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Originally published May 24, 2012 at 9:32 AM | Page modified May 25, 2012 at 6:35 AM

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Amazon addresses criticism at meeting

More than 100 protesters rallied outside Amazon.com's annual meeting Thursday at the Seattle Art Museum, where the company told shareholders it planned to improve warehouse conditions and drop its membership in a conservative public-policy organization.

Seattle Times business reporter

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For years, the Amazon.com shareholders meeting has had all the excitement of an economics lecture. No live entertainment or free food to draw a large and spirited crowd. Just its CEO on a stage in front of 300 chairs.

But as things got under way Thursday, it was clear this year's meeting at the Seattle Art Museum would be no snooze fest.

More than 100 protesters gathered outside, under the museum's "Hammering Man" sculpture, to call on Amazon to pay more taxes, treat its workers better and drop its membership in a conservative public-policy organization.

"They do not pay their fair share of taxes," said Queen Anne resident Dorli Rainey, 84, who carried a sign with the message, "Evil Twins! Amazon + Walmart."

Amazon, addressing some of the criticism, told shareholders that it planned to improve warehouse conditions and drop its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Some activists bought a single Amazon share to gain entry to the meeting, where they repeatedly confronted Chief Executive Jeff Bezos about the company's support of the nonprofit ALEC.

In response, general counsel Michelle Wilson said Amazon will drop its ALEC membership.

"This year, we've decided not to renew with ALEC, and it's because of positions they've taken not related to our business," Wilson said.

Bezos said the company will spend $52 million retrofitting its warehouses with air conditioning.

Amazon has come under public scrutiny for its treatment of workers after newspapers, including the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call and The Seattle Times, revealed harsh conditions at some of its U.S. warehouses. The Allentown stories described temperatures above 100 degrees last summer in Pennsylvania.

Bezos showed the audience a photo of a large air conditioner as it was taken by helicopter to the top of a warehouse.

"It's not easy to retrofit an existing fulfillment center with air conditioning," he said. "We're really leading the way here."

Amazon's data-driven culture was reflected in a short slideshow presented by Bezos, who touted everything from the number of e-books that can be borrowed free on its website (145,000) to last year's sales growth (41 percent).

The Seattle Times recently published a four-part series on Amazon's corporate citizenship, including a look at the Internet retailer's short record of local charitable giving, its battles with states over sales tax, conditions in its warehouses and its bruising relationship with some book publishers.

In a seeming nod to his critics, Bezos highlighted the company's warehouse safety record and worker pay, which he described as better than many competitors'.

He also noted that Amazon contributed to 118 nonprofit organizations in the past year and has donated more than 700 Kindle e-book readers to schools so far this month.

Most audience questions were politically tinged and centered on Amazon's role as a corporate citizen, but one shareholder briefly changed the subject when he asked about the company's plans to build a new headquarters complex downtown.

Amazon historically has rented its corporate offices, so the move toward ownership seems to represent a major shift in its real-estate strategy.

Bezos said the decision came down to "scale," meaning that as Amazon grows and hires more employees, renting office space no longer makes economic sense.

"At that scale, renting that capacity would not be easy. In fact, it would be impossible," Bezos said, declining to be more specific.

Police officers stood in the back of the auditorium as Bezos spoke. Shareholders and other attendees were ushered through metal detectors before entering the meeting. No photography was allowed.

Protesters came from as far as Spokane and Medford, Ore., to attend the rally, which was organized by Working Washington, a local labor coalition founded by the Service Employees International Union.

"This is part of a national effort to go after some of the worst corporate tax dodgers," said John Sellers, founder of an organization called The Other 98 Percent. "Amazon is one of our hometown corporations, so we're saying to them, 'You should pay your fair share.' "

Thursday's rally marked the culmination of a months-long effort by Working Washington to call attention to Amazon's use of corporate tax loopholes and its tough warehouse conditions. Spokesman Sage Wilson said the group will decide on a future direction in the coming weeks.

Kristiane Skolmen, an organizer with Bold Progressives, a vocal critic of ALEC, stood outside with seven boxes she said contained a half-million signed petitions urging Amazon to cut ties with the policy group.

ALEC has been in the spotlight recently for its support of "Stand Your Ground" legislation in various states, including Florida, where the law is an issue in the controversy surrounding the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin.

"We've been campaigning against ALEC for the past several months, and we've been successful in pressuring over 15 major corporations to drop their support of ALEC," Skolmen said. "Amazon is the largest corporate funder of ALEC at this point."

After hearing that Amazon would not renew with ALEC, Skolmen declared it a huge victory, adding that it was "utterly uncharacteristic" of the company. "They've been under public pressure for years and rarely balked."

Larry Dohrs, vice president of Newground Social Investment, a Seattle money manager, had a similar reaction.

Dohrs helped introduce two shareholder proposals requiring Amazon to disclose more information about its political spending and environmental impact. Although Amazon shareholders voted down both proposals, Dohrs expressed some optimism.

"I felt as though there was a hint of recognition that Amazon needs to accept its responsibilities," said Dohrs, a regular attendee at Amazon shareholders meetings. "This was the first time I felt that."

The hourlong meeting drew about 200 people, twice as many as last year's event.

Seattle police officers forcibly removed a handful of protesters at the end of the meeting after they stood in the aisles and shouted.

Bezos, on a darkened stage, then thanked the audience for coming. He left without taking questions from the media.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

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