Amazon’s aggressive PR campaign ahead of union vote shows how worried it is, labor and antitrust experts say

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An Amazon-sponsored billboard urging employees to return their unionization ballots is seen on March 28, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama.
Elijah Nouvelage | Getty Images

Amazon is playing an aggressive defense against its critics as it stares down a historic union vote at one of its warehouses in Alabama. 

In recent days, Amazon has sparred with a handful of high-profile lawmakers on Twitter over its working conditions, tax policies and threats to break up Big Tech. The jabs came from Amazon’s official social media account, which counts close to 175,000 followers, and Dave Clark, the company’s consumer boss.

The social media fury started when Clark last week fired off a series of tweets defending the company’s labor practices and taking swipes at Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who planned to meet with Amazon workers in the midst of a high-stake union drive in Alabama.

The attacks escalated from there, with Amazon replying directly to comments from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) In one notable exchange with Congressman Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Amazon discounted claims that its workers are forced to urinate in bottles as a result of the demands of the job, a practice that has been widely documented.

It’s not unusual for Amazon to engage with its critics in such a public forum. Amazon has been known to spar with lawmakers on Twitter, including President Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, over the company’s tax record. 

But its latest public relations offensive has taken some onlookers by surprise. According to Recode, a rank-and-file employee inside Amazon even filed a “trouble ticket” over the tweets from the company’s official news account, believing they were so out of character that they may have been posted by someone with unauthorized account access.

The tweets were reportedly sent out following a directive from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to fight back against the company’s critics, according to Recode.

Representatives from Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Bezos’ reported involvement in the Twitter controversy.

Labor and antitrust experts say the tweets and the pressure from Bezos to fight back indicate Amazon is increasingly concerned about the looming union vote in Alabama, which is set to heat up this week.

Approximately 5,800 workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, have been filling out mail-in ballots since Feb. 8 as part of a campaign on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Voting ends today and counting will begin on Tuesday. It’ll likely be several days before an outcome is reached, as Amazon and the RWDSU can contest ballots.

If successful, the union drive could kick off a string of similar organizing attempts at Amazon warehouses across the U.S. and around the world. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told CNBC in an interview that the union has already received more than 1,000 inbound requests from U.S. Amazon workers who are eager to organize their own workplace.

Amazon has staunchly opposed the unionization effort. Last month, it held mandatory meetings with workers at the Bessemer facility, known as BHM1, stating the case against unionizing. It sent out text messages and mailers urging workers to “vote NO” and it also set up a website urging workers to “do it without dues.”

Amazon sent out text messages and mailers urging workers at its Bessemer, Alabama, facility to “vote NO.”

The Twitter offensive shows that Amazon is doing “everything they can to convince the workforce that they should vote against the union,” said Tom Kochan, a professor of industrial relations, work and employment at MIT. In its tweets and messages to workers, Amazon has highlighted that it already offers great health care, a starting wage of $15 an hour and a safe working environment.

“These are clearly anti-union messages,” Kochan said. ”[The messages] are carefully constructed to try and stay within what is allowed under the National Labor Relations Act, so that the National Labor Relations Board doesn’t eventually rule against them and either call for another election, or if it’s most egregious, they could issue a bargaining order and say that Amazon has to negotiate with the union.”

The messages from Clark and Amazon signal the company possesses a “real fear” of the union drive, said Stacy Mitchell, a co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, who has spoken out about Amazon’s labor practices and testified in front of lawmakers last year about its market power. 

“Even if the union drive doesn’t succeed, this whole unionization effort advances a public conversation about the fact that we need to do something about Amazon’s power,” Mitchell said.

For Amazon, a great deal is at stake if a majority of workers in Bessemer vote to be represented by the RWDSU. Unions stand to disrupt the level of control that Amazon has over its warehouse and delivery workers, such as its ability to unilaterally set the pace of work and hourly wages.

“If a union comes in, they’re going to demand fair conditions to reduce the stress and the pace, and that might require more staffing,” Kochan said. “It may require a different pace of work per individual. That’s the key.”

As support for the union has rolled in, Amazon has adopted a more aggressive stance against its critics both on and off Twitter.

Earlier this month, when a group of Democratic members of Congress visited Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, they were greeted with a billboard near the facility that said: “Members of Congress, welcome to Bessemer. Please match Amazon’s $15 minimum wage.” Amazon has also promoted its $15-an-hour minimum wage in print and digital ads.

Rep. Nikema Williams, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Rep. Terri Sewell, Rep. Cori Bush, Rep. Andy Levin and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum pose for a picture at the entrance to Amazon facility as they arrive as members of a congressional delegation to show their support for workers who will vote on whether to unionize, in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S. March 5, 2021.
Dustin Chambers | Reuters

After Appelbaum criticized Amazon’s statements on Twitter, Amazon spokesperson Max Gleber told CNBC in a statement on Friday: “Stuart Appelbaum, Chief Disinformation Officer of RWDSU, in an attempt to save his long declining union, is taking alternative facts to a whole new level. But our employees are smart and know the truth — starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace.”

It’s unclear if the PR offensive and pointed rebuttals against critics will pay off for Amazon. Kochan said the tweets run the risk of alienating members of the public, if they haven’t already.

“Amazon may possibly win this battle, we don’t know, but they’re going to lose this war for support of the public,” Kochan said. “It comes at a time when Congress is looking very, very carefully at these very big companies and this is going to be part of that debate.”

No matter the outcome of the Amazon union drive, labor leaders and lawmakers have seized on the election for its potential to kick-start similar movements at other companies. Appelbaum said many of the themes of the Amazon union drive in Alabama — civil rights, the importance of dignity at work, inequality, a safe working environment — have resonated elsewhere.

“I think we captured the moment,” Appelbaum said in an interview. “This campaign reflects the zeitgeist.”