Amazon Gets Rattled as Calls Grow for Reform

It says detractors are misinformed and should ‘book a tour’

Amazon workers protesting in front of Amazon Fulfillment in Shakopee, Minnesota
A small strike in Minnesota has resulted in bigger-than-expected waves.
Getty Images

It’s not often we see Amazon lose its cool. After all, this is the company that faced criticism about selling potentially biased and inaccurate facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies and didn’t break a sweat. Nor did it bat an eyelash when 8,000 employees asked for it to take a stronger stance on climate change. And, at its annual shareholder meeting in May, proposals tied to both issues were squashed like proverbial bugs.

On Tuesday, however, which should have been the big finale of the longest Prime Day to date, Amazon’s mask slipped a bit as it included some zingers in its statements about striking workers, the unions supporting them and the politicians calling for an investigation into its fulfillment centers. And this was before the European Commission announced its own investigation into if Amazon is using third-party data to give itself an unfair advantage.

The Strike: ‘We can only conclude that the people who plan to attend the events are simply not informed’

To be fair, just about a week ago, Amazon announced it is footing a $700 million bill to “upskill” 100,000 U.S. employees to “help them move into more highly skilled roles.” That came after raising the minimum wage to $15 in November 2018, which is a feat unmatched by its retail peers so far.

And yet warehouse workers in Minnesota nevertheless went on strike on Monday with shirts and signs saying, “We’re humans, not robots.”

Minneapolis’ Awood Center, a community organization that seeks to build economic and political power within Minnesota’s East African community, helped to organize the strike. Executive director Abdi Muse was not available for comment. However, in an email, he wrote that he expected about 100 workers to participate. And, according to the organization’s Twitter account, which Muse said is a good resource, workers were protesting working conditions and unfair scheduling.

These workers received widespread support from 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as pilots who fly for Amazon.

In a statement from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which would represent Amazon workers if they unionized, president Stuart Appelbaum wrote that the toll on warehouse employees this Prime Day will be “considerably worse” than a typical day given changes like the 12-hour sale extension and shift to one-day shipping, which “effectively doubles the pace of its workers.”

“Amazon fulfillment workers were already facing speeds of 200 to 300 orders per hour in 12-hour shifts before the new policy,” he added. “They were struggling to maintain that pace … Operating at these speeds for this duration means Amazon needs to hire more workers, under more sustainable speeds that don’t put worker’s lives in jeopardy.”

The Union: ‘These groups are conjuring misinformation to work in their favor

Chelsea Connor, director of communications at the RWDSU, acknowledged the $700 million jobs program, but said “the other issues in our statement still need to be addressed.”

This comes as Amazon looks to hire at least one employee relations manager with “seven years direct experience in … union avoidance work, or labor/employment law with an emphasis on union avoidance.”

When asked about the listing on Tuesday, an Amazon spokesperson said, “I’m unfamiliar with the post.” She requested Adweek forward the link “for reference.” She did not respond thereafter.

“I think that says it no more clearly than I could,” Connor said. “Amazon doesn’t want a union.”

By Wednesday, the language referring to “union avoidance” had been deleted from the job listing.

Earlier, however, the spokesperson confirmed no Amazon employees are part of a union. And, in an emailed statement, she wrote that events like Prime Day are an opportunity for its critics, like unions, to “raise awareness for their cause.”

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