As Amazon tries to beat back a union drive and silence critics of its labor practices, the retail behemoth is now asking the Biden administration to help quash a shareholder initiative demanding the company publicly disclose what it has done to protect its workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company’s request comes as federal investigators have seen a spike in complaints by Amazon workers during the pandemic.
Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos is worth an estimated $181 billion, has led an intense campaign to dissuade its workers in Bessemer, Alabama from forming the first-ever union at one of the company’s warehouses. The company has lashed out at progressive lawmakers supporting the union drive, reportedly at the direction of Bezos, moves that have only prompted more reporting about Amazon’s awful labor practices.
The company has consistently faced scrutiny over how it has responded to COVID. In February, New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit arguing that, since the start of the pandemic, “Amazon has failed and continues to fail to provide reasonable and adequate protection to the lives, health, and safety of its employees.” The lawsuit says the company illegally retaliated against workers raising concerns about their safety. Amazon responded by suing the attorney general in an attempt to block the case.
Now, Amazon wants President Joe Biden’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to allow the company to ignore major shareholders demanding management publicly detail their efforts to protect workers from the coronavirus strain that led to a boost in company business and a bump in its stock price. Bezos has seen his net worth increase by $58 billion since the pandemic started, while nearly twenty thousand Amazon workers were infected by last September.
Amazon’s request comes as federal records show it has lobbied on Republican legislation to shield corporations from COVID-related lawsuits. Bezos is a member of the Business Roundtable, which continues to press Congress to enact such liability shields.
“A Massive Disconnect”
As the pandemic raged in the winter, New York City comptroller Scott Stringer filed a shareholder resolution demanding Amazon produce a report for the company’s annual meeting next year reviewing “the adequacy of Amazon’s efforts to reduce or mitigate health and safety risks from the coronavirus pandemic.”
The resolution was filed on behalf of the New York City Teachers’ Retirement System, Employees’ Retirement System, and Board of Education Retirement System. Those systems together owned more than half a million shares of Amazon stock as of November 2019.
“The New York City pension funds have repeatedly called for transparency regarding the adequacy of Amazon’s efforts to protect workers’ health and safety amid the rise of COVID-19,” Stringer said in a statement provided to the Daily Poster. “There is a massive disconnect between what Amazon management says it’s doing to keep workers safe and what those workers are reporting — and investors have a right to information concerning Amazon’s business practices and the success of the company’s efforts to protect its workforce.”
Amazon is now asking the SEC to support its move to omit the resolution from a list of proposals that will be presented at the company’s annual shareholder meeting this spring.
The SEC has not yet issued a ruling.
In a statement attached to the shareholder resolution, Stringer outlined his concerns with a lack of transparency around worker safety at Amazon.
“Even pre-pandemic, long-term investors questioned the sustainability of Amazon’s business model, which emphasizes productivity, notwithstanding its reportedly negative effects on worker health and safety,” the statement said. Additionally, Stringer noted that investors had called on Amazon, “fruitlessly, to report at the 2020 annual meeting on the performance metrics it used to oversee the effectiveness of Amazon’s COVID response.”
Aggressive PR Tactics
As injury rates rose among Amazon warehouse workers each year between 2016 and 2019, the company “profoundly misled the public and lawmakers about its record on worker safety,” according to reporting from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Since the start of the pandemic, Amazon has faced persistent questions about how it has responded to COVID, and the company has responded by cracking down on workers who speak out about health and safety concerns. One year ago, Amazon fired Christian Smalls, a New York warehouse worker who was organizing a walkout to demand greater workplace protections against COVID.
On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has received at least thirty-seven complaints accusing Amazon of interfering with workers’ rights to organize or form a union since February last year, when the pandemic was starting to spread in the United States. The number of such complaints filed against Amazon tripled between 2019 and 2020, according to NBC, and the NLRB is now considering a rare move to combine the cases into a consolidated complaint against Amazon.
Recently, the company’s flacks have started getting defensive with Democratic lawmakers on social media. According to a report from Recode, the strategy came about after Bezos “expressed dissatisfaction in recent weeks that company officials weren’t more aggressive in how they pushed back against criticisms of the company that he and other leaders deem inaccurate or misleading.”
“You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” the Amazon News Twitter account wrote to Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., last week. “If that were true, nobody would work for us.”
The Intercept quickly published internal company documents showing that Amazon is well aware that its delivery drivers often end up urinating in bottles. Workers say it happens because of impossible quotas from management.
1/2 You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.
— Amazon News (@amazonnews) March 25, 2021
Amazon’s account also attempted to taunt Sen. Bernie Sanders for Vermont’s minimum wage being $11.75, instead of $15 as Democrats want. After Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said she wanted to “break up Big Tech so you’re not powerful enough to heckle senators with snotty tweets,” the account snarked: “One of the most powerful politicians in the United States just said she’s going to break up an American company so that they can’t criticize her anymore.”
“The Most Safety-Centric Organization in the World”
Last May, more than a dozen state attorneys general sent a letter to Amazon demanding data on the number of employees who had been infected with COVID or died. Amazon released data in October which showed that nearly twenty thousand employees had contracted COVID between March 1 and September 19, but declined to provide any further breakdown of when and where the cases occurred.
According to Stringer’s statement on the shareholder proposal, “Independent scientists criticized [that report] for not disclosing overall trends and for comparing infection rates for workers to the general population, which has proportionately more vulnerable individuals. The report also failed to identify hotspots, trends by job or facility category, or to discuss rates for delivery driver contractors.”
Instead of compiling the report requested by Stringer and the city pension funds, Amazon is seeking to withhold the resolution from a shareholder vote, claiming that it has already “substantially implemented” the proposal by instituting “more than 150 significant process changes to make sure we are keeping our teams safe throughout each day, including new social distancing measures and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing across every site.”
Further, Amazon lawyers wrote: “As the company reaffirmed in its Amazon Global Human Rights Principles, the company strives to be the most safety-centric organization in the world.”
Amazon’s “Global Human Rights Principles” is just a statement on the company’s website where it says things like: “We strive to be the most safety-centric organization in the world.” It also asserts there that “the health, wellness, and safety of our workers is our number one priority.”
Nevertheless, Amazon was able to use this statement as justification to shut down a separate worker safety initiative last year — a resolution demanding the company produce a detailed plan for “ensuring safe and healthy workplaces; prohibiting discrimination and retaliation (and) affirming the right of workers to form and join trade unions and bargain collectively.”
President Donald Trump’s appointees at the SEC allowed Amazon to prevent a shareholder vote on the measure. Amazon secured that rejection around the same time that the company was illegally interrogating a warehouse worker for leading a walkout in Queens, according to NLRB documents reviewed by Vice.
“Currently Defending Itself Against a Number of Lawsuits”
Responding to the new resolution from Stringer, Amazon’s lawyers say that demanding a report on its COVID response is an unacceptable intrusion into the company’s “ordinary business operations.”
Amazon also argued the Stringer resolution would interfere with Amazon’s “litigation strategy and pending legal and investigative proceedings.”
The lawyers wrote that the company “is currently defending itself against a number of lawsuits alleging, among other things, inadequate health and safety measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
They added that the company is also “the subject of an investigation by, and has received an investigative subpoena and investigative interrogatories from, the California Attorney General” regarding how it has protected workers from COVID.
Ultimately, having a union might be the best way for Amazon employees to keep themselves safe on the job. A 2020 study published by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that when workers unionize, their workplaces are more likely to be subjected to health and safety inspections, and labor protections make it easier for workers to speak up about unsafe conditions without the fear of retaliation.