If you, like me, have been reading years of reports on Amazon’s egregious working conditions, you’re probably numb to the part of the article citing an Amazon spox template statement about valuing workers. Reports of workplace injury rates, grueling conditions, dystopian surveillance, and the piss bottles typically don’t phase them lo these many years. But watch Twitter closely, and once in a blue moon, you’ll spot the glorious flash of an Amazon official setting their hair on fire.
This is one of those days.
The freak-out commenced approximately 18 hours ago in light of the March 30th ballot count for the unionization drive at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse. If 50 percent plus one of the voters elect to unionize, employees can form a union under the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Bernie Sanders, civil rights leader William Barber, Killer Mike, and Danny Glover, are showing up. Stacey Abrams is the face of the fight.
The official Amazon News Twitter account has a full-throated denial of the pee bottles.
Replying to Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI)’s refute that making workers urinate in bottles does not constitute a progressive workplace, the company fired this off through its official Twitter account: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”
Given the overwhelming evidence, yes I do.
The episode started when Dave Clark, Amazon’s CEO of Worldwide Consumer (its retail business), jumped on Twitter yesterday to fire off at Bernie Sanders for not being progressive enough for Amazon.
“I welcome @SenSanders to Birmingham and appreciate his push for a progressive workplace,” Clark tweeted yesterday. “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.”
Clark added that Amazon’s “constituents” get a $15 minimum wage, health care, opportunity for “career progression,” and a “safe and inclusive work environment.”
This is the same bullshit the company has been spewing in its anti-union propaganda campaign, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But Clark isn’t finished with frantic ad hominem attacks.
“All we want to know is why the Sen is one of the most powerful pols in VT for 30+ yrs and their min wage is STILL only $11.75,” he tweeted (caps his). “AMZN’s min wage is $15 + great health care from Day 1.The Sen should save his finger wagging lecture until after he actually delivers in his own backyard.”
We can thank Bernie Sanders for getting a recently-unthinkable federal $15 minimum wage on the table. Ex-Amazon employees can thank Dave “The Sniper” Clark for lurking around Amazon warehouses in order to ambush-fire them for perceived laziness. He was just a budding Amazon employee back then.
But back to Amazon: At the outset of the pandemic, the company offered a meager $2/hour hazard pay raise and revoked it just a few months later in early June. The Brookings Institute ranked Amazon one of the “least generous” companies to amass soaring profits during the pandemic.
In response to Clark’s remarks, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum wrote in a statement shared with Gizmodo, that “if the working conditions were so great, Amazon wouldn’t have such an extraordinarily high turnover rate of over 100 percent a year at its facilities.” The reference likely comes from the Seattle Times’ finding that the company had a 100% turnover rate for frontline workers, twice the average of other warehouse and retail employers.
The finding suggests that Amazon employees might not be seeing the “career progression” opportunities Clark mentions. They have told numerous media outlets that they are not exactly treated as valued team members.
“Amazon is a very unfriendly and un-understanding place,” a Maryland-based distribution center worker told Gizmodo last month. “You have to just realize my manager’s getting on my rate and my quality because my manager’s bonus is contingent upon her team making a certain quota.” There are some days, she says, when Amazon managers seem to be “looking to fire people,” and she’s constantly penalized.
To Clark’s points about a “progressive workplace,” Amazon’s anti-unionization efforts have sought to reinforce a sense of moral superiority through Stockholm syndrome-esque messaging plastered on warehouse bathrooms and blasted in texts to their employees. Ads puppetized workers who repeat Amazon’s line that corrupt unions pocket workers’ earnings while achieving nothing for them. A website tells workers that “There’s so much MORE you can do for your career and your family without paying dues”—neglecting to mention that in Alabama, a right-to-work state, workers can vote in favor of a union and still choose not to join it.
An overwhelming number of accounts and evidence have shown that Clark’s claim to a “safe work environment” is simply untrue. An investigation from Reveal, of the Center of Investigative Reporting, last year found that Amazon officials deceived the public with safety claims while internal documents showed an appallingly high injury rate at over 150 warehouses. Their review found that in 2019, Amazon recorded 14,000 serious injuries, or injuries requiring time off work. That was 7.7 serious injuries per 100 employees; comparably, OSHA records show that this is over three times the average serious injury rate at general warehousing and storage.
Not only has Amazon misled workers about the functions of unions. Internal documents obtained by Motherboard show that the company hired Pinkerton agents in order to monitor the efforts, and the company has mailed employees “VOTE NO” fliers, instructing them to submit their ballots through a newly-installed mailbox outside the warehouse.
“The USPS recently installed a mailbox onsite at BHM1 for the convenience of our employees,” an Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo, assuring us that it’s been installed for the purpose of ensuring a “convenient, safe, and private” mail-in voting process. They added that only the USPS can collect mail.
Reuters has also reported that Amazon has listed former employees as eligible voters—Amazon’s list, per NLRB rules, is the sole voter roll for the election. Two ex-employees whom Reuters contacted claim to have voted. The National Labor Relations Board, however, is expected to validate eligibility, read each name before the ballot is opened, and the RWDSU can contest eligibility before the ballot is opened. The union tells Gizmodo that it has been in touch with the people on the list.
Though the election has been unusually swift, according to the RWDSU, we likely should buckle down for a long wait. It’s more than likely that the NLRB will hold a hearing on challenged ballots, and Amazon can contest ballots for any number of reasons including mismatched signatures. A number of subsequent steps could slow the process, including an NLRB hearing on whether Amazon deliberately confused voters or instilled fear of retaliation which could invalidate the election.
Whether it takes weeks or months or years, prominent union supporters need to keep agitating. That Amazon is coming down from on high to lose it over urine bottles in reaction to a pro-union tweet, it seems the carefully-constructed union-proof fortress might be less impenetrable than it thought.
Update 3/25/21 6:00pm ET: Leaked documents published by The Intercept indicate that Amazon management is well aware that its employees must relieve themselves in bags and bottles.
A screenshot of an email apparently sent from an Amazon logistics manager fully acknowledges that subcontracted delivery drivers don’t have humane bathroom access. Rather than fixing the problem, they issue a threat:
This evening, an associate discovered human feces in an Amazon bag that was returned to station by driver. This is the 3rd occasion in the last 2 months when bags have been returned to station with poop inside. We understand that DA’s [delivery associates, aka Amazon’s subcontracted drivers] may have emergencies while on-road, and especially during Covid, DAs have struggled to find bathrooms while delivering. Regardless, DAs cannot, MUST NOT, return bags to station with poop inside.
The Intercept also obtained a document from an Amazon employee that specifically lists “public urination” and “public defecation” as employee violations. Motherboard has previously published documents establishing the same rules for delivery subcontractors