“Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t,” wrote Jeff Bezos in his final letter to shareholders before stepping down as Amazon CEO.
For Bezos, the union drive in the company’s Bessemer warehouse is a sign that “we need to do a better job for our employees.” He pledges to make the company “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work” (Bezos has always called Amazon Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company, with the modifier “Earth” included because of Bezos’s extraterrestrial colonization plans, though the effect is to make the billionaire sound like an alien.)
It’s an unusual admission of the need to Do Better by a CEO who isn’t prone to conceding any ground when it comes to criticism of the company’s working conditions. Some have pointed out the letter’s dystopian discussion of reducing employee injuries by regulating workers’ muscles, and RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum responded to the letter by saying that “workers need a union — not just another Amazon public relations effort in damage control.” But others are impressed with Bezos for his lip service to working conditions. CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin called it “far and away, the best shareholder letter I’ve ever read,” adding that, “There are some real and profound lessons in there.” Tech journalist Casey Newton said Bezos’s words sound like that of “a man who has at long last gotten the message.” Hook, line and sinker.
In the wake of Amazon winning the union election in Bessemer, I reread Confessions of a Union Buster, a book by Martin Jay Levitt, a pioneer of sorts in the $1-billion-a-year union-busting industry. The book came out in 1993 — copies sell for hundreds of dollars online, if any left-wing book publishers are reading this and want to reissue it — and details union-busters’ bag of tricks. These practices include turning lower-level managers from sympathizing with workers’ plight to waging war on them and stalling the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process; and then, should the union somehow win the NLRB vote, stalling at the bargaining table until union supporters either leave the company or lose hope (the result of this latter tactic is that only around half of unions reach a first contract).
Another tactic Levitt swears by is that of the well-timed conciliatory letter from the top boss. In his book, we see Levitt restrain even the most dictatorial, monstrous CEOs, alternately pleading with and threatening them on the matter of a humanizing letter. Usually, this letter comes late in the unionization process. As Levitt tells resistant CEOs, the workers need to believe the company can change. They need to hear from the boss himself that he recognizes the company hasn’t always treated its employees as well as it could have before they’ll grant it the chance to change. Fail to do this, warns Levitt, and the workers might well believe that they can only force the company to change by acting collectively, i.e., unionizing.
In case after case in Levitt’s book, we see this letter prove crucial, clinching the company’s success in defeating the union. But none of the bosses change after they win the vote, adds Levitt. In no time, they go back to arbitrary firings and abuse.
There is more criticism than ever of Amazon’s working conditions, where the rates of serious injury are nearly twice the industry average, where workers pee in bottles and defecate in delivery vans, where even the white-collar workers at company headquarters lodge bathroom-related complaints with state agencies. There are now over a million people employed by the tech behemoth and countless more who are in the workforce but denied employee status. They are getting organized, and, to the top brass’s horror, a lot of people are listening to their criticisms of the company.
Amazon kept union-busters on the payroll throughout the Bessemer union drive. One management-side attorney told the Huffington Post that the company may have spent eight figures on union-busting. Bezos’s letter is in keeping with that; it might as well have been written by Levitt. Please, one more chance. We can change. We will stop breaking the law. We will stop blaming workers for their own deaths. Please. Whatever you do, do not organize. We’ll take care of it. Look over here, not over there. No one should fall for it.