Amid a flurry of negative coverage on the internet last month denouncing Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers, the company shared a different kind of article on its Twitter account: an essay from an Amazon worker that sang the praises of his employer. The piece, which was published on the “intellectual dark web” publication Quillette, called Amazon a financial “lifesaver” and derided critical reporting on its working conditions as “tourist journalism.”
Amazon tweeted the article, but as it began to attract criticism for promoting a publication that publicizes “dangerous ideas” like race science, it deleted it. The company declined requests for comment about why it deleted the tweet or whether in some way Amazon paid the Quillette author for the story.
Sharing the article seems to be part of the e-commerce giant’s ongoing public relations campaign to quash unions and rewrite the narrative around its workforce by employing its warehouse workers to defend the company’s labor practices on Twitter, among other tactics.
As pressure mounts on Amazon from its workers, lawmakers, and the public over its treatment of workers as well as its market dominance, Amazon’s efforts show that it’s taking the possibility of unionization seriously — and doing whatever it can to prevent it.
Last month, warehouse workers in Minnesota went on strike on Prime Day, Amazon’s busiest shopping day of the year, in protest of a number of issues, including difficult productivity quotas and on-the-job injuries.
Chicago warehouse workers also recently formed a workers organization that, while not a union, has many of its tenets, and they’re using it to fight for better working conditions.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is currently in talks with Amazon workers across the country, but wouldn’t directly comment on the status of various unionizing efforts at the company.
“It’s clear workers are speaking out around the globe,” RWDSU Director of Communications Chelsea Connor told Recode. “It has been well-documented that Amazon mistreats and dehumanizes its workforce and workers are standing up.” Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment about how it treats its workforce or their unionization efforts.
What Amazon is doing in response
This is clearly an ongoing battle, and Amazon has employed an array of tactics to fight off union organizing.
In addition to Amazon’s errant Quillette tweet, Amazon has asked some of its warehouse workers to be Twitter ambassadors for the company and their jobs.
These so-called “FC Ambassadors” joyfully tweet about how great it is to work in Amazon’s fulfillment centers and try to quell persistent criticisms of the company. Among these ambassadors’ many talking points: They’re getting free cupcakes in an actual break room (not working so long they have to pee in bottles). They say Amazon takes safety seriously, even posting cartoons at water fountains reminding them to stay hydrated (presumably that’s in response to the many reports of dangerous conditions leading to injuries at Amazon warehouses). They say it’s easy to get paid time off (others have accused Amazon of pressuring them to work long hours, including six-day workweeks).
They also readily combat people on Twitter who have anything negative to say about their jobs.
Well it's a good thing we have just that. I've always been able to use the bathroom without fear of losing my job or having a manager breathe down my neck.— Hannah - Amazon FC Ambassador (@AmazonFCHannah) July 4, 2019
Amazon declined to comment for this article, refusing to tell Recode how many FC ambassadors it has, how they’re compensated, or how their time is divided between warehouse work and PR, among other requests. Previous reporting last year indicated that FC ambassadors don’t get paid any extra — though they can get gift cards or extra days off — but instead can choose to do social media in place of their warehouse work.
Of course, corporate-sponsored anti-union propaganda is not new. Famously, then B-movie star and Screen Actors Guild union president Ronald Reagan worked as a “traveling ambassador” for General Electric, visiting plants across the country to extol a free-market system.
But compared with older anti-union stunts, “The fulfillment center tweets are more interesting because it plays on something new: the perceived authenticity of Twitter versus older kinds of bottom-up media,” Louis Hyman, a Cornell professor and author of Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, told Recode. “No one took it as authentic as [Amazon warehouse employees posting on] Twitter. That’s what’s at stake here. Those tweets can help control who to believe.”
Amazon has, on other platforms, been pushing the pros of working there, such as health benefits from the first day on the job, paid parental leave, and a $15 minimum hourly wage, which it instituted last fall after mounting criticism from politicians like Bernie Sanders. The company is seeking to rewrite the narrative in its favor by telling the press, “If these groups — unions and the politicians they rally to their cause — really want to help the American worker, we encourage them to focus their energy on passing legislation for an increase in the federal minimum wage, because $7.25 is too low.”
In one ham-handed instance, the company’s Twitter account crowed about how working at Amazon has helped an employee lose weight.
Amazon Flex allowed this woman to lose 100 lbs in 18 months by creating a workout while delivery packages.https://t.co/uBk49fYzFi— Amazon News (@amazonnews) December 3, 2018
Amazon also lets people take hour-long tours of select Amazon fulfillment centers, where visitors are meant to see everything is all right, but without the chance to interact with employees.
More directly, in a training video unearthed by Gizmodo last year, the company instructed Whole Foods team leaders to spot and intercede upon union “warning signs,” like workers “who normally aren’t connected to each other suddenly hanging out together” and using language like “living wage” and “steward.”
“We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our customers, our shareholders, or most importantly, our associates. Our business model is built upon speed, innovation, and customer obsession — things that are generally not associated with union. When we lose sight of those critical focus areas we jeopardize everyone’s job security: yours, mine, and the associates,” the video says.
Amazon is allowed by law to tell employees about why it thinks unionizing is a bad idea, and it can prevent employees from organizing at work. But the company isn’t allowed to suggest that people who advocate or vote for the union will be punished or fired.
Until recently, Amazon has been very successful in blocking US union efforts.
Back in 2014, a small group of equipment technicians and mechanics at an Amazon distribution center in Delaware voted against unionizing.
“Against Amazon’s intense pressure on the inside with the avoidance law firm that they had, it was too much for these workers to overcome,” IAMAW spokesman John Carr told Recode’s Jason Del Rey at the time. “They didn’t feel comfortable doing so. [Amazon’s] tactics … paid off.”
Why this is happening now
Americans have been drawn to collective action of late as wages across most industries have stagnated, despite unemployment being low. Meanwhile, big corporations are doing better than ever — in particular, tech companies who seem mostly unfazed by the threat of regulation.
“One thing that’s happened in the last decade, especially the last few years, is increased attention to economic inequality and the lack of rights working people have,” Lawrence Glickman, a Cornell University history professor and author of Free Enterprise: An American History, told Recode.
“A lot of people feel there’s really no choice because corporations are not giving workers a share of the profits.”
Amazon specifically has reasons to worry about unionizing, evidenced by the surge in the number of workers organizing at different warehouses locations as well as negative press about worker conditions. Amazon workers in smaller European markets like Germany and the UK unionized years ago, providing guidance for their counterparts in the US.
The way Amazon’s business is structured might also be more amenable to union actions like work stoppages than its retail behemoth predecessor, Walmart, is. Walmart has never successfully unionized.
“UAW workers at General Motors were able to organize because with one factory they could shut down the whole supply chain,” Hyman said. “All Amazon workers have to do is organize one fulfillment center and it would be very expensive [for Amazon].” Presumably, though, Amazon would be able to shift work to neighboring warehouses, so it might take a larger geographic union effort to really make Amazon take union action seriously.
That doesn’t mean unionizing a majority of Amazon’s 250,000 warehouse workers will be easy. Amazon is still a huge and powerful company, and there are reasons why union efforts heretofore in the US have been unsuccessful.
“Every organizing campaign is different and is specific to the needs of the workers,” RWDSU’s Connor said. “Standing up and saying you need change in the workplace isn’t easy for any worker; it doesn’t matter which corporation you work for.”
Amazon closely monitors its warehouse workers as they work, so it would likely be aware of — and able to counter — union organizing in nascent stages. The job itself is also highly regulated, making it “hard to find the time and space to think about doing something that would be regarded as subversive by the company,” Glickman said.
Contractors unionizing at other tech companies
Amazon isn’t alone among tech companies battling labor organizing. Uber last month paid drivers about $100 each to protest a bill that would change their work classification to employees — a status that would afford them certain benefits like health care, overtime pay, and the ability to unionize.
Uber workers, unlike Amazon’s warehouse workers, are considered independent contractors, not employees. It’s a status that companies like Uber rely upon to operate more cheaply. (They still burn plenty of money.)
“There’s a long history of corporations depicting themselves and the people who work for them as plucky entrepreneurs,” Glickman told Recode. “With contractors, it’s even easier to make the argument that these people are not workers, but small businesses.”
He added, “They’re calling something ‘liberating’ that’s obviously in their self-interest. Not paying benefits, not dealing with unions — you’re able to exploit people working for you and they have very little structural power in that relationship.”
States like California are trying to give gig workers some of the same protections as employees but have stopped short of considering them employees. Uber and Lyft, however, are working with some labor unions to create a loophole that would keep that from happening.
Still, the threat of unionization is more significant for Amazon than it is for Uber because the ride-hailing company’s workforce is dispersed in cars across the country, rather than grouped together in warehouses.
Amazon should be nervous. Judging from its recent PR efforts, it is.
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