Amazon plays an aggressive defense against its critics as it stares at a historic union vote in one of its Alabama warehouses.
For the past few days, Amazon has been arguing with a handful of high-profile lawmakers on Twitter about its working conditions, tax policies, and threats to disband Big Tech. The pokes came from Amazon’s official social media account, which has nearly 175,000 followers, and from Dave Clark, the company’s consumer boss.
The anger on social media began when Clark fired a series of tweets last week defending the company’s labor practices and telling Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
The attacks escalated from there, with Amazon responding directly to comments from Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. In a notable exchange with Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., Amazon discounted claims that its workers were forced to urinate in bottles as a result of the demands of the job, a practice that has been widely documented.
It is not uncommon for Amazon to engage with its critics in such a public forum. Amazon has been known to save with lawmakers on Twitter, including President Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, on the company’s tax records.
But the latest PR offensive took some viewers by surprise. According to Recode, a simple employee at Amazon even filed a “trouble ticket” about the tweets from the company’s official messaging account, believing they were so atypical that they might have been posted by someone with unauthorized account access.
The tweets were reportedly sent following instructions from Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, in a bid to counter the company’s critics, according to Recode.
Amazon officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Bezos’ reported involvement in the Twitter controversy.
Labor and antitrust experts say Bezos’ tweets and pressure to fight back suggest that Amazon is increasingly concerned about the upcoming Alabama union vote, which will intensify this week.
Approximately 5,800 employees at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, have completed postal ballot papers since February 8 to join the retail, wholesale and department store union. Voting ends today and counting starts on Tuesday. It will likely take a few days for a result to be achieved as Amazon and the RWDSU can contest ballot papers.
If successful, the union action could spark a series of similar organizational attempts in Amazon warehouses in the US and around the world. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told CNBC in an interview that the union has already received more than 1,000 incoming requests from US Amazon workers eager to organize their own workplace.
Amazon has spoken out strongly against the union efforts. Mandatory meetings were held with workers at the Bessemer facility known as BHM1 last month to bring the case against union formation into line. It sent out text messages and mailers asking workers to “vote NO” and a website was set up asking workers to “act free of charge”.
Amazon sent out text messages and mailers asking employees at its Bessemer, Alabama facility to “vote NO”.
The Twitter offensive shows that Amazon is “doing everything possible to convince the workforce that they should vote against the union,” said Tom Kochan, professor of industrial relations, work and employment at MIT. In its tweets and messages to workers, Amazon highlighted that it already offers great healthcare, a starting wage of $ 15 an hour, and a safe work environment.
“These are clearly anti-union messages,” said Kochan. “”[The messages] are carefully designed to try to stay within the terms permitted by the National Labor Relations Act so that the National Labor Relations Board does not ultimately rule against them and either call for another election or, at the most egregious, they could negotiate order and say that Amazon needs to negotiate with the union. “
The Clark and Amazon news signals that the company has a “real fear” of union rush, said Stacy Mitchell, a co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Employment, who spoke about Amazon’s labor practices and testified before lawmakers last year Year over its market power.
“Even if the union action is unsuccessful, all of this union work leads to a public conversation about the need to do something about Amazon’s power,” said Mitchell.
Much is at stake for Amazon if a majority of the workers in Bessemer vote to be represented by RWDSU. Unions can disrupt the level of control Amazon has over its warehouse and delivery workers, such as the ability to unilaterally set the pace of work and hourly wages.
“When a union comes in they will be asking for fair terms to reduce the stress and pace, and that could require more staff,” Kochan said. “It may require a different pace of work per person. That is the key.”
As support for the union increased, Amazon has taken a more aggressive stance on its critics both on and off Twitter.
Earlier this month, when a group of Democratic Congressmen visited Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, they were greeted with a billboard near the facility that read, “Members of Congress, welcome to Bessemer. Please adjust Amazon’s minimum wage in Amount of $ 15. ” Amazon has also advertised its $ 15 an hour minimum wage for print and digital ads.
Rep. Nikema Williams, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Rep. Terri Sewell, Rep. Cori Bush, Rep. Andy Levin and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum pose for a picture at the entrance to the Amazon facility as they arrive as members of a congressional delegation to show their support for workers who will vote on union formation on March 5, 2021 in Birmingham, Alabama, USA.
Dustin Chambers | Reuters
After Appelbaum criticized Amazon’s statements on Twitter, Amazon spokesman Max Gleber told CNBC in a statement Friday: “Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU’s chief disinformation officer, is trying to take alternative facts to a whole new level, to save his long-declining union. ” But our employees are smart and know the truth – they start with a wage of $ 15 or more, healthcare from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. “
Drew Herdener, vice president of global communications for Amazon, told CNBC in a separate statement Monday that RWDSU membership “has declined over the past two decades, but this is no justification for its president, Stuart Appelbaum,” to misrepresent the facts.
“We have encouraged all of our employees to vote and hope that they will,” said Herdener.
It is unclear whether the PR offensive and the targeted refutations against critics will pay off for Amazon. Kochan said the tweets run the risk of alienating the public if they haven’t already.
“Amazon can possibly win this fight, we don’t know, but they are going to lose this war to support the public,” said Kochan. “There comes a time when Congress is looking very, very closely at these very, very big companies and that is going to be part of that debate.”
Regardless of the outcome of the union movement in the Amazon, union leaders and lawmakers have used the election to initiate similar movements in other companies. Appelbaum said many of the themes of Amazon union action in Alabama – civil rights, the importance of dignity at work, inequality, a safe work environment – have resonated elsewhere.
“I think we captured the moment,” said Appelbaum in an interview. “This campaign reflects the zeitgeist.”