As Amazon prepares to hold its annual shareholders’ meeting on Wednesday, following a year of record profits during a global health crisis and a time of racial justice reckoning, the company is facing a major pushback from investors and workers’ advocacy groups, especially in Massachusetts.
Earlier this week, activists organized by the Amazon watchdog coalition Athena marched to the offices of major corporate shareholders in six cities, including Fidelity Investments and State Street Corp. in Boston, urging them to approve proposals including disclosing anticompetitive strategy risks, reducing its use of plastic packaging, and determining if the company’s surveillance and facial recognition technologies — used by police and pitched to Immigration and Customs Enforcement — violate human rights, including perpetuating systemic racism. At least four of the 11 shareholder resolutions being voted on are sponsored by Boston-based groups, including the antipoverty nonprofit Oxfam America, which is recommending that Amazon add an hourly employee to its board of directors.
“Amazon is becoming this octopus,” said Rand Wilson, a veteran Boston labor organizer who took part in the Monday march and hosted a virtual forum Sunday aimed at holding the company accountable to its employees and the communities where it operates. “Its tentacles are reaching into health care, into every aspect of logistics and shipping. They’re involved in small business platforms and cloud computing. There’s many elements to this company that often go unseen . . . There’s a sort of monopoly power that’s developing that I think is very concerning to a lot of people.”
Amazon is expanding rapidly in Massachusetts, with 20 distribution facilities, and 14 more in the works, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. The company has also announced plans to expand its tech operations in Boston, adding 3,000 jobs over the next few years in the Seaport District, and is also in the running to open a shipping center at Widett Circle, just south of downtown. With 20,000 employees statewide and counting — not including contractors — many of them part time, Amazon is one of the biggest employers in the state.
Amazon raked in more than $21 billion in profit in 2020, nearly 84 percent more than the year before, as consumers flocked to online shopping sites to avoid going out during the coronavirus pandemic. This meant the workers in its warehouses and delivery vehicles — many of them people of color starting at $15 an hour — along with a fleet of independent contractors, were put to the test like never before. And as Amazon has continued expanding, the scrutiny of its practices has intensified.
The recent union campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., drew unprecedented attention, with workers noting that the company’s productivity metrics were grueling and dehumanizing, with bathroom breaks being counted against them. Shortly before the union was voted down in April, the company admitted that drivers who can’t find restrooms sometimes urinate in bottles.
In Massachusetts, a coalition of labor groups led by the Merrimack Valley Building Trades Council has launched a campaign — centered on a 3.8 million-square-foot fulfillment center in North Andover — urging Amazon to use union labor to build the warehouse and to provide safe working conditions. Teamsters Local 25, which is working to organize warehouse workers and drivers, has been working with municipalities around the state to pass resolutions calling on Amazon to ensure that local operations would benefit the community and that its delivery drivers are full-time employees with benefits.
The march to shareholders’ offices took place in six cities Monday and Tuesday, targeting five corporations — State Street, Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, Vanguard Group, and BlackRock — that collectively hold 21 percent of Amazon’s shares, according to Athena. Amazon’s record profits “came at the expense of the exploitation of Black and brown folks,” said Yessenia Prodero, immigrant rights organizer at Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, which led the small Boston rally of labor advocates down State Street on Monday.
“Talk about income inequality,” said Jacqueline Velez, racial justice organizer at Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, of the divide between Amazon’s soaring profits and the relatively low wages of its hourly workers. The company’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement — including an announcement last summer that it would donate $10 million to organizations dedicated to racial justice — also rings hollow, she said: “It’s just what was sexy at the time.”
State Street and Fidelity, which as of March 31 each held more than 15 million shares of Amazon stock, did not respond to requests for comment.
In response to the actions directed at shareholders, Amazon pointed to its recent proxy statement, which outlines the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, the health and safety of employees, and the goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. “Amazon is committed to the creation of good jobs, a sustainable future, flourishing communities, a strong economy, and successful small and medium-sized businesses,” the company said in a statement. “Since 2010, Amazon has made more than $350 billion in investments in corporate offices, customer fulfillment and cloud infrastructure, wind and solar farms, eco-friendly equipment and machinery, and compensation to our teams.”
All the recent concerns about working conditions drove Oxfam America to use its Amazon stock — the nonprofit buys shares in companies where it wants to advocate for change — to file a resolution to put an hourly worker on the board of directors, said Sarah Zoen, a senior adviser for Oxfam who lives in Watertown and coauthored the proposal. Oxfam, which has previously filed proposals concerning alleged forced labor and human rights violations in Amazon’s supply chain, doesn’t expect the issue to pass, Zoen said. It’s more about holding the company accountable by putting it in the public domain. The votes are nonbinding, though boards that ignore approved proposals could face repercussions from shareholders.
Oxfam’s proposal is being presented at the virtual shareholders’ meeting by Jennifer Bates, who works at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. In a prerecorded message, Bates notes that Amazon workers around the world tell similar stories of long hours, fears about taking breaks, and “discipline by algorithm.”
“I have tried on many occasions to raise concerns about workplace safety, scheduling, and discipline, but managers are unavailable, don’t listen, or simply dismiss me,” she said. “Having one of us on the Amazon board would be transformative . . . It would send a signal that our voices matter.”
Natasha Lamb, managing partner of Boston-based Arjuna Capital, filed a resolution to disclose median pay gaps by race and gender at Amazon. Lamb files similar resolutions with major companies every year, and this will be the third time the issue has gone to a vote at Amazon, she said. As with all the other shareholder proposals, Amazon’s board is recommending that shareholders vote against it — as the majority of them did the last two times.
“I am surprised, that given where we are as a country — the pay divides that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the protests to uphold Black lives — that the company continues to fight this simple and reasonable request,” Lamb said in an e-mail.
Another Boston investment firm, Zevin Asset Management, is asking shareholders to require that the board chair — currently Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos — be an independent director who has not served as an executive at the company.
And Boston-based mutual fund company Green Century Capital Management cofiled a resolution prodding the company to reduce its use of plastic. The nonprofit Oceana estimated that Amazon was responsible for 465 million pounds of plastic waste in 2019, most of which was not recycled.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story neglected to include the shareholder proposal by Green Century Capital Management. The story has been updated to include the company.