On Monday, the voting period for workers looking to form a union at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, ended, and whatever the result, it’s clear that the company is feeling the pressure.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the workers in Bessemer were showered with support from politicians like Stacey Abrams and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., celebrities like Danny Glover, the Major League Baseball and NFL players’ unions, allies across labor both domestic and international and even President Joe Biden, who recorded a video denouncing anti-union propaganda.
As the union vote approached, Jeff Bezos became incensed by negative coverage, according to Recode.
The campaign shone a spotlight on the working conditions at Amazon. As the company touted its $15 minimum wage, critics pointed out that the company can actually push down wages in the warehousing sector. Reporters have for years investigated claims by employees that the company has higher injury rates than the industry average. (Amazon strongly rebuts these stories.)
As the union vote approached, Jeff Bezos became incensed by negative coverage, according to Recode, and asked for a more aggressive public relations strategy. But what followed seems to have hurt the company’s reputation even more.
On March 24, Amazon executive Dave Clark responded to news of Sanders’ visit to Bessemer by calling his company “the Bernie Sanders of employers.” Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., responded that a progressive workplace doesn’t bust unions or make workers “urinate in bottles,” to which Amazon’s official news account replied, “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?”
That tweet set off an internet firestorm of memes and critical responses, but more than anything else, it was a lie. The issue of Amazon workers’ peeing in bottles has been well-documented by journalists for years. Within a day of the tweet’s being sent, Vice published photos of the pee bottles provided by workers, and The Intercept published internal documents that showed that the company knew not only that workers pees in bottles, but also that some defecated in bags while on the clock.
Amazon’s aggressive tweets created a news cycle around one of the worst parts of the company’s treatment of workers, but it didn’t stop there. Clark and Amazon’s news account continued responding aggressively to Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. The corporate Twitter account even responded to Warren’s criticism by saying, “One of the most powerful politicians in the United States just said she’s going to break up an American company so that they can’t criticize her anymore.”
It should go without saying that this is an unusual PR strategy for any company, especially one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. A worker at Amazon even sent an internal ticket to flag the tweets, fearing that the account had been hacked: “These tweets are unnecessarily antagonistic (risking Amazon’s brand), and may be a result of unauthorized access.” The ticket was closed as “not a technical issue.”
On the same day the union vote ended for workers in Bessemer, Twitter accounts purporting to be those of workers at Amazon fulfillment centers around the U.S. began popping up and tweeting about how great it was to work at the company, how they were able to use the bathroom whenever they wanted and why unions were bad for workers. Yet they also seemed to make mistakes, including one who said she was “barely scraping by” before hastily walking it back in subsequent tweets.
It was quickly pointed out that many of the accounts’ display photos were AI-generated or taken from random photos online. Rather than being those of real workers, they were more likely to be parody accounts, which was confirmed when many of them were suspended the next day.
However, the fact that so many people seemed to have been pulled in by the accounts shows that even parody passes for real these days — that’s how ridiculous the company’s denials have been. Amazon has also been running a program since 2018 in which specially chosen “ambassadors” are paid to defend Bezos and the company on Twitter, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that these workers were changing their approach like Clark and the corporate account.
The fact that so many people seemed to have been pulled in by the accounts shows that even parody passes for real these days.
As Amazon’s PR disaster plays out, the union votes from the Bessemer facility are being counted by the National Labor Relations Board. If workers vote for a union, it will be despite strong anti-union efforts. Amazon pushed anti-union meetings for workers and hired intimidating off-duty police to watch organizers, and it was even reported to have had local officials change traffic signals, negatively affecting organizing efforts at intersections.
Even if the vote fails, though, the workers’ campaign and the wave of support they’ve received are already inspiring workers at other Amazon fulfillment centers around the country to organize with the hope of unionizing to improve their working conditions.
Amazon has put shareholder profits over worker safety and security for years, but with unions, the workers would have significantly more power to push back. In Europe, for example, where its workforce is unionized, workers still have grievances, but they also have more leverage to force the company to make changes.
Through the pandemic, Bezos’ wealth has soared to around $200 billion. Instead of sharing some of Amazon’s gains with its workers, he has tried to crush nascent worker efforts to band together. No matter what happens in Bessemer, Bezos’ response shows exactly what workers are fighting for.