On Support for Unionizing Amazon, Joe Biden’s Bark Has So Far Been Bigger Than His Bite

Joe Biden pledged to support workers’ unionization efforts at Amazon on Wednesday, saying, “Amazon, here we come.” But his failure so far to implement any of the recommendations of his task force on worker organization seems to speak louder than his words.

Joe Biden speaking with supporters at a community event at Sun City MacDonald Ranch in Henderson, Nevada, on February 12, 2020. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden made headlines pledging to support Amazon workers trying to unionize the nation’s largest retailer, declaring “Amazon, here we come” and boasting that “I created the White House task force on worker organization and empowerment to make sure that the choice to join a union belongs to workers alone.”

But as campaign cash from Amazon-linked donors and anti-union law firms has flooded into the coffers of Biden and his Democratic Party, the president has so far refused to use his executive authority to actually implement any of that task force’s major recommendations — even though its proposals were far weaker than his 2020 campaign pledges and likely wouldn’t have helped Amazon workers’ union drive.

What might have helped are executive actions Biden continues to avoid. For instance, he has refused to reinstate a Barack Obama–era rule requiring companies like Amazon to disclose all of their spending to crush union drives. Such disclosures can help union organizers combat the anti-labor tactics of major law firms, like those that previously employed the husband of the task force’s chair — Vice President Kamala Harris.

Biden has also declined to use his executive authority to halt federal contracts to Amazon amid its union-busting campaign. In fact, Amazon was awarded a $10 billion contract last summer, months after the president promised on the campaign trail to “ensure federal contracts only go to employers who sign neutrality agreements committing not to run anti-union campaigns.”

“It’s clear that there are these tensions inside the Democratic Party,” said John Logan, a professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University:

On the one hand, you have a president who says he wants to be the most pro-union president in history, on the other you can only judge him on his accomplishments in office. We’re not going to get the PRO Act, not going to get labor provisions in Build Back Better. What are we going to get?

“What He Was Not Doing Is Sending a Message”

On the campaign trail, Biden promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” And during last year’s headline-grabbing but ultimately unsuccessful union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the president issued a vague statement in support of such efforts, but stopped short of calling out the retailer by name.

On February 7, Biden’s labor task force offered up a variety of ways he could follow through on his promises to workers. The task force’s forty-four-page public report contained a laundry list of recommendations, including mandating that federal contract dollars are not spent on union busting, and ensuring that “anti-union campaign activities by federal contractors are publicly disclosed.”

A few days before the report’s release, Biden announced an executive order mandating union labor be used on new infrastructure projects. But since then, he has declined to issue executive orders implementing any of the task force’s other recommendations — even though the report noted that the president has the authority to take action on them.

Almost immediately after Biden’s comment on Wednesday about “coming for” Amazon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tried to walk back the president’s remark.

When asked whether Biden was endorsing efforts by workers to unionize Amazon facilities, Psaki responded:

What he was not doing is sending a message that he or the US government would be directly involved in any of these efforts or take any direct action. What he was conveying is his longtime support for collective bargaining, for the rights of workers to organize, and their decision to do exactly that in this case — something that he has long supported broadly over the course of his career.

“They Would Fight a New Persuader Rule to the Death”

Amazon was forced to disclose spending more than $4 million to try to block unionization last year — and that anti-union spending boomeranged against the company in Staten Island. There, organizers made educating other warehouse workers there about the company’s high-paid union-busting consultants a key part of their successful effort last week to win votes for a union.

However, those anti-union consultant disclosures were likely only the tip of the iceberg — under current rules, companies do not have to disclose their spending on the vast web of law firms that perform what is called “indirect” anti-union activity.

In April 2021, Bloomberg Law reported that the Biden Labor Department was considering expanding those rules by reinstating the so-called “persuader rule,” which required more comprehensive disclosure of anti-union campaigns — including disclosure of the behind-the-scenes work that major law firms undertake to coordinate employers’ anti-union campaigns.

However, the administration has not moved forward with doing so. While the task force’s report calls on the “Department of Labor to review its rules and policies on persuader reporting and take all appropriate actions to strengthen its rules and enforcement,” it does not expressly advocate for a new persuader rule or the reinstatement of the Obama-era version.

In 2016, the Obama administration crafted the first persuader rule to require disclosure of anti-union activities conducted by law firms. The rule was quickly blocked from taking effect by a judge, and when President Donald Trump took office, his Department of Labor dithered on appealing the judge’s order and ultimately rescinded the rule in 2018.

The Biden labor task force’s cochair, Vice President Harris, is likely familiar with such “persuader” activities. Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, was previously a longtime partner at the major corporate law firms DLA Piper and Venable, with the firms paying him $1.4 million in 2020 alone. Under a reinstituted persuader rule, both of these firms would almost certainly have been compelled to make disclosures about their union-busting work.

DLA Piper boasts on its website that it defends corporations against “strategic union campaigns,” including by “using local laws and litigation to combat disruptive activity.”

The 2017 DLA Piper newsletter article announcing Emhoff’s hiring noted he had “extensive experience” defending corporations related to “wage and hour violations.”

Venable, where Emhoff worked from 2006 to 2017, has advertised that it will “regularly counsel and train clients on union avoidance.”

Logan at San Francisco State University told us that Department of Labor staff had contacted him last year “and they seemed very gung-ho” about issuing a new persuader rule.

But Logan added that the big labor-fighting law firms like DLA Piper and Venable would likely vehemently oppose the implementation of such a rule.

“These management-side law firms are very large and very powerful,” said Logan. “These firms are major players, and they care about this more than they care about anything else. They would fight a new persuader rule to the death.”

But if a new persuader rule did manage to go through, Logan said it could prove to be incredibly helpful to growing union campaigns at Amazon, Starbucks, and elsewhere.

“One of the things that was interesting about the Staten Island Amazon campaign is they were able to use the kind of information you get from the current set of disclosures,” said Logan:

If we had a broader persuader rule that actually required reporting from all of these firms that are effectively running the show, it could actually be a quite important tool for organizers even at the most difficult places to win, like Amazon.

Democrats’ Ties to Amazon

Amazon’s ties to the White House and the Democratic Party run deep.

Psaki left the Obama White House in 2011 to become a senior vice president at Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling and consulting firm, working there for less than a year. Global Strategy Group recently worked for Amazon in its fight against the Staten Island union drive. The firm was paid to dissuade workers from supporting the union push. The firm’s representatives reportedly created and distributed anti-union materials, sat in on anti-union presentations, and monitored union organizers’ social media accounts.

Global Strategy Group often does polling for official Democratic Party committees like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as well as their allied super PACs, House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC. The firm boasts on its website that “in 2020, we were proud to serve as polling partners for [super PAC] Priorities USA in their campaign to elect Joe Biden.”

A Global Strategy Group spokesperson told the New Yorker that the firm is very sorry about its extensive work on behalf of Amazon’s union-busting effort. “We deeply regret being involved in any way,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Jay Carney, a former press secretary to both Biden and Obama, has been working as Amazon’s public policy and communications chief since 2015. Anne Rung, in charge of federal procurement for Obama, joined Amazon in 2016 as the head of its “public sector” division, selling directly to the government.

Biden and his Democratic colleagues have also benefited from Amazon’s largess. Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky, who called Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls “not smart or articulate” in 2020 after Smalls led a protest against Amazon’s COVID-19 safety failures, donated $300,000 to the Biden Victory Fund that year. Other senior Amazon executives donated hundreds of thousands of dollars more to Democrats.

Employees of Morgan Lewis, Amazon’s union-busting law firm, delivered $526,000 in campaign contributions to Biden in 2020, and offered up another $194,000 to the Democratic National Committee.

In 2021, following Biden’s election, Amazon retained Ricchetti Inc, the lobbying firm founded by Biden senior adviser Steve Ricchetti and currently run by Ricchetti’s brother, Jeff. Amazon paid the company $360,000 last year, making the retailer one of the firm’s two largest clients.

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Matthew Cunningham-Cook has written for Labor Notes, the Public Employee Press, Al Jazeera America, and the Nation.

Walker Bragman is a journalist and JD whose work has been featured in Paste Magazine, the Intercept, HuffPost, the Independent, Salon, Truthout, and the Hill.

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