Amazon Fights Union Drive With Fact-Free Bombast
A Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) supporter outside of the union headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S., on Friday, March 26, 2021. (Photographer: Andi Rice/Bloomberg)

Amazon Fights Union Drive With Fact-Free Bombast

If you ran one of the biggest, most innovative and most profitable companies in the world with an enviable reputation for customer service and brand management, would you spend days pounding on your critics — including two U.S. senators and at least one representative — when much of what you’re disputing is demonstrably true?

If your company was facing a public backlash because many of your workers can’t afford food, shelter and health care, and because working conditions are so oppressive they routinely urinate in bottles and defecate in bags and buckets to get their jobs done on time, would you scoff at the problems?

If you’re Amazon.com Inc., maybe you would.

Companies ensnared in management and public relations crises can follow other paths, of course. They can rally lawyers and media consultants, the most sophisticated of whom would advise acknowledging, and then resolving, problems. Or they can push back while making sure that the facts supported their position and the stakes in any given battle were worth the risks.

Amazon, facing a unionization drive at its Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse that comes to a head this week, has chosen an utterly different route. Let’s call it the Facts-Be-Damned-I’m-Throwing-Another-Roundhouse-So-You-Better-Duck strategy.

Among the most aggressive Amazon pugilists is Dave Clark, a logistics wizard who oversees the company’s global consumer business. Today is the deadline for Bessemer workers seeking better pay and working conditions to vote on joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Clark has taken to social media over the last week to argue that unionization is pointless because Amazon is a progressive idyll for workers. Senator Bernie Sanders’s visit to Bessemer last week prompted Clark to tweet:

When Sanders tweeted that he was curious why “the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, is spending millions trying to prevent workers from organizing a union so they can negotiate for better wages, benefits and working conditions,” Clark advised Sanders to “save his finger wagging lecture until after he actually delivers in his own backyard.”

Clark has also retweeted posts from his company’s “Amazon News” feed, which is counterpunching just as briskly. It has taken jabs at Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren for siding with Amazon’s workers. Warren has also drawn Amazon’s ire for calling for a tax increase on big, profitable U.S. companies. At a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Friday, it was revealed that Amazon’s effective tax rate on $40 billion in profits between 2018 and 2020 was only 4.3%, well below the statutory corporate tax rate of 21%.

When Representative Mark Pocan tweeted last week that “paying workers $15/hr doesn't make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles,” Amazon News shot back: “Bottle peeing: You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. 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.”

Amazon does, indeed, employ more than a million workers, and many are paid handsomely and provided with generous benefits. That’s a laudable and extraordinary achievement. But many Amazon workers are also paid subsistence wages and require taxpayer subsidies to stay afloat, as we recently outlined. And the peeing in the bottles stuff? Why would Amazon News even take that on? It merely offered bait to reporters who have covered the issue to prove that, yeah, there was peeing in bottles — and pooping in bags.

Being pugnacious has been Clark’s modus operandi for some time. He has boasted that during his early Amazon years he favored “lurking in the shadows of Amazon warehouses and scoping out slackers he could fire,” according to Bloomberg News. That habit garnered him a nickname: “The Sniper.” After the comedian John Oliver roasted Amazon in 2019 for reports of horrendous working conditions in its warehouses, Clark took to Twitter to say that he was a fan of Oliver’s show and taking companies to task for failures. But for Oliver to “suggest” that Amazon workers would labor “in an environment like the one portrayed is insulting.”

Clark’s own compensation won’t be publicly disclosed until next year, but his predecessor as Amazon’s global consumer chief has been awarded Amazon stock worth more than $160 million and received compensation totaling $210,725 in 2019.

Clark isn’t, presumably, flying solo in his response to the Bessemer organizers. Jay Carney, the former press secretary for President Barack Obama and former communications director for Vice President Joe Biden, now oversees Amazon’s public relations operation and has a hand in making policy at the company. Carney’s Twitter feed showcases a photo of him and Biden, with the president’s arm draped across his shoulder. Pinned at the top of the feed below that is a photo of Carney holding a Biden-Harris campaign poster.

Beyond conveying Carney’s political values, the photos also are an overt reminder to anyone looking that Amazon’s PR chief has deep ties to the Biden administration — when the federal government is examining issues of importance to Amazon, such as labor practices, wage equity, workplace safety, corporate monopolies, consumer privacy and cybersecurity. If Carney is gambling that Biden’s team will roll in behind Amazon’s head-butting around the unionization push, he appears to have miscalculated. Biden has come out publicly in support of Bessemer’s workers.

Even so, Amazon has spent millions of dollars attempting to crush the unionization effort and has called in off-duty Bessemer police to remind workers who’s boss. In January, Amazon unsuccessfully appealed a federal labor ruling that allowed its workers to vote on unionization by mail, and in February it used its streaming subsidiary, Twitch, to run anti-union promotions — including one spot in which employees said they were planning to vote against unionization.

One of Carney’s deputies, Drew Herdener, Amazon’s vice president for worldwide communications, has been as aggressive as anyone in pushing Amazon’s talking points. Last week, he challenged the New York Times to find “another large company paying two times the minimum wage, providing great health benefits from Day 1, 95 percent education reimbursement, safe working environment, and so on.” Herdener didn’t mention, however, the tens of thousands of Amazon workers who are paid so little that they qualify for government assistance. 

Herdener also neglected to mention that median total pay for U.S. full-time employees at Amazon was $36,640 in 2019, barely a living wage for a single person residing in Bessemer or any other of America’s most affordable towns. Much more expensive locales are even further beyond most workers’ reach. And remember that, by definition, a median total annual pay of $36,640 means that half of Amazon’s full-time employees in the U.S. earn less than that amount. The company’s $15-an-hour minimum wage and health benefits also don’t apply to contractors and outsourced workers, many of them delivery drivers who are crucial to Amazon’s operation.

Describing Amazon as a safe working environment doesn’t quite tell the whole story, either. Warehouse workers complain that they must choose between eating and going to the bathroom because Amazon gives them too little “time off task” to do both, a reference to a tracking system in Amazon’s warehouses that clocks workers’ every move. Drivers complain that vehicles are unsafe and that in order to complete their routes, they must disobey traffic laws, skip meals, relieve themselves in makeshift bathrooms in their trucks and work up to 16-hour shifts.  Complaints that Amazon ignored Covid-19 precautions in its warehouses rocked the company last year, sparking the unionization push. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has repeatedly investigated and fined Amazon over the years for a variety of problems in its warehouses.

Amazon is playing a risky game, especially when it’s relatively easy to fact-check its claims and when there’s a growing public awareness that corporate America could do much more to help solve income inequality — by, for example, paying a living wage, not just a minimum wage.

It’s not clear whether Amazon genuinely believes its line about being a progressive workplace or is just reveling in being combative. And you can be anti-union, and consider Sanders and Warren irritating, but still find Amazon’s strategy dumbfounding. Either way, and regardless of the outcome of the union vote in Bessemer, Amazon is practically begging lawmakers to intervene on behalf of its beleaguered workers. If they do, no one should be surprised — least of all Amazon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

Nir Kaissar is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the markets. He is the founder of Unison Advisors, an asset management firm. He has worked as a lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell and a consultant at Ernst & Young.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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