About 1,000 corporate Amazon workers in Seattle reportedly plan to walk off the job today, at lunchtime as they push back against a return to office mandate.
The move comes as return to office plans hit a snag for many companies facing a tug of war against employees who don’t understand or agree with being forced back after doing their jobs remotely for the past few years. It also begs the question: How much pressure would it take to make employers reverse their decisions?
Apple faced backlash when it told staff to return to the office last summer, along with AT&T. More recent economic concerns have led others like JP Morgan, Twitter and now Amazon to institute policies mandating employees return to offices, and come amid recent layoffs with more expected as a recession unfolds.
“Workers are starting to organize, they’re talking to each other and they are willing to take action,” said Rebecca Givan, associate professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
“We’ll see in the coming weeks and months, how much action they’re willing to take, and what it takes to change the employer’s position,” she said.
In February, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy announced U.S. office-based employees would be required to work from the office for at least three days a week starting May 1.
Amazon allowed most employees to work from home for the first part of the pandemic, then in 2021 allowed leaders to decide for their teams where they’d work in a somewhat experimental phase.
After observing different models, Amazon decided “It’s easier to learn, model, practice, and strengthen our culture when we’re in the office together most of the time and surrounded by our colleagues,” the company announcement said.
What are employees upset about?
Two groups of Amazon employees plan to walk out Wednesday: first, a group that organized in response to RTO plans, and another called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.
Both will join forces to stage the walkout, and share concerns over return to office mandates, layoffs and also their employers’ contributions to climate change.
Amazon employees initially fought back against the RTO mandate with a petition that garnered about 30,000 signatures, though it was rejected by the company’s head of HR, according to reporting from Business Insider.
That happened in March — right as Amazon announced it was laying off 9,000 employees in its latest round of job cuts — after first cutting 18,000 jobs in January.
The climate justice group previously led a walkout in 2019 over concerns the company is not honoring its commitments to reduce carbon emissions, and plans to do so again during this walkout.
Is this novel?
Other employees at big tech companies have walked off the job without being a part of a union — which would allow them to negotiate employment terms in their contracts every few years and have greater protections from losing their jobs when waging a work stoppage or strike.
Non-union employees can still engage in protected concerted activity, or they have the right to act with coworkers to address work-related issues in a variety of ways, according to the National Labor Relations Board and labor experts.
In 2018, Google employees across the globe walked off the job after news broke that the company paid off male executives accused of misconduct with hefty exit packages without addressing it among employees internally, according to the New York Times.
Workers engaging in such activities “want to have a voice in their workplaces, and when they’re not being paid attention to, they engage in these actions to get their message across,” Cathy Creighton, director of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab, said.
What does this signify about the broader tug of war over RTO mandates?
Overall, employee frustration around RTO plans center around a lack of transparency and employee input before requiring workers to come back, experts say.
After working remotely for years, many have found new arrangements allow them to be more productive and achieve better work-life balance. Some have also moved to new cities as their employers remained hesitant to announce RTO plans until now.
Companies need to better engage with employees before making these decisions and consider what specific arrangements work best for teams and certain individuals without issuing broad mandates, said Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at the University of Manchester.
“There’s a difference between saying to somebody, ‘you have to be in three days a week,’ as opposed to saying to them, ‘that’s the nature of your job, you have the technology, whatever suits you, and suits us, let’s do it,” he said.
“Giving people autonomy and control over their work life and making them feel valued and trusted pays off — not mandating behavior,” he said.
Amazon employees have been returning to offices for a few weeks now, and “there’s been good energy on campus and in urban cores like Seattle where we have a large presence,” the company said in an email statement.
“As it pertains to the specific topics this group of employees is raising, we’ve explained our thinking in different forums over the past few months and will continue to do so,” the email said.
It’s still unclear if the walkout in Seattle will have any impact on Amazon’s plans to bring workers across the country back into offices.
“Amazon might not change its plans in the short run, but I think these kinds of actions in the long run, do accumulate, and matter,” Creighton said.