In the United States, the digital giants are baring their claws against emerging support for trade unions

A demonstration in support of Amazon workers at the Bessemer warehouse in Alabama on 20 February 2021 in Philadelphia. (Joe Piette)

A little grey letterbox could lead to huge changes for employees at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse in Alabama.

On 9 April, workers at the site overwhelmingly voted against the creation of a union branch, in a ballot widely followed in the United States. Since then however, witness statements from workers have emerged accusing the e-commerce giant of seeking to interfere with the vote, by asking the postal services to set up a box outside the site to collect employee ballots.

The US press reported that during the union campaign, Amazon repeatedly encouraged employees to use this letterbox, even setting up a small tent around it. The initiative was criticised by the powerful Retail, Warehouse and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which would have represented the employees if the ‘yes’ vote had won. It believes that the installation of the box at Amazon’s request may have dissuaded some workers from taking part in the poll, for fear of being watched over. Of the 5,800 employees invited to take part in the vote, 45 per cent preferred to abstain.

Amazon did not respond to a request for an interview, when contacted by Equal Times. The case is currently being discussed before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency responsible for conducting union elections and investigating illegal practices in the workplace. In an interview with Vox magazine, former NLRB chairperson Wilma Liebman said the letterbox issue “creates strong grounds for overturning the election”.

Text messages, posters in toilets and mandatory meetings

This is not the only practice denounced by the RWDSU. In recent months, Amazon has spared no effort to try to dissuade its employees from forming a union in the Bessemer warehouse: texts and emails encouraging employees to vote ‘no’, posters plastered in toilets and even mandatory weekly meetings organised during working hours aimed at dissuading workers from unionising using PowerPoint presentations.

“This last technique is a very common practice in the United States, it’s called captive audience meetings,” explains John Logan, professor at the State University of San Francisco and a specialist in employer anti-union strategies.

“This is a perfectly legal tactic as long as the company representatives responsible for leading these meetings do not directly threaten employees with job cuts or reduced pay benefits.”

To convince its employees to vote ‘no’, the company founded by Jeff Bezos also relied on a solid team of experts in anti-union strategies. “Amazon has been recruiting these kinds of professionals for a long time: in researching the company over the past few years, I found dozens of offers on the internet for jobs in the human resources field, often requiring five years of union avoidance experience,” says Logan.

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In addition to hiring consultants, Amazon relies on one of the most expensive law firms on the market, Morgan Lewis, which specialises in anti-union tactics. In 2014, it was partly thanks to this firm that Amazon managed to defeat the very first vote on the creation of a union within the company, supported at the time by a small group of technicians from a warehouse in Middletown, Delaware.

According to Logan, the Bessemer vote also saw the emergence of new deterrence tactics. “Amazon notably lobbied county authorities to change the timing of traffic lights near the warehouse in an effort to speed up traffic flow.” Some workers suspect the company of having thus sought to reduce the stopping time of cars during which pro-union workers campaigning near the warehouse for a ‘yes’ vote could come over and talk to employees.

Social networks, algorithms: the new frontiers of union avoidance

Social networks also appear to have been exploited: during the campaign, numerous anti-union tweets generated by computer bots appeared on Twitter until it deactivated them. Ads displaying similar messages have also multiplied on Twitch, a video game streaming platform acquired in 2014…by Amazon. Faced with widespread protest from users, the social network with 15 million daily visitors has also withdrawn the anti-union advertising content, stating that the messages should never have been broadcast on the platform, because they violated “the ban on broadcasting political advertisements”.

This is not the first time that Amazon has used new technologies to combat the creation of unions within its company. Last year, Business Insider magazine revealed that the supermarket chain Whole Foods, owned by the e-commerce giant, was using an algorithm to assess the risk of unionisation within its stores. Several factors were taken into account: the distance between the supermarket and the nearest union, the percentage of families living below the poverty line in the area or even the loyalty of employees previously assessed through internal surveys.

Faced with the renewed interest in unionisation among Silicon Valley employees in recent years, the digital giants are also increasingly using surveillance tools: in December, the NLRB concluded, after a year-long investigation, that Google had violated US labour law by spying on and then firing two employees who tried to mobilise their colleagues against Google’s hiring of an anti-union consulting firm. The federal agency notably revealed that the web giant had been looking at its employees’ calendars as well as presentations used by the two employees to persuade their colleagues to mobilise.

“We had always suspected that we were being watched,” says Alex Gorowara, software engineer at Google and spokesperson for the Alphabet Workers Union, the first union formed within the company in early January. “The NLRB revelations confirmed our fears. In fact, when we discuss issues within the group among employees today, we avoid doing so on our work devices. We speak to each other directly,” he says.

“The two big advantages that digital giants have over other companies when it comes to fighting unions is that they have both enormous financial resources, but also algorithms and sophisticated surveillance tools that allow them to anticipate any labour movement” notes Logan. “New technologies are truly the new frontier of union avoidance. Especially since most of them are not regulated by laws: government agencies are lagging far behind in this area.”

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Faced with all these obstacles, employees who campaign for the creation of unions within their companies are now placing all their hopes in the adoption by Congress of the ‘Protecting the Right to Organize Act’ (known as the PRO Act), a Democrat law, backed by President Joe Biden, which aims to strengthen the right to organise in the United States, currently one of the weakest in developed countries. The text is designed in particular to facilitate the right to strike, to broaden the union base, but also to prohibit and sanction certain practices used by employers to dissuade workers from unionising. It would thus put an end to the organisation of mandatory captive audience meetings.

Adopted on 9 March by the House of Representatives, the bill has yet to pass the Senate where, with a weak Democrat majority, it is unlikely to be validated. According to recently released data, Silicon Valley service platforms Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart have already spent more than US$1 million in lobbying to dissuade parliamentarians from passing the law.

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