Is Amazon guilty of union-busting?

Is Amazon guilty of union-busting?
Source: Matthew Horwood

A recent job listing posted and then swiftly removed by Amazon Inc. has once again brought the issue of the e-commerce giant’s stance toward unions and the perception that it takes action to undermine union activity to the fore.

The job listing advertised a position for an “Intelligence Analyst” with preferred past experience in law enforcement or the intelligence community who would help research “labor organizing threats against the company” and would assist Amazon’s legal department in stifling union activists through lawsuits and restraining orders.

Analysts and union advocates were shocked at the brazen nature of the job listing, which seemed to confirm to many Amazon’s avowed anti-union stance.

This is not the first time Amazon has been accused of organizing against union activity among its workforce.

Amazon has caught heat for firing employees who have spoken out against working conditions, with high-level employees resigning in protest, and has had memos and training videos leaked that display a concerted effort by the company to delegitimize and disrupt protest and union movements brewing among its workforce.

Amazon’s pattern of actions over the years paints a consistently negative stance toward unions and toward those employees who complain too vocally about the working conditions they face.

Union busters

Amazon’s recent job listing drew immediate attention across the internet.

The “intelligence analyst” position that was advertised would assist in researching “topics that are highly confidential, including labor organizing threats against the company” and would track funding and activities connected to campaigns against Amazon.

The analyst would also compile assessments for use by Amazon executives and its legal department that would help in crafting “restraining orders against activist groups.”

The analyst was also expected to have “previous experience in Intelligence analysis and or watch officer skill set in the intelligence community, the military, law enforcement” or other related security roles.

The job listing drew immediate ire from activists, union organizers and other commentators. Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings, was “struck by how brazen” the advertisement was, spelling out clearly the anti-union responsibilities of the advertised role.

Dania Rajendra, the director of Athena, a coalition of activist groups, stated that “every single person in the United States has the right to speak up and to join with others to improve the conditions under which we live and work.”

Amazon’s “intelligence analysts” advertised online “won’t stop us now,” Rajendra added.

A spokesperson for Amazon claimed that the job description was inaccurate and “has since been corrected.”

Yet this job listing has appeared at the same time as the emergence of details regarding Amazon’s efforts to track disgruntled employees online via infiltrating social media groups.

One report showed that Amazon was monitoring groups on social media platforms where delivery drivers talk among themselves and make complaints about the company.

Amazon had reportedly been monitoring 60 social media groups, with employees those undertaking the sophisticated monitoring forbidden from making their activities public. Data collected from these private Facebook groups included the complete posts by discontented workers, along with their names and positions.


Although these efforts to track employees and analyze union “threats” are the most recent examples of Amazon’s anti-union stance, they are not without precedent for the world’s largest online retailer.

In 2018, it was revealed that Amazon managers had been shown a 45-minute training video that took an “aggressive” stance on dealing with potential union activity among workers.

The training video pointed out that warning signs of unionization included employees using language like “living wage” or showing an “unusual interest in policies, benefits, employee lists, or other company information.”

The video also made the point of claiming that Amazon is “not anti-union, but [not] neutral either” and encouraged managers to ingratiate themselves among workers so they could track their activities. The video also gave examples of things to say to discourage workers from union activity.

Amazon also began deploying “Fulfillment Center Ambassadors” on Twitter around the same time.

Although intended to boost positive press for Amazon, the cold and robotic style the “ambassadors” tweeted in, with confusion as to whether the employees represented on the accounts even existed, drew significant controversy.

These “ambassadors” would tweet positive statements about their supposed work at Amazon and would often respond to negative Twitter threads, sometimes with anti-union messages.

Coronavirus conditions

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed further efforts by Amazon to crack down on dissent and union activity, with the company facing criticism more broadly for its working conditions during the COVID-19 crisis.

Not all of Amazon’s workforce has found the pandemic financially difficult. Amazon founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos’ wealth has grown by billions over the course of the pandemic as a result of a surge in e-commerce activity, making him the world’s first US$200 billion man.

Despite this, on-the-ground employees have routinely complained of conditions experienced in Amazon’s warehouses and distribution centers.

A group of American Amazon employees began tracking coronavirus cases at Amazon warehouses early into the pandemic. In June, they reported that there were more than 1,500 cases in Amazon warehouses across the country.

Workers had complained of Amazon ending measures allowing workers to take leave without question during the pandemic and complained that they had also been told to continue working even if they had displayed coronavirus symptoms and if other colleagues had contracted the virus.

It was these concerns that led Chris Smalls, a worker at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, to lead a walkout in March. Smalls was fired as a result, with Amazon claiming he had “violated a company-ordered quarantine” and other COVID-related regulations adopted by the company.

Yet reports in the aftermath of Smalls’ firing showed that this may have been orchestrated. Leaked memos from a leadership meeting, in which CEO Jeff Bezos was present, showed that executives discussed depicting Smalls as the leader of the protests against Amazon and then smearing him as “not smart or articulate.” In effect, Amazon was attempting to delegitimize the entire movement by using Smalls as a proxy.

Smalls was not the only figure critical of Amazon to face termination. Two engineers, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, were also fired for allegedly “violating internal policies,” but the two individuals had also been vocal critics of Amazon and had reached out to warehouse workers to voice their concerns during the pandemic.

As a result of this spate of firings, Tim Bray, the Vice President of Amazon Web Services, resigned in protest over the company’s actions.

Bray stated in a post that he had “quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.” Bray called the company’s actions “chickenshit.”

Amazon workers, unrepresented by any official union, face a company that, despite soaring profits as a result of the shift toward e-commerce during the COVID-19 crisis, is highly vigilant against any worker-led criticism or efforts toward unionization.

Yet this display of hostility toward workers’ criticism or collective bargaining efforts is not a new phenomenon. For years, Amazon has deployed social media campaigns in an attempt to smear former employees critical of the company. Putting out an advertisement calling for intelligence analysts appears to be Amazon’s latest attempt to stifle its employees’ complaints and their efforts to unionize.

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