What is courage? You can look in the dictionary, but I think we know it when we see it — and when we do not. We sure didn’t see it in the craven votes cast by every Republican senator (with one exception) to risk the foundations of our democracy by acquitting Donald Trump. Courage demanded doing the right thing in spite of the fear they might lose their jobs. Instead, they lost their honor.
But look beyond the corridors of power in this country, and you’ll still find courage. Every day, ordinary people stand up for what’s right even when that means taking the harder, scarier path. I want to highlight one such group of heroes because (unlike those senators) they were willing to risk their jobs to do what’s right.
You may not have heard of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, but you’ve definitely heard of their employer: It’s the world’s largest online retailer, artificial-intelligence provider, and cloud computing platform. Its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, is the planet’s wealthiest man (last week, he actually made $13.5 billion in 15 minutes). Amazon, the company he started in his garage 26 years ago, is now so big and so powerful that its business practices have enormous consequences for our entire economy. No private enterprise on the planet has more opportunities to take meaningful climate action.
No one is more conscious of Amazon’s potential than the people who work there, and many of them weren’t impressed with how its commitment to addressing climate change compared to that of other tech giants like Microsoft and Apple. So what did they do? They raised their voices and called on their company to do better.
The good news is that, on climate change at least, their voices seem to have been heard. Late last year, Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon was “done being in the middle of the herd on this issue — we’ve decided to use our size and scale to make a difference.” Among other things, the company set slightly more ambitious goals for reducing its emissions, pledged to use 100% renewable energy company wide by 2030, and purchased 100,000 electric delivery vans to deploy over the next 10 years. Does that put Amazon at the front of the pack? Not at all. It’s not even everything that Amazon Employees for Climate Justice asked for. But it’s progress.
The bad news is that the company has also chosen to threaten its employees with dismissal if they continued to publicly speak out about where they felt Amazon might be falling short — on any issue. The message was clear: Shut up or lose your job.
How did Amazon Employees for Climate Justice respond to that threat? With solidarity and smarts. They invited any Amazon worker who believed it was wrong to silence the voices of employees to submit a comment about Amazon’s business (positive or negative). The comments would be published only after at least 100 had been received. They soon had more than three times that many.
Read what these heroes had to say and you’ll recognize that these are folks who are proud of the company they work for but nevertheless want it to do better. A typical comment: “Setting the precedent for appropriate action toward climate change can be one of the biggest early footprints for an entire world to change. If there was any company that could do it better than anyone, it is Amazon.”
Of course, Amazon’s employees aren’t the only ones who would like to see it do better. The company has faced criticism over its labor practices for years. In the Los Angeles area, for example, 62% of Amazon workers are paid so little they rely on government assistance to make ends meet. And Amazon hasn’t always been a good neighbor: Many believe that Amazon secretly plans to be the new owner of a major new air cargo facility in nearby San Bernardino, which would lead to a massive influx of pollution and low-wage jobs in the area.
San Bernardino Airport Communities, a coalition of local residents and environmental- and community-justice groups, has called on Amazon to be more transparent about its plans and to sign a community benefits agreement that would ensure living-wage jobs, zero-emission delivery trucks, transit improvements, and limits on truck idling.These activists have made these demands at town halls, Federal Aviation Administration hearings, and protests at Amazon offices. Nevertheless, a local commission quietly approved the plan for the cargo facility on December 30 without community input.
Whatever happens, these people — both the Amazon employees and the community activists — have already demonstrated a courage and integrity that Donald Trump and his enablers will never comprehend. We need them to prevail.