Amazon’s PR Flacks Are Starting to Sweat

With Bernie Sanders on his way to Bessemer, Alabama to support warehouse workers voting on a union, and the company facing increasingly negative press over working conditions that include drivers being forced to urinate in bottles, Amazon’s PR operation is getting defensive.

An Amazon Prime delivery van in downtown New Orleans, Louisiana. (Tony Webster / Flickr)

Amazon, a company whose warehouse workers have in the past year told me about seizures, injuries, and heat-induced fainting spells in their facilities and which pushed many of its hundreds of thousands of US employees to the breaking point during the pandemic by refusing to communicate with them about coronavirus outbreaks, much less shut down infected facilities for cleanings, can’t stop insisting that it’s a great place to work. It’s not the only company that kills its workers through negligence, but it is one of them, and it has decided to openly mock the idea that its workers suffer.

Now, anyone who writes about Amazon knows, for starters, that the company regularly lies to journalists and the public alike. Given its money and power, that is often an effective strategy, and the company’s PR team, led by none other than Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, has reason to be confident in its ability to manipulate the public. Witness, for example, how journalists almost uniformly compare Amazon’s $15 starting wage — which was only adopted after Senator Bernie Sanders turned up his criticism of the company — to the wages at fast-food chains, rather than the pay at other warehouses. Amazon pays below the prevailing wage in its industry and has been shown to lower wages at nearby warehouses, yet writers too often swallow the company’s words hook, line, and sinker, propagating the idea that wages at Amazon’s warehouses are higher, not lower, than they need to be.

But as workers at the company’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse continue voting on unionization, Amazon’s PR operation is getting uncharacteristically defensive. Responding to news that Sanders will be visiting Bessemer today to support the union drive, Dave Clark, Amazon CEO of Worldwide Consumer, tweeted that he “often” calls Amazon “the Bernie Sanders of employers,” one which “delivers a progressive workplace” with “health care from day one” and “a safe and inclusive work environment.”

While it is undeniably funny to imagine Clark “often” taking up minutes in executive meetings with such a nonsensical comparison — after all, Bernie Sanders is the “Bernie Sanders of employers,” and when his presidential campaign staff unionized, he voluntarily recognized them without forcing them to sit through captive-audience meetings — Clark’s desire to speak about this subject is ludicrous. His nickname is “the Sniper,” a moniker he earned because of his “habit of lurking in the shadows of Amazon warehouses and scoping out slackers he could fire.” He was Amazon’s global logistics chief, a key architect of the company’s delivery operation. He is more responsible than almost anyone else for the remarkably dangerous working conditions endured by Amazon’s employees.

Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), cochair of the newly formed House Labor Caucus, responded to Clark’s statements by noting that Amazon union-busts and makes workers pee in water bottles and thus is decidedly not a “progressive workplace.” The company replied to Pocan via its official news account, writing, “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”

Putting aside the absurd idea that “nobody” puts up with horrifically exploitative jobs, that Amazon workers resort to peeing in bottles was famously documented by UK journalist James Bloodworth. Bloodworth went undercover as an Amazon worker and found that given the size of Amazon’s warehouses and the company’s down-to-the-second tracking of workers’ “time off task,” workers sometimes forgo trips to the bathroom in favor of using bottles.

It’s not as if the facilities Bloodworth investigated are an anomaly. Workers in Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse have mentioned their fear of wasting time on bathroom trips too. While none of them have said they pee in bottles, it doesn’t take much digging to find other members of Amazon’s workforce talking about doing exactly that.

As Vice’s Lauren Kaori Gurley writes in response to Amazon’s denial of the issue, Amazon delivery drivers peeing in bottles and coffee cups “is one of the most universal concerns voiced by the many Amazon delivery drivers around the country.” The internet is rife with workers describing their inability to access a bathroom while driving for the company, with Reddit threads describing where they pee instead: bottles, garbage bags, hand-sanitizer bottles, hedges. As the Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein quickly confirmed, drivers are not only peeing, but also defecating, in work vehicles. As one area manager wrote to his employees in an email, they were to tell drivers that “they CANNOT poop, or leave bottles of urine inside bags.”

As for the health care touted by both Clark and Amazon’s news account, it’s worth revisiting revelations about AmCare, the company’s network of on-site medical clinics. As Reveal found in an investigation of how the company covered up the alarming injury rates in its warehouses, AmCare distorted the numbers by delaying sending workers to a doctor for up to twenty-one days, leading injuries to get worse.

If a work-related injury requires care beyond first aid, it is logged for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Amazon was so set on keeping injuries off those logs that it contracted with “OSHA sensitive” clinics that instructed their medical providers “to avoid giving any treatment to Amazon workers that would make their injuries recordable.” As one nurse practitioner who worked at such a clinic told Reveal, “she dreaded seeing Amazon patients because she didn’t think she would be able to treat them appropriately.”

Amazon got to where it is by its ruthless pursuit of profit. The company will say anything that it thinks will help clear obstacles to that goal from its path. This latest PR blitz is just the latest example, but there is now one key difference: Amazon’s workers have started getting organized, and that means they and their duly chosen representatives can counter the company’s lies.