Corporations Like Amazon Hire Union-Busting Labor Spies All the Time

Amazon was recently busted hiring intelligence experts to spy on Amazon workers. The practice is unfortunately common — most major multinational corporations have surveillance divisions which overlap with government intelligence agencies, creating a single, powerful security apparatus at the disposal of both the federal government and private corporations to use against workers. founder and CEO Jeff Bezos in Seattle, Washington, 2014. (David Ryder / Getty Images)

Yesterday, VICE reported that Amazon had posted two online job listings for intelligence analysts to monitor threats that included labor organizing. The company immediately yanked the listings, claiming they were made in error, but screenshots show Amazon explicitly looking for experts to collect “actionable intelligence” on “organized labor, activist groups, hostile political leaders” among others.

Amazon’s workforce is not unionized, and the company wants to keep it that way. Jeff Bezos would not be the richest man in the world if he weren’t versed in the fundamentals of profit maximization, suppressing labor costs, and dodging regulations chief among them. Unionization is antithetical to that aim because unions exist to secure better pay and benefits, and safer and more comfortable working conditions, which pushes labor costs upward and eats into profits. If Bezos has his way, there will never be a unionized Amazon warehouse.

Amazon’s opposition to unionization and other forms of labor activism is well-known. The company isn’t great at hiding it, such as when earlier this year it fired warehouse assistant manager Christian Smalls for organizing workers against hazardous coronavirus workplace practices, and then its executives hatched a secret plan to “make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement,” smear him as “not smart or articulate,” and, in a strange logical twist, accuse him of endangering his coworkers by returning to the building and possibly exposing them to COVID-19.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a company this anti-worker spends money to spy on activists and critical politicians (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders come to mind). Corporations have been enlisting private investigators and private militias to monitor and suppress pro-worker organizing since the dawn of industrial capitalism. In 1907, the stenographer of a Pinkerton union infiltrator wrote a tell-all book, The Pinkerton Labor Spy, exposing the activities of his former boss. The cover of the book depicts a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The activities detailed in it were par for the course — the only exceptional detail was that someone had gone rogue to divulge them.

Corporate spying became professionalized after the end of the Cold War, when out-of-work CIA, FBI, and NSA spooks established professional associations to gain a foothold in the private sector. The first multinational companies to hire these government-trained intelligence experts were focused on collecting sensitive information on corporate competitors. This developed into a corporate espionage arms race, in which companies were increasingly compelled to build similar divisions as a matter of self-defense and in order to remain competitive.

The proliferation of government-trained intelligence experts at large corporations increased corporations’ capacity to spy on anyone else who threatened their bottom line, ranging from environmental and human rights groups to whistleblowers to journalists to, of course, unions and workers who might show signs of wanting to join them. If an individual or organization is openly agitating for higher wages or tighter regulations, the world’s biggest corporations are keeping an eye on them, and they’re using former government spooks to do it.

Many multinational corporations now have their own global security divisions, which rival the intelligence agencies of many countries. To staff these divisions, companies like Amazon, Coca Cola, Walmart, McDonald’s, and Monsanto all dip into the government-trained surveillance expert pool. Walmart’s intelligence unit, for example, which employs four hundred people, is staffed largely by former government intelligence operatives and is under the direction of a former FBI agent. The unit also works with weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin to monitor worker activity, while Lockheed Martin is, in turn, known to team up with the FBI, CIA, and NSA on surveillance operations.

Ultimately we’re not just looking at a public-private sector revolving door. We’re looking at a single nebulous security apparatus, which is at the service of both the US government and multinational corporations, sometimes simultaneously. Labor organizers are naturally in the crosshairs of this apparatus, because unions exist to represent the interests of workers, which are diametrically opposed to the interests of capitalists: the more workers produce and the less they’re paid, the higher corporate profits. Corporations have thus always sought to undermine and thwart union efforts, they always will, and spying is integral to that effort.

The Amazon job listings are getting a lot of press attention. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they’re just the tip of the iceberg.