Kate Conger, The New York Times:
Silicon Valley technology firms are known for giving stock to their workers, a form of compensation that often helps employees feel invested in their companies.
But tech workers are now starting to use those shares to turn the tables on their employers.
At Amazon, more than a dozen employees who had received stock grants recently exercised their rights as shareholders. In late November and early December, they filed identical shareholder petitions asking the e-commerce giant to release a comprehensive plan addressing climate change.
Their filing appears to be the first time that tech employees have led their own shareholder proposal, according to activist investors. In the proposal, which will be voted on at Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting next spring, employees asked the company’s board to say how it would respond to climate change and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
“We realized we could use our position as employees and our power and our rights as shareholders to bring visibility of this issue to the board and the top leaders of this company,” said Eliza Pan, a program manager who has worked at Amazon for five years and is one of the employees who signed on to the proposal.
Ms. Pan, who earned Amazon shares as part of her compensation package, said workers must own at least $2,000 in stock for a year to file a shareholder proposal. “We had this power, and we wanted to leverage that power,” she said.
“Workers are looking at who holds power and where changes can be made,” said Yana Calou, an engagement manager at Coworker.org, an organization that allows colleagues to start campaigns together. “Workers are shareholders themselves, and risks to workers and users are often risks to shareholders, so there is a natural alliance of shared interests.”
The moves are part of a broad activist stirring by tech workers this year. Employees at Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce and Google have publicly objected to who was buying their products and to how certain technologies — such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence — would be used. Last month, about 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout because the company had richly paid executives who had been credibly accused of sexual harassment, leading the company to apologize and end forced arbitration in such cases.
Shareholder proposals have in the past been used largely by activist investment firms and others to advocate for changes.
“It’s fairly unusual to see this, where employees are taking a stand in regard to the company they’re working for,” said Natasha Lamb, a managing partner at Arjuna Capital, a wealth-management fund that focuses on climate issues.
Employee shareholder proposals may ultimately not be effective since shareholder-led proposals are often shot down. And because tech founders often possess a large chunk of the shares in their companies — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and its largest shareholder, owns 16 percent of the company; the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have about 51 percent of voting shares in Alphabet — the proposals have little chance of passing without founder support.
Tech employees said it was worth taking that risk. Shareholder proposals often gain attention because they are distributed to stockholders and are included in annual proxy statements, the employees say, and they give workers a way to raise their grievances directly to the board, rather than just to managers.
“Banding together with other shareholders amplifies my voice and makes all of our voices more powerful,” said Ms. Pan of Amazon.
“It’s important to make change and work for change wherever you happen to be, and I happen to be an employee at Amazon,” said Emily Cunningham, a user experience designer who is backing the climate change proposal and who has received Amazon shares as part of her compensation.
She said it was important for employees to publicly demand a plan. “It’s affecting the public, it’s affecting business,” she said.