In what is said to be a historic turning point in US industrial relations, Sebastian Wieneke takes a look at the efforts by Amazon workers to unionise, and the (often dubious) tactics used by upper management to thwart this
Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama are currently at the centre of a landmark vote to establish what could be the first unionised Amazon Warehouse in the United States. This vote is one of the first of its kind in Amazon’s 26-year history. Voting closed this Monday, but due to potential contest around vote counts from both sides, the outcome isn’t expected to be known for some time.
The trillion-dollar company has fiercely opposed any efforts to unionise. Workers, who had originally complained about ‘aggressive’ performance requirements, found their workplace littered with posters and flyers urging them to vote against unionisation.
“Do it without Dues”, one of Amazon’s anti-union adverts
Earlier this year, a slew of anti-union media targeting workers at Bessemer was published on the campaign website ‘doitwithoutdues.com’. Along with the sleek main tagline, the page displays several campaign posters and images urging workers to “get the facts” about unions, while themselves presenting misleading information about the way in which union dues are collected.
“There’s so much MORE you can do for your career and family without paying dues…we’ve got you covered with high wages, health care, vision, and dental benefits, as well as a safety committee and an appeals process”
A series of suspicious twitter accounts claiming to belong to Amazon employees while posting anti-union rhetoric on the platform were recently uncovered, and Amazon has confirmed at least one to be fake. Most of the accounts were made very recently, and all tweets were related to Amazon.
This is so great. Remember those extremely real Amazon workers who were tweeting nice things about working there? Well Leo is now Ciera, Michelle is now Sarah, Rick is now James, etc. pic.twitter.com/q5LgITjMQ4
— Karen Weise (@KYWeise) January 30, 2019
Although it is unclear whether or not these accounts are associated with the company, Amazon does pay real employees to promote them on social media (Amazon Ambassadors). Many of the accounts had @AmazonFC in their twitter handle, previously used to identify real Amazon ambassadors.
Amazon didn’t even really try with this one lol pic.twitter.com/Q9dyTzKqns
— Tim Sullivan 🐋 (@timjsully) March 29, 2021
Following the attention they have gained, Twitter has suspended a large number of the accounts for violating the platform’s rules on spam and platform manipulation.
Union busting practices are illegal in the United States, but in many cases the regulations can be navigated around by specialist ‘union avoidance’ firms and legal firms. For the union supporters, this unfortunately means little can be done to stifle Amazon’s counter campaign. Previous votes for unionisation in Seattle (2000) and Delaware (2014) have failed, and Amazon’s role in crushing these movements should not be underestimated.
In contrast to the message the company sends out to its workers: “we’ve got you covered”, claiming they prefer to resolve issues with their employees directly, Amazon has consistently made headlines due to their dehumanising treatment of employees in their fulfilment centres.
Journalist James Bloodworth, who spent some time investigating work conditions at the company, reported that workers didn’t find time to use the toilet while on shift due to ever growing fulfilment demands and incredibly high targets which they felt pressured to reach. Bloodworth also corroborates first-hand accounts of workers urinating in bottles instead of taking toilet breaks, as they are too worried that this will reduce their productivity and lead to them being disciplined for idling or even losing their jobs.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the GMB union revealed that Amazon workers were told to work ‘compulsory overtime’ to compensate for the spike in demand of online shopping services. Although Amazon stated that it was working to ensure it could still deliver to customers, this showcases the lack of control which the distribution giant’s warehouse employees have on their own work-life balance.
As the pandemic has developed, Amazon has had time to adapt a strategy with more longevity, but the high demand for performance has only increased. Further to this, it has excused the implementation of increased surveillance at warehouses. Cameras have been installed at various sites to check employees are social distancing – but conversely this also serves to make the employees feel like they are constantly being observed, further exacerbating their grievances with the company.
An open markets institute (OMI) Report claims that Amazon monitors a worker’s every move in the warehouse, and that the company uses its surveillance infrastructure to “control and monitor its employees”. As well as digital monitoring, one employee complained of “relentless” physical surveillance from managers. “(Managers) feel comfortable physically harassing people, that’s a regular thing”. The report suggests that this “infantilising” practice is enabled and reinforced by the company’s practices of extensive technological surveillance.
“Amazon’s relationship with its employees consists of control, humiliation and unabating anxiety…Employees have described amazon as creating a ‘Lord of the Flies’-esque environment where the perceived weakest links are culled every year”
-Eyes Everywhere: Amazon’s Surveillance Infrastructure and Revitalising Worker Power
According to GMB, a UK based general trade union, there have been over 600 ambulance callouts to amazon warehouses in the past 3 years. They’re calling for a parliamentary enquiry into the company. GMB is petitioning Amazon to “treat their workers like humans, not robots”. The petition can be found here: https://www.gmb.org.uk/campaign/amazon-workers-are-not-robots.
“GMB Union wants to work with Amazon to improve working conditions for our members. But so far, Amazon are refusing to recognise, or even meet with, the union.”
-GMB, Amazon workers are not Robots
As the wait for the outcome of the vote in Alabama continues, the world is watching closely. The decision of the workers of Bessemer to Unionise would empower Amazon employees in the US and globally to do the same. The establishment of a Union to mediate between Amazon and the demands of its workers is desperately required, as the current power imbalance makes it hard for workers to be heard.
Amazon’s current model relies on employees coming directly to the company to voice concerns and improvements, but this is fundamentally flawed. How can individuals feel comfortable making demands to a corporation with the power and reach that Amazon has, without proper representation? While unions are not free, they are an effective way to orchestrate real change in working conditions and employee benefit.
On average, union members receive higher pay than non-union members. They are also more likely to receive better sickness and pension benefits and enjoy more control over their shifts and working hours. In turn, unions benefit businesses by improving workplace conditions and practices, helping employers communicate better with staff, and helping with safety issues that would otherwise lead to injuries/ increased time off work due to injury.
Header designed by Christos Alamaniotis – Head of Design
Article edited by Connor Wade – Politics Editor