But by paying employees this way, tech companies open themselves up to this kind of shareholder advocacy, she said. “They are setting themselves up to have quite a large group of stockholders who would of course, like any other stockholder, have the right to bring forward a shareholder proposal,” Ms. Russell said.
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.
At Amazon, white-collar employees previously brought up issues by speaking at companywide meetings or using internal petitions, while its warehouse workers have pursued labor organizing. In June, for example, employees petitioned the company to stop selling facial-recognition software to law enforcement agencies because they believed the technology should not be used for surveillance. The company has not stopped the practice.
The climate change shareholder proposal grew out of discussions among employees who had noticed other tech companies unveiling plans to address it. Since 2016, for instance, Google has issued environmental reports about its response to climate change.
“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.