, helping employees hijack a company meeting to bombard the leadership with questions about its climate initiatives. She says that Uber announced its new climate targets a month later.

Alexander explains that Drawdown Labs’ role is to bridge the gap between employees and corporations. “We walk the fine line of working with corporate sustainability leaders and employee organisers, as both are critical to pushing forward, getting work done and holding the company to account,” she explains.

Until the Amazon case, says Alexander: “Workers felt they had to check their climate alarm at the door… their involvement was pretty much limited to helping recycle more.”

Now, she believes, this sort of heightened employee contribution “is the future of corporate responsibility… (and) a barometer of the authenticity of a company’s climate pledges. Are they welcoming in more employees? Are they accepting the pressure and saying: ‘you’re right, we do need to move faster?’”

Drawdown Labs published last year a guide for employees on how they can use their skills to help solve the climate crisis and hold their employers accountable.

Alexander also offers workshops that cover ideas such decarbonizing corporate cash. He examines where companies are investing, and talks to powerful human resource departments about offering climate-friendly retirement plans.

Drivers protest Uber and other app-based ride hailing companies in New York on May 8, 2019, U.S. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

She also said that policy is a large area. This is especially true in the United States, where companies may make specific climate commitments, but their trade associations actively hinder climate policy. She suggests that employees should raise this issue with their groups.

“If our current economic system is going to be able to survive in the era of climate change, it will be because employees have pushed it and made it so, and held companies accountable,” adds Alexander.

Planetgroups, a non-profit organization in Germany, works with companies to create and support green teams, so that employees can contribute to the solution. Tim Riedel, founder of Planetgroups, explained.

“We usually see a very big alignment between the interests of management and the interests of the employees,” he explains. “It’s about making management think about things, rather than forcing them into action.”

He says that sustainability teams can feel threatened by employee action and new green groups in some businesses. However, they should view them as valuable allies. Sustainability teams are often under-resourced, he says, and “so having an employee green team has actually added a lot of outreach and power to their work.

“They don’t have to do all of it themselves, they don’t have to trigger the resistance of line managers with their suggestions. Let the green team do it and then they can mediate.”

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But dig a bit deeper, and despite the progress that has been made, there is still a secretive, underground element to the movement, amid employees’ basic fear that if they go too far in the eyes of management, their jobs are on the line.

“I know that there is organising (of employees) happening right now but nothing that is publicly shareable,” Alexander says.

For example, members of the AECJ continue to work with groups from other tech companies that are interested in bringing about change. However, Pan is reticent about what it means. “The reality is that Amazon does not want us to exist,” she says.

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The opinions expressed are those of their author. These opinions do not reflect those of Reuters News. Reuters News is committed to integrity and independence as well as freedom from bias under the Trust Principles. Thomson Reuters is the owner of Sustainable Business Review, a component of Reuters Professional. It operates independently of Reuters News.

Mark Hillsdon, a Manchester-based freelance writer, writes on business sustainability for The Ethical Corporation, The Guardian and other nature-based titles.

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