Amazon's embarrassing union-busting website, annotated

The Fingers close-read of #DoItWithoutDues, a ham-fisted corporate attempt to stop BAmazon's historic drive

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Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are in the middle of an historic union election that would cement their right to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions from their employer, one of the most powerful entities in history. After trying to squash this union drive—nicknamed BAmazon, in honor of, y’know, ‘Bama—with every last litigative trick in union-busting playbook, Amazon couldn’t block this vote from happening.

Now, nearly 6,000 workers have until March 29th to return their mail-in ballots and decide whether they want to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in negotiations with the Seattle conglomerate.

We’ll know the results shortly after the ballots are in, maybe as quickly as the following day. But while we wait for the outcome, dear reader, let’s have a little fun at Amazon’s expense, shall we? (Yes, yes we shall.)

#DoItWithoutDues

At some point during their union-busting campaign—which has been quarterbacked by notorious “union avoidance” law firm Morgan Lewis and a Koch Bros.-affiliated consultant who charges $3,200 per day—Amazon launched a website to try to sway undecided employees at the Bessemer facility, known as BHM1. (Quick aside: the company just opened this warehouse last year after receiving at least $51 million in tax incentives to do so.)

The site, DoItWithoutDues.com, boasts a slick parallax layout, a bunch of cutesy graphics, and a fun little hashtag, #DoItWithoutDues. It also features a barrage of anti-union talking points that—despite being paternalistic, rote, and extremely red-assed—represent the best subterfuge Amazon’s army of anti-labor mercenaries can muster against a union at BHM1.

Anyone who’s been a part of a union drive before will recognize Amazon’s gambit for the tripe that it is, because all union-busting campaigns boil down to the same few easily debunked arguments. But private-sector union density in the U.S. is at an anemic 6% these days thanks to decades of neoliberal policies and politicians that vilified organized labor, hastened the offshoring of middle-class factory work (Bessemer was once a regional steel & manufacturing hub) and engineered the upward redistribution of wealth. So plenty of people—including many Friends of Fingers, I’m guessing—have never experienced a union drive. For the uninitiated, we’re going to take a look at some of the dubious claims Amazon makes on DoItWithOutDues dot com.

“We’ve got you covered*” (pay no mind to the asterisk, thanks)

The explicit premise of this garbagio website is that workers shouldn’t “waste” their money on union dues, because working at Amazon is Good, Actually™ so there’s no need for a union to make it better. This is an extremely common anti-union talking point. It’s gross and condescending, implying that BAmazon workers aren’t capable of managing their own personal finances or evaluating the best way to spend their money without the company’s input. But in BHM1’s case, there’s another inherent flaw, one the company ever-so-briefly acknowledges in a footnote on the site’s very first section.

The fine print on that asterisk reads “Applies to regular full-time employees,” but the BAmazon drive includes both full- and part-time workers, who don’t get the benefits the site touts. Ditto the temporary workers Amazon hires during periods of high demand. I haven’t seen a breakdown on the employment status of BHM1’s 5,800 workers that would be included in the bargaining unit if the election goes through, but the message here is clear: Amazon is already excluding some number of “doers” (side note: barf) from its full corporate benefits package. That contradicts the company’s projections of all-for-one largesse. They’ve got some of their workers covered; the drive is designed to win better wages and conditions for all.

Mind you, there’s also nothing stopping Amazon from busting F/T workers down to P/T hours, or unilaterally slashing those healthcare benefits. Right now, it can do whatever it wants! To wit, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon extended a $2-per-hour hazard pay bonus… then quietly revoked it just a couple months later, leaving workers in the lurch while former CEO Jeff Bezos made a tidy $75 billion off their life-and-death labor. (A September 2020 OxFam report found that if Bezos had redistributed his pandemic income as a six-figure bonus for every single Amazon employee, he would’ve wound up with no less of a fortune than he started with pre-pandemic. Instead he’s worth about $188B, and Amazon employees are on food stamps. Cool!)

So why should workers trust that Amazon has their best financial interests in mind, or that company-run “safety committees” will save them from horrifying on-the-job blood sacrifices at the altar of “productivity”, or that appeals processes will result in anything besides retaliatory firings? Take that company-run sham committee and shove it up your asterisk, Amazon.

“There are no free trials” (but there weirdly kind of are in this case)

There’s something deeply ironic about Amazon trying to scare its workers out of voting yes by rolling out the ol’ “legally binding union dues” canard. Alabama, like every other Southeastern state, has a right-to-work (RTW) law, which means that workers at unionized shops can choose whether they want to be members of that union.

RTW laws are an Orwellian invention of right-wing industrialist types who aimed to break the American labor movement’s back by giving workers the option to enjoy the benefits of a union without paying dues to support it. (The convoluted name comes from the legal “right to work” these laws grant scabs willing to cross picket lines during strikes.) These days, RTW laws effectively legalize free-riding, and in doing so deprive unions of dues-paying members that underwrite those unions’ ability to fight for better wages and conditions across industries.

So because Bessemer is in right-to-work Alabama, workers actually wouldn’t necessarily be legally bound to contribute monthly dues. In fact, they’d likely be able to avoid paying dues, if they later so chose.

Don’t get me wrong, RTW laws are predatory and bad, and I hope that if they win, BAmazon workers see the value in contributing financially to the ongoing health and strength of the union that represents them. But you have to laugh at this #DoItWithoutDues claim, because the same RTW law that allows for labor exploitation in Alabama—and the other 26 RTW states across the country—actually robs companies like Amazon of a key union-busting scare tactic. A little bit ironic, don’t you think?! (There’s a better Alanis Morissette joke in here somewhere about “free rides,” but I can’t quite figure it out, and we simply haven’t the time, anyway. On we go!)

The union will be “RESTRICTIVE” for… uh… reasons

Here’s another classic! Union-busters always, Always, ALWAYS claim that if workers exercise their federally protected right to unionize, it will make things awkward between workers and bosses and ruin “company culture.” Not our precious company culture! Won’t you think of the culture?!

Companies like talking about their “culture” because having occasional pizza parties and sponsoring kickball leagues is cheaper than paying workers for the full value of their labor. And one reason things don’t “stay friendly” between unionized workforces and the bosses is because once organized, workers no longer have to pretend to like the people who exploit them, or else be fired.

To elide this, Amazon throws down a tired false binary: either BHM1 workers can have a “helpful and social” work experience, or they can have a union to bargain collectively for better working conditions and pay. Of course, if they want, BAmazon workers can and should have both.

And when it comes to Amazon’s relationship with its warehouse workers, “friendliness” is, ah, pretty selectively applied. After Amazon found out one of its warehouse workers, Christian Smalls, was organizing other workers at his Staten Island warehouse last year, the company summarily fired him on trumped-up charges. Then, according to the minutes of a meeting attended by then-CEO Bezos, company executives maligned Smalls as “not smart or articulate” and prepped a smear campaign against him to deter others from organizing. Not very friendly, Jeff!

A corgi at a turntable (???), plus some dog-shit anti-labor logic

Here we have an illustration of a corgi1 bopping along to music behind some copy about how voting for a union means BAmazon workers will have to choose between paying dues and “buy[ing] dinner.” This is really on the site, I swear! It’s very disingenuous, because one of the main benefits of collective bargaining is increased wages, and union workers consistently out-earn non-union counterparts. Yes, union workers pay dues, but they typically negotiate for more money in return. That’s kinda the whole idea!

Beyond being stupid and misleading, this is probably the most patronizing item on Amazon’s entire #DoItWithoutDues site. I’m trying to imagine the demented content-strategy pitch meeting that spawned this insulting monstrosity. “OK, so, we know people like dogs and music. What if a dog listening to music told our overworked, underpaid warehouse workers that unions were bad? They’re simpletons! It can’t miss!”

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Such thinly veiled contempt for workers reveals the implicit premise of #DoItWithoutDues’ steamy pile of anti-labor gobbledegook: that Amazon knows better than its workers what they actually want/need. “Higher wages?! No, no no—what you actually want are pupperinos!” The site’s corgi schlock echoes this viral ass-terpiece of union-busting ephemera that Delta Airlines foisted upon its workers during a 2019 union drive:

You have to have a pretty low opinion of your employees’ capacity for critical thought to believe that dangling dogs and Xboxes in front of them is enough to persuade them against voting their best interests. And yet, here we are.

“They work you to death”

I could go on mocking #DoItWithoutDues for the anti-labor propaganda that it is. But you get the gist, and besides, as much fun as it is to send up the company’s transparent union-busting #content, the BAmazon drive is no joke for the workers pushing it forward. The company is pulling out the stops to kibosh this effort, using pressure tactics that surprise even longtime Amazonians, and leaning on local officials to make it harder for organizers to speak with others in public spaces near the warehouse:

It’s worth remembering that most credible (i.e., non-company-sponsored) accounts of life as an Amazon warehouse worker—whether in Bessemer, or at one of the company’s hundreds of fulfillment centers around the world—depict it as a brutal, alienating affair. The company surveils you on and off the clock, sometimes with Pinkertons; its relentless productivity quotas have you pissing in bottles rather than taking bathroom breaks; your body takes a beating as you run around picking and packing goods.

The work is so miserable that one formerly incarcerated person who quit a job at an Amazon warehouse told a reporter at The Guardian: “I would rather go back to a state correctional facility and work for 18 cents an hour than do that job.” Ghastly.

The conditions in Bessemer track that grisly narrative. “They work you to death,” one former BHM1 employee, who says she was unceremoniously canned via email in November 2020, told The American Prospect. Now, her former coworkers have a chance to do what no Amazon workers have done before—to do it with dues, and reclaim some modicum of worker power from one of the most fearsome anti-labor forces in the known world.

RELATED COVERAGE:


The bottom shelf

  • I’m sure you noticed that this edition of the boozeletter was not about booze. How did that make you feel? Let me know!

  • VinePair just dropped a package on how TikTok is remaking the drinking landscape in its viral, snackable image. Yours truly contributed a pair of pieces: a wonky jaunt through the foggy future of alcohol advertising on the platform (it’s currently banned), featuring no-comments from pretty much every major booze company that sells product in the U.S.; and a profile of the father-son duo behind JohnnyDrinks, #content hustlers from North Jersey who delight millions with their democratic approach to mixology and more.

  • Oh and on the subject of unions, check out my group profile of Anchor Brewing’s shop stewards reflecting on a year-ish of work under a collective bargaining contract, also at VinePair.

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Update 2/22/21, 1pm ET: Friend of Fingers Dave pointed out that the corgi is apparently “Rufus,” Amazon’s Prime Day mascot. I did some additional digging and found out Rufus the cartoon dog is actually based on a real dog named Rufus, who, according to an apparently archived company blog post, “belonged to Amazon's former editor-in-chief and principal engineer, and he accompanied them to the office every day.” Real-dog Rufus died in 2009 (RIP.) Personally I find this deeply weird and even more manipulative, but your mileage may vary.