“There’s a concerted effort to prevent us from talking to workers and a concerted effort to scare workers,” said Julian Mitchell-Israel, an Amazon worker and volunteer union organizer at the warehouse, which would become the company’s second U.S. facility to join the Amazon Labor Union if it votes yes. “It’s not convincing anyone, but it’s pissing them off.”
The unionizing workers at Amazon join a larger movement across the country triggered in part by high inflation and the pandemic. Workers at Starbucks voted to unionize, and Kellogg’s workers agreed to a new contract after months of striking. The shift is most notable in the tech industry, where giants such as Amazon, Google and Apple have long warded off worker activism with a mix of tools, including high pay, plentiful employee perks, beloved consumer brands and core missions that made their workforces feel they were making the world a better place.
But blue-collar workers undergird the tech industry — and they often don’t have access to the benefits of the corporate jobs. The Amazon Labor Union notched a historic win this month at an 8,000-worker warehouse in Staten Island, following years of unsuccessful efforts by national unions to organize workers. An election at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., is too close to call.
Meanwhile, employees at an Atlanta Apple Store on Wednesday became the first to file for a vote on unionizing, and other stores are closer to doing the same. Contract workers at a Google Fiber store in Kansas City, Mo., who are employed by a third-party firm, unionized in March.
Faced with the threat of unionized workforces, tech companies — some of the most valuable and fastest-growing in the world — are increasingly turning to classic union-busting tactics to preserve their control over their workforces.
“The tech giants will up the ante trying to wrest the landscape back to where it was,” said labor organizer and author Daniel Gross, who has helped unionizing campaigns for workers in retail, food manufacturing, Starbucks and more recently in high-tech. Tech companies make up the dominant industry, and their action “tilts the scales badly for all workers.”
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Tech companies have surveilled workers suspected of organizing, posted anti-union propaganda and hired anti-union consultants, according to interviews with workers and organizers. They’ve also forced workers to attend “captive audience” meetings to undermine union talking points, lobbied for laws that will prevent workers from getting the right to unionize and fired employees who drew attention to these tactics.
There are burgeoning unionization movements among white-collar tech employees, including video game testers at Activision. But they are outnumbered by hourly wage workers, who aren’t part of the tech elite. Amazon, the country’s second-largest private employer, has more than 1 million employees in the United States, many of them at warehouses. Apple has more than 200 retail stores in the country, and Google’s shadow workforce of contractors and temporary workers has exceeded its 156,500 employees since 2018.
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In an emailed statement, Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the company invests billions in pay, benefits and resources for employees.
“We also know that there are outside organizations working hard and spending heavily to spread inaccurate information about us to our teams,” she said. “So — like many other companies — we also work to ensure our employees are fully informed about their rights and how decisions about outside representation could impact their day-to-day lives working at Amazon.”
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
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Google spokesperson Courtenay Mencini said the company has contracts with both unionized and nonunion suppliers, and respect their employees’ right to choose whether to join a union.
“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees,” Mencini wrote.
Apple said in a statement that the company is “fortunate to have incredible retail team members and we deeply value everything they bring to Apple. We are pleased to offer very strong compensation and benefits for full time and part time employees, including health care, tuition reimbursement, new parental leave, paid family leave, annual stock grants and many other benefits.”
Tech giants are no strangers to worker activism. And they’ve successfully subdued it for years.
Amazon has been using anti-union consultants for nearly two decades, defeating efforts to unionize in Britain in 2004 and Virginia in 2016, and releasing an anti-union training video in 2018. It also hired Pinkerton, the private security agency used to infiltrate unions since the late 1800s, to stop Whole Foods workers in 2020, according to internal documents obtained by Vice.
Pinkerton did not respond to a request for comment.
Some of the first signs of traditional union-busting at Google appeared in 2019, when the company quietly hired the anti-union firm IRI Consultants and later fired the engineers who tried to draw more attention to IRI’s work for Google, dubbed Project Vivian.
The move was a departure for Google. Since about 2011, Liz Fong-Jones, a former site reliability engineer at Google, operated as a liaison between employees and management, who emphasized a willingness to listen and make concessions to employee concerns.
“This open dialogue was something that stalled unions for a while,” she said. But after they hired IRI, it became clear “the sleeker union-busting didn’t work, and therefore they were resorting to brute force.”
That same year, a group of Google employees regularly held a lunchtime meeting in the San Francisco office to talk about organizing, said Laurence Berland, one of the Google engineers who was fired after drawing attention to the IRI. The employees watched undercover videos showing an Amazon union-buster, figuring Google would try similar tactics.
“It was pretty clear that they were trying to get everyone to shut up and get back to work,” said Berland. Mencini, the Google spokesperson, said the company decided in 2019 not to use the materials explored during its short engagement with IRI Consultants.
In January 2021, hundreds of workers formed the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), a “minority union.” It does not have bargaining rights with Google’s parent company Alphabet but is supported by the Communications Workers of America.
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The pandemic has further deepened the divide between white-collar and hourly workers, such as “essential” retail and warehouse workers who continued to work on-site. Contractors received fewer remote privileges. And as the economic and physical turmoil of the past few years have further eroded norms against unionizing in tech, companies are getting more aggressive.
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Contract workers at a Google Fiber store in Kansas City, Mo., who voted to unionize in March after they were denied cost-of-living raises during the pandemic, were required to attend “captive audience” meetings with an anti-union consultant who said voting to unionize could force Google to drop its contract.
“The tone was vaguely threatening,” said retail worker Emrys Adair, who uses the pronouns they/them. Workers were repeatedly told “what we’re asking for isn’t really how businesses work,” despite Google Fiber paying a starting salary that is $2.50 an hour less than Spectrum stores in the same city, they said.
The contractors in Kansas City voted in March to join the Alphabet Workers Union, which represents both Google employees and the company’s vast army of contractors.
Apple Store employees have also faced company blowback in the face of organizing.
When Apple announced this year that it was offering raises for retail employees across the country, employees at New York’s Grand Central Terminal store who appeared disappointed were taken aside by managers and given a speech about the pitfalls of unionization there, according to employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
In meetings, managers warned that unionization would mean the loss of benefits, such as the ability to do stints at Apple’s corporate headquarters, known as a “career experience.”
Organizers at that store dubbed themselves Fruit Stand Workers United and voted Feb. 21 to affiliate with a national labor union that has supported the successful unionization efforts of Starbucks employees around the country, according to a site by the group.
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Last week, before Atlanta’s Cumberland Mall Apple Store became the first to qualify for a vote, the company notified employees it would dispatch its version of HR to the store for one-on-one meetings, according to a screenshot reviewed by The Washington Post.
Apple told employees the purpose of the meetings was to “solicit feedback,” but labor experts say these meetings are often used by large companies to dissuade employees from voting to unionize.
At Amazon’s smaller Staten Island warehouse, union busting is at full steam before workers at the roughly 1,500-employee warehouse start voting on whether to join the Amazon Labor Union on Monday. The company has held regular classes for workers at its warehouses to encourage them to vote no, pulling employees from their work stations to attend. And it has spent millions on consultants to talk to workers, sometimes roaming warehouse floors with employees.
Amazon’s Nantel previously said that it was employees’ choice whether to join a union and the classes “provide employees the opportunity to ask questions and learn about what this could mean for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”
At the nearby bigger JFK8 warehouse that voted to unionize this month, Connor Spence, a worker and organizer, said that outside contractors would roam the facility’s aisles with no clear purpose, stopping to talk to employees as they labored and sometimes employing intimidation.
“We had one guy who said, ‘If the union comes in, you will go on strike; if you go on strike, Amazon will replace you,’ ” Spence said.
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The ALU started “outing” the consultants to employees and the public on their Twitter page. One tweet from February shows a picture of a man, mask on, inside the warehouse and identifies him as a consultant. “He tries to hide his name and lie about who he is to workers at Amazon,” the tweet reads.
The ALU has also passed out fliers including pictures of two of the union busting consultants.
Filings with Labor Department show that Amazon has hired multiple union busting firms over the past year to work both on Staten Island and in Bessemer.
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The company also regularly sparred with union organizers. In one instance, Amazon called the police on Chris Smalls, the Amazon Labor Union’s interim president, for trespassing in a company parking lot regularly used by visitors.
Video of Smalls’s arrest was shared widely online. Amazon said at the time that Smalls trespassed multiple times, despite warnings and that Smalls “chose to escalate the situation” when police asked him to leave.
Smalls, who was delivering containers of pasta and chicken to workers in an area regularly trafficked by visitors, was charged with resisting arrest, obstruction of government administration and trespassing. He disputes that he resisted arrest and said previously that the incident “made the company look very ugly.”
“They lost the election right there,” Smalls said.
In a more recent incident, outside the warehouse scheduled to vote Monday, Smalls quickly left the parking lot when he was threatened again with arrest.
The company used similar tactics, sending text messages and posting fliers in bathrooms at another large warehouse in Alabama, where workers last year rejected the union vote. Federal regulators found Amazon improperly interfered in that election and ordered a redo vote earlier this year. Those results remain too close to call.
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Tech companies are facing some blowback for deploying these tactics, so they may get more secretive, said Bradley Tusk, an early Uber investor and adviser.
“They’re going to have to do it unbelievably quietly,” he said. “The criticism they will get will not be worth it.”
This story has been updated to reflect Emrys Adair’s correct pronouns.