Gizmodo has uncovered an Amazon union-busting training video that was distributed to “Team Leaders” at Whole Foods Market recently. The move by Amazon, which was made in response to rumors that Whole Foods employees are seeking to unionize, suggests that there may be strong anti-union sentiment at the nation’s second largest employer.
Whole Foods Workers Seeking to Unionize
Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market last year for $13.7 billion dollars. In recent weeks, evidence has surfaced that some employees at the health-focused grocery chain have started taking steps to unionize nationwide. On September 6, a group of Whole Foods workers emailed employees at most of the chain’s 490 stores.
In part, the email alleged that Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods Market came with an agreement to trim hundreds of millions of dollars in labor costs. “There will continue to be layoffs in 2019 and beyond,” the email read, “as Amazon aims to aggressively trim our labor force before it expands with new technology and labor models. Department order writers, supervisors, store scanners, and customer service team positions are currently the most vulnerable.”
The email was searching for employees to join a “cross-regional committee” to help workers coordinate across eleven regional offices to “create a platform to force Amazon to meet our demands.” Among the demands listed in the email were the following:
- A $15.00 per hour minimum wage.
- 401k matching.
- Paid maternity leave.
- Lower health insurance deductibles.
The email further claimed that Amazon has restricted stock benefits to Whole Foods employees who are in store leadership and corporate positions, whereas those benefits had previously been available to all employees who had worked at least 6,000 hours, regardless of position.
The workers’ effort is backed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a division of the United Food and Commercial Workers union that represents workers at grocery chains such as Albertsons and Kroger.
Amazon’s Guide to Union-Busting
If the Whole Foods workers successfully unionize, it would be Amazon’s only known union in the United States, one representing just a small portion of its global workforce of some 566,000 employees. And the recent release of a training video suggests that the one-trillion-dollar company is not likely to welcome the change.
In the 45-minute animated video, leaked to Gizmodo on September 26 by an unidentified employee, Amazon instructs Whole Foods managers on strategies for union-busting at their fulfillment centers. The video’s six sections, according to one animated narrator, are “specifically designed to give you the tools that you need for success when it comes to labor organizing.”
Insisting that “We are not anti-union, but we are not neutral either,” the video goes on to lay out a view of Amazon’s “non-neutrality” that in fact suggests the company’s strong anti-union bias:
“We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our customers, our shareholders, or most importantly, our associates. Our business model is built upon speed, innovation, and customer obsession—things that are generally not associated with unions. When we lose sight of those critical focus areas, we jeopardize everyone’s job security: yours, mine, and the associates’.”
The video repeatedly advises its managers on how to prevent unionization at their facilities. To do so, Amazon advocates a two-pronged approach:
- Identify the signs of potential organization by employees; and
- Discourage workers by expressing negative opinions about unions.
The fourth section of the video, entitled “Warning Signs,” reportedly details the identification component of the Amazon union-busting efforts. According to the video, examples of behavior “that can indicate associate disengagement, vulnerability to organizing, or early organizing activity” can include the following:
- Raising concerns on behalf of coworkers.
- Wearing union apparel.
- Distributing flyers and petitions.
- Workplace negativity.
- “Unusual interest in policies, benefits, employee lists, or other company information.”
- Employers who typically do not associate with each other “suddenly hanging out together.”
- “Associate behavior that is out of character.”
- Using terms such as “contract,” “representation,” “grievance,” or “living wage,” which the video disparages as “union words.”
The phrase “union words” was singled out for special scorn by the AFL-CIO, which tweeted that “We like those ‘union words’ which gave us a middle class. Shame on Amazon.”
As for what managers can do to discourage unionization if they have detected any of the warning signs, Amazon cautions against overtly “threatening” workers, though the video is quick to point out that “almost anything you say is lawful,” even if it has the same effect as a threat.
For example, as a manager, “You would never threaten to close your building just because associates joined a union, but you might need to talk about how having a union could hurt innovation, which could hurt customer obsession, which could ultimately threaten the building’s continued existence.”
Managers are also informed that “Opinions can be mild, like, ‘I’d rather work with associates directly,’ or strong: ‘Unions are lying, cheating rats.’ The law protects both!”
Video Reinforces Growing Public Sentiment
These sorts of efforts are not unique to Amazon, as corporate giants such as Walmart, Target, and Lowe’s have all faced backlashes in recent years for producing similar videos intended to combat unionization. Nevertheless, the release of the Amazon union-busting how-to video comes at an especially bad time for the company, which has been scrambling to combat growing public sentiment that the company is indifferent or even outright hostile to its workers.
For years, Amazon has attracted to widespread criticism for poor working conditions at its fulfillment centers and what have been characterized as increasingly unreasonable fulfillment quotas, with reported instances of workers forgoing bathroom breaks or even urinating in bottles to avoid falling behind while under extensive surveillance.
The increased pressure on meeting fulfillment requirements has fostered what critics have characterized as a dangerous environment for its workers. Seven workers have been killed at Amazon fulfillment centers since 2013, including three workers within five weeks in 2017. Such instances prompted the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health to include Amazon on its Dirty Dozen 2018 list for “Employers Who Put Workers and Communities at Risk.”
Coupled with complaints about difficult working conditions has been criticism about insufficient pay, so much so that many Amazon employees have to rely upon government assistance to make ends meet. An April 2018 by the New Food Economy, a nonprofit news organization, showed that thousands of Amazon employees take part in the government’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), with one in ten Amazon employees in Pennsylvania and Ohio and as many as one in three in Arizona receiving food stamps.
The fact that so many Amazon employees depend upon the government to help cover the basic living expenses despite working for a one-trillion-dollar company – one whose CEO, Jeffrey Bezos, is the world’s richest man with an estimated net worth of $157 billion – will strike many as unjust. This state of affairs seems especially appalling given that Amazon has received $1.1 billion in state and local tax subsidies since 2000 and is demanding billions more for its new headquarters.
The “Stop BEZOS Act”
In response to the inequities of the current system, Sen. Bernie Sanders recently introduced legislation that would require large employers like Amazon, Walmart, and McDonald’s to cover the cost of public assistance programs such as food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid received by their employees.
The Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act – or “Stop BEZOS Act” – would impose a tax on companies with 500 or more employees “equal to the amount of federal benefits received by their low wage workers.” That is, for every $300.00 that an Amazon employee receives in food stamps, Amazon would be taxed $300.00.
According to Sen. Sanders, the goal of the legislation is to reduce approximately $150 billion in taxpayer funds used to support low-wage workers per year and, ultimately, to force large corporations like Amazon to pay living wages. (Perhaps partly in response, Amazon announced on October 2 that it would be raising its company-wide minimum wage to $15.00 per hour.)
Whether such legislation could be passed in the current political climate remains to be seen, but if the past century of labor history is any indication, there is already one proven means of improving wages and conditions for American workers: Unionization.