Amazon is facing a fresh round of scrutiny over the army of warehouse workers it enlisted to defend the company and CEO Jeff Bezos on Twitter against criticism of the company’s grueling working conditions.
On Tuesday, The Intercept published leaked documents detailing the program, which Amazon launched in 2018 under the codename “Veritas,” revealing how Amazon recruited and trained employees to “set the record straight – leaving no lie unchallenged and showing that people who actually know what it’s like to work in our FCs love their jobs.”
Amazon required the “ambassadors” to “have a strong performance background and clean HR record, be authentic, have a great sense of humor, and be excited about speaking their mind and rebutting our critics in a polite, blunt way,” according to the internal documents obtained by The Intercept.
In a pilot test for Veritas, Amazon employees practiced pushing back against criticism that Bezos should be taxed higher, a post by Sen. Bernie Sanders interviewing a worker who said they experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of Amazon’s working conditions, and even reporting by Insider about workers urinating in bottles because they feared punishment for being “off task.”
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Amazon’s Twitter army came back under the spotlight this week amid a landmark effort by warehouse employees in its Bessemer, Alabama, facility to unionize – the largest such effort in the company’s history.
But Twitter shut down some of the accounts after Gizmodo reported that at least one was likely not a real person. (Amazon told The New York Times’ Karen Weise that the account was fake and that it had reported the account to Twitter).
Amazon’s top executives and public relations teams have also become increasingly confrontational on Twitter recently, sparring publicly with lawmakers including Sens. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as well as Rep. Mark Pocan.
The tweets, which The Intercept reported were so antagonistic that Amazon’s security team even though the company might have been hacked, were sparked because “Jeff Bezos was pissed,” according to Recode.
In one instance, Amazon’s official PR account replied to Rep. Pocan, saying “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”
Amazon, which has been openly and aggressively anti-union, has deployed a range of union-busting tactics, from pushing company talking points during mandatory midnight “education” meetings to changing the timing of traffic lights near its facilities. The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, under which Amazon employees are seeking to organize, said the move was a ploy to stop its members from talking to workers stopped at red lights.
The company also reactivated its Twitter ambassadors to respond to a recent wave of criticism about the “pee bottles” and other complaints workers have raised about working conditions.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Friday leapt into an ongoing Twitter feud between lawmakers and Amazon, calling into question whether the company’s policies have forced workers to skip bathroom breaks.
Ocasio-Cortez responded by sharing an internal Amazon Logistics memo asking staffers to stop using Amazon bags as bathrooms. The May 2020 memo, which was first reported by The Intercept, asked employees to not “return bags to station with poop inside.”
Ocasio-Cortez joined a growing cluster of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle calling for Amazon to update policies. Senator Elizabeth Warren clashed with Amazon on Thursday on Twitter over tax laws.
“You make the tax laws @SenWarren; we just follow them,” Amazon said on Friday.
“There’s a big difference between talk and action,” Amazon said on Friday. “@SenSanders has been a powerful politician in Vermont for 30 years and their min wage is still $11.75. Amazon’s is $15, plus great health care from day one. Sanders would rather talk in Alabama than act in Vermont.”
Senator Marco Rubio earlier this month also said he supported the union drive. “When the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values, the choice is easy – I support the workers,” he said on Twitter.
The company has long said its workers were treated fairly. Its Amazon News account said: “The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.”
The National Labor Relations Board ruled Thursday that Tesla repeatedly violated labor laws by trying to prevent workers from organizing and discussing working conditions.
In a 3-2 vote, the NLRB found Tesla broke the law by “coercively interrogating” workers engaged in legally protected organizing activities, using gag orders to prevent them from talking to the media, and firing union activist Richard Ortiz in 2017 (the board ordered Tesla to rehire the worker).
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
The NLRB also ruled CEO Elon Musk “unlawfully threatened” workers in a 2018 tweet and must remove it.
“Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare,” Musk said in the tweet.
US labor law allows companies to claim bad things could happen if workers unionize, but it doesn’t allow them to punish workers if they do unionize. So, the NLRB said, Musk violated those laws by saying employees “would lose their stock options if they chose the Union as their representative.”
Musk’s tweet came in response to increased efforts by workers at Tesla’s Fremont, California, plant to form a union with the United Auto Workers (the “UAW” Musk referenced in the tweet) amid what they said were grueling working conditions.
Musk has clashed with workers at the Fremont factory over working conditions since then, as well.
Last May, after public health orders required nonessential businesses to shut down in Alameda County, Musk reopened the factory in defiance of those orders. The county eventually reversed course and let the factory restart operations after Tesla sued.
Unit, a new tech startup, is looking to bolster private-sector unionization rates by focusing on small workplaces that do not normally get the attention of large labor groups across the US.
The company, launched in December 2020, offers individual groups looking to organize software tools, a web app, and dedicated staff who act as labor advisers to better help clients navigate unionization efforts. To begin with, individuals can invite their coworkers onto the platform. Once enough interest in unionizing builds up, Unit assigns a full-time adviser to the drive.
“The simplest metaphor for understanding it is that we’re a labor consultancy, just like a union busting firm,” White told Insider. “But we work on the other side. We work for the workers.”
Unit’s software features workplace mapping for the purposes of gauging employee interest, surveys and voting, as well as other elements that typically constitute the “paperwork” behind creating a new union, White said. In terms of price, Unit costs members 0.8% of wages earned over the course of a year.
Catering to a ‘bunch of exploited workers in the retail space’
In 2019, White began speaking with labor advisers, organizers, and individuals who’d organized their own workplaces. He said many of those early supporters still advise Unit, whose client list just four months in remains undisclosed. Since the software only recently went live, White said Unit is likely months away from publicizing any signed collective bargaining agreements.
Unit, however, is tailored to help a specific kind of workplace: those in the private sector, with less than 200 employees. The workspaces that have begun to use Unit are a cross-section when it comes to industry, but include retail establishments. White said that these workplaces tend to be “underserved” by traditional unions.
“If you’re a labor union, you have to pay the bills and to send a full-time labor organizer to one of these smaller workplaces just doesn’t always make sense economically,” he said.
That’s why White says he sees his startup coexisting within the current labor union landscape, rather than acting as a “disruptor” to the traditional model, which White said caters to larger workspaces.
White said he’s been surprised by some of the workplaces that have opted to use Unit. He had been expecting to mostly attract “white collar tech workers” who were “already on Slack all day.” Instead, some of Unit’s “fastest-moving workplaces” are “blue collar,” including retail workers.
“There are a bunch of exploited workers in the retail space,” he said.
White said that his app is intended to make it “much easier” for workers to “get started” creating a union within their workplace.
But as expected, anti-union measures from management present a problem. White estimated that one such workplace has spent $2,000 per worker on anti-union measures, including sudden paid leave for pro-union supporters, the rearrangement of schedules intended to separate pro-union workers, and anti-union captive audience meetings.
“Management is afraid of losing power,” he said. “They’ll sometimes put an amount of money investing in anti-union measures that could have just gone to the workers.”
One feature that Unit is currently working on is inoculation training tools for anti-union meetings, as well as messaging for businesses on how expensive fighting drives can be.
White hopes to transform Unit into a worker-owned company down the road, although currently it’s a benefit corporation funded by venture capital. White did not disclose how much Unit has raised so far, or which venture capitalist firm is backing the company, saying that the startup will release this information later this week.
He said that this fact engenders some “skepticism” among labor movement activists, despite the fact that the VC backers are “onboard with our mission.” According to White, Unit’s business model inspires “confidence” among skeptics, as the startup has an incentive to do right by its clients: the workers.
“We have to make this work for workers,” he said. “Otherwise we don’t have an advising business at all, if we’re not doing a good job there.”
A complicated labor market
Having launched in December, Unit hit the scene at a fraught moment for the US labor market. As of February 2021, 4.1 million individuals are considered “long-term unemployed,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meaning, they’ve been without a job for at least 27 weeks. That is an increase of up to 3 million year-over-year, reflecting the devastation wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic.
Union membership has also plummeted over recent decades. In 1983, the US had a union membership rate of 20.1%. In 2020, that number dropped to 10.8%. However, despite that sharp decline in membership, union rates increased slightly by 0.5% in 2020.
A recent survey by polling and analytics firm Gallup additionally found that 65% of respondents approved of labor unions. That percentage has steadily increased in Gallup’s annual labor-related surveys since the percentage of respondents in favor of unions fell to an all-time low of 48% in 2008.
“If we do good work, there’s going to be a higher percentage of unionized people in the United States,” White said.
White, a Texas native who moved to Boston to study engineering, said he first got involved with labor issues while in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011, when Occupy Wall Street was also in full-force.
Back then, White participated in student groups supporting the Service Employees International Union’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign. Justice for Janitors is an ongoing social movement that focuses on bottom-up organizing for increased wages and benefits for custodial workers.
That experience, combined with papers he read on the future of labor organizing from the Century Foundation, a progressive think thank, served as a “starting blueprint” for Unit.
“We have a mission to support the rights of workers to organize and improve their places of work,” he said. “Mission-wise, that is very aligned with the traditional labor movement and what people have been trying to do for centuries.”
At a hearing on Wednesday morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke critically about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who declined Sanders’ invitation to testify, and Elon Musk, the two wealthiest men in the world.
“Bezos and Musk now own more wealth than the bottom 40%. Meanwhile, we’re looking at more hunger in America than at any time in decades,” Sanders said in his opening remarks at the Senate Budget Committee hearing, which was titled The Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America.
“If he was with us this morning, I would ask him the following question … Mr. Bezos, you are worth $182 billion, that’s a ‘b,'” Sanders said. “$182 billion, you’re the wealthiest person in the world. Why are you doing everything in your power to stop your workers in Bessemer, Alabama from joining a union?”
The unionization push currently being voted on at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center has been the focal point for a high-profile labor dispute between the behemoth “everything store” and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Amazon has aggressively pushed its workers to vote against unionization, launching a campaign called “Do it Without Dues” to encourage workers to stick to the status quo.
Sanders pointed out the disparity between Bezos’ wealth growth during the pandemic and the struggles of rank-and-file workers.
“Jeff Bezos has become $77 billion richer during this horrific pandemic, while denying hundreds of thousands of workers who work at Amazon paid sick leave,” he said.
Jennifer Bates, an employee at the Bessemer warehouse who testified at Wednesday’s hearing, said that the unionization efforts are an attempt to “have a level playing field.” Bates cited tough working conditions, long hours, and a lack of job security as major drivers of the unionization efforts.
“Amazon brags it pays workers above the minimum wage,” she said. “What they don’t tell you is what those jobs are really like. And they certainly don’t tell you what they can afford.”
When asked what having a union would mean to her and her coworkers, Bates said that it would result in their voices being “amplified,” and that it would result in a “sense of empowerment.”
“And not just at the Amazon in Bessemer,” she added, “but all over the country.”
“We take employee feedback seriously, including Ms. Bates’s, but we don’t believe her comments represent the more than 90% of her fulfillment center colleagues who say they’d recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family,” an Amazon spokesperson told Insider. “We encourage people to speak with the hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees who love their jobs, earn at least $15 an hour, receive comprehensive healthcare and paid leave benefits, prefer direct dialogue with their managers, and voted Amazon #2 on the Forbes best employers list in 2020.”
While much of the hearing was devoted to the Amazon unionization fight, which will be decided at the end of March, Sanders pointed out that “Amazon and Jeff Bezos are not alone” and decried the “corporate greed” that drives income inequality.
Others testifying at the hearing included former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who cited the importance of unions and the steep decline in union membership since the labor heyday of the mid-1900s.
Sanders has been a vocal critic of Amazon, while Joe Biden has taken a softer approach in referencing the union drive. In a statement earlier in March, Biden condemned “anti-union propaganda” from large companies, but stopped short of explicitly naming Amazon.
Governments from Australia to the US are cracking down on big tech companies. Employees are working to form unions at firms like Google and Amazon. And consumers appear to be more distrustful of the world’s biggest platforms than ever before.
The increased level of scrutiny on Big Tech marks a reckoning of sorts for the industry, one borne out of an increasing understanding of the power these companies wield and a shifting cultural mood toward activism and holding the powers that be accountable.
Experts say it will result in a seismic shift in the industry and one that is already affecting governments, tech companies, and consumers alike.
“There was a golden era when people focused on the enormous good technology could do to connect users to one another and democratize access to information,” Alexandra Givens, president and CEO at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told Insider. “Now, there’s increasing recognition that with this great power comes great responsibility.”
Governments are ratcheting up the pressure on Big Tech
Last summer, something unprecedented happened: the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google testified before Congress at the same time over concerns they engaged in anticompetitive practices – and they got grilled.
It marks a turning point, not only in how lawmakers on both sides of the aisle view the tech giants, but also in how prepared they are to scrutinize them. As Givens noted, lawmakers staffed up ahead of the hearings in order to be better prepared to question tech CEOs, an effort she expects will continue to “bear fruit” in 2021. (The most recent tech-focused government appointee is Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor and outspoken critic of Big Tech, who will serve on the National Economic Council.)
State governments are also now beginning to probe tech giants’ business practices on numerous fronts: A group of dozens of states have filed their own antitrust complaint against Google; the Arizona House recently passed a bill that would allow app developers to use their own payments systems, circumventing the tariffs imposed by Google’s and Apple’s app stores; and Maryland is imposing a new tax on revenue from digital ads sold by tech giants.
The US isn’t the only one taking action over how tech companies behave. Just in the last month, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber should count its drivers as workers, an issue Uber, as well as Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash, have fought against in the US as well. And in Australia, the government passed a new law that requires Google and Facebook to pay publishers in order to display their news content in search results and on news feeds.
“It reflects a growing recognition of the fundamental role that technology plays in people’s lives: from how we discover new information to how we connect with friends and family, to how we access job opportunities, find housing, access government benefits,” Givens said.
And, of course, there’s the issue of Section 230. The law, officially known as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, is a point of contention for both Republicans and Democrats – it states that internet platforms like Facebook or Twitter can’t be regulated as publishers, meaning they can’t be held accountable for speech on their platforms.
Givens said this issue, and the issue of misinformation on social media platforms more broadly, is more top of mind than ever before following the 2020 election, which she described as a turning point for many people in realizing the effects online public discourse can have on democracy. As a result, Facebook and Twitter actually changed their policies and instituted bans they had previously been reluctant to impose.
“We suddenly saw this flourishing of far more creative ways to try and improve the health of information on these online services, and you could tell that was the companies really trying to rise to the moment and importantly, rise to public pressure about the moment,” she said. “This didn’t all happen in a vacuum. This was from civil society, organizations, community, activists, employees, all calling on them to do more.”
Consumers and employees are holding tech companies accountable
But government crackdowns are just one piece of the puzzle: there’s also been a noticeable shift from in thinking among both tech employees and the customers they serve.
Two Pew Research Center surveys from the last two years show that Americans have a much less rosy outlook on Big Tech than they did in the past. A 2019 survey showed that the percentage of Americans who believe that tech companies have a positive impact on society plummeted more than 20 percentage points from 2015, from 71% to 50%. On the flip side, those who felt tech companies have a negative impact rose from 17% to 33% during this same period.
And last year, a second Pew survey found that 72% of adults in the US believe social media companies have too much power and influence in politics, with about half of respondents on both ends of the political spectrum saying the government should regulate tech companies more than they currently do.
Givens chalked up the increased consumer distrust partly to increased awareness among consumers about how their information is being used and shared, which is inspiring tech companies to make changes to their products – Apple, for example, has long touted its commitment to privacy, but it will soon roll out a new software feature that goes one step further: It will allow users to opt out of tracking for advertising purposes, a tool that caused an uproar from app developers, and from Facebook.
“There’s an appetite for businesses to compete on privacy as an asset that they can market to users,” Givens said.
Facebook has been hit with that consumer pressure as well in the form of outrage over its messaging app, WhatsApp. In January, WhatsApp issued new terms and conditions that revealed to many users that the app shares user data with its parent company, Facebook. It sent users into a frenzy and caused many of them to switch to a different messaging app, Signal, which resulted in WhatsApp delaying the date by which users would need to accept the new terms and conditions. Still, WhatsApp and Facebook haven’t adjusted their ways as a result of users’ frustration, at least not yet.
But beyond consumer skepticism, there’s another powerful force brewing inside tech companies: employee activism.
In January, more than 200 employees at Google formed a union known as the Alphabet Workers Union. The union, a rarity among Silicon Valley tech giants, has a stated goal to promote more inclusive working conditions at the company and ensure executives act in the best interests of both society and the environment.
Sonny Tambe, an associate professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told Insider he believes the newfound energy around this initiative is a spillover from the activism around social justice in the US last summer. And tech companies can’t afford to ignore that momentum, he said, because of how competitive the industry is.
“I think part of the halo effect for tech has been, they’ve been some of the best places to work, and this is important to them,” Tambe said. “These firms are competing, not just for customers, but also for workers, and workers are not going to stop having strong opinions about the way the world works and the way that their employer impacts the world around them.”
Tambe said he believes there’s a growing understanding among tech workers that because they are highly skilled and have a lot of agency, it is incumbent on them to be part of the larger conversation about how their companies are held accountable.
“These forces that are converging on Big Tech, they’re substantial,” he said. “A lot of stakeholders are realizing at a similar time that not all tech is moving us forward in positive ways, that these firms are very large and powerful, and that as consumers, as customers, as regulators, we need to be quite cognizant of this.”
The spread occured at four facilities near Ontario, according to the Post, which quotes former and current employees at the facilities.
Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The company has previously said new hires are being trained to follow strict health and safety rules. It said it invested more than $800 million in new pandemic safety measures in the first six months of 2020, according to an October press release.
“Our top priority is ensuring the health and safety of our employees, and we expect to invest approximately $10 billion in 2020 on COVID-related initiatives to keep employees safe and get products to customers,” the company said on a page dedicated to its COVID-19 improvements.
But employees at the Canadian facilities have placed some blame for the spread on the fast-paced culture at Amazon facilities.
“There is no social distancing, there is no sanitation,” an unnamed employee told the Post. “Many of them, 99 per cent of them, are scared of working there, but they have no choice.”
According to the unnamed employee, workers at the Canada facilities are told not to use their own N95 masks. Employees reportedly said they’re timed as they fill boxes, and their bathroom breaks are monitored.
Amazon and Walmart have been locked in battle over which can make shipping and returns easiest. The emphasis on speed makes it difficult for some workers in Amazon warehouses to follow COVID-19 rules, according to the report.
Ontario on Monday announced a province-wide shutdown, which will begin at 12.01 am on December 26.
“The number of daily cases continue to rise putting our hospitals and long-term care homes at risk,” said Doug Ford, premier, in a statement.
As the company expands, some lawmakers are asking questions about workplace policies and pay. Last Friday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called warehouse employment a “scam” because thousands of workers were reportedly on food stamps.
The US National Labor Relations Board last week said it had found merit in claims that Gerald Bryson, who worked at Amazon’s Staten Island fulfillment center, was fired in retaliation for protesting health and safety policies in the warehouse.
In Alabama, workers are expected to vote in January on whether to unionize, according to The Hill. A vote to unionize would be a first for Amazon’s US facilities.
In a statement issued to The New York Post, Amazon said: “We don’t believe this group represents the majority of our employees’ views. Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire.”