Apr 2, 2021

Amazon had a weird week on Twitter. But the union vote is the big news.

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Even if the vote fails, it could inspire other Amazon warehouses around the U.S. to try to unionize.

Votes are being counted in Bessemer, Alabama, this week from Amazon warehouse workers considering whether to unionize. Amazon has fought tooth and nail against the union effort, and also against members of Congress. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren criticized its treatment of employees, and Amazon’s official Twitter account went on the attack. So did some Twitter users claiming they were very happy Amazon employees, and not all of them were real.

I dig into this in “Quality Assurance,” the segment where I take a deeper look at a big tech story. I spoke with Jason Del Rey, who covers Amazon for Recode. He said this union vote is big, no matter the outcome. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jason Del Rey: I also think if it’s a close loss, that also would be seen as a positive sign just because Amazon has never had a union in the U.S. Even in that case, we’d see other efforts, at least inside of Amazon facilities in the country. You know, get a couple thousand people or more than 1,000 people voting to unionize at one facility, I mean, [I] think that says something, especially with all the pressure that management has put on these workers over the last few weeks.

Molly Wood: Well, and then, of course, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were criticizing Amazon on Twitter for how it treats its employees. And we saw Amazon take what seems to be a pretty new tack on social media, [and] hit back pretty aggressively.

Del Rey: So what we saw was executives from Dave Clark, who’s the CEO of the worldwide consumer business at Amazon, to the corporate Amazon accounts written by [public relations] people, being both snarky [and] what I think many people would say would be an inappropriate tone. I reported that that directive to get more aggressive came directly from Jeff Bezos. After my story kind of exploded, you see executives this week, such as Jay Carney, he’s been on Twitter the last two days responding to both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And each tweet started with some version of “With great respect” or “With all due respect.” I kind of laughed when I saw that because it’s such a departure from what we saw just a week ago.

Wood: I mean, it’s one thing to say, “Be more aggressive.” Do you think it’s a case of potentially employees taking that idea way too literally, or then finding themselves surprised at how poorly it seemed to go over?

Del Rey: I’ve had several former executives reach out to me pointing to specific tweets — there was a group of tweets that were aggressive or snarky — and I’ve had some who’ve reached out to me, who sort of know how Jeff Bezos writes, who said to me like, “That one or that one sure sounds and looks a lot like something Jeff would say himself.” And so I don’t know the exact answer, [but] my best guess is that some of these were actually from Jeff himself. And I think they just did not go over necessarily how everyone thought they might. I think there were high-up people in that company who were not in agreement on this tack, so perhaps when you saw the reaction, that was enough convincing to reverse the stance on the tone they should be taking.

Wood: So you have these aggressive tweets from official accounts. And then you also have these personal accounts on Twitter, claiming to be Amazon employees who are really happy with the work environment, some of which are clearly bots. Like, are any real?

Del Rey: Amazon started a program a few years ago, where they essentially gave some warehouse workers who had positive experiences the ability to tweet during their work shift and respond to critics and tell them about their experience. This seems like an extension of that, or some part of that. I think some of these are absolutely real people. There’s been at least one instance of an account that popped up this week that Amazon said was not real. Who’s behind it, and whether the aim was to embarrass Amazon, still sort of seems up in the air. I think this initiative, even going back a few years, kind of speaks to a certain level of desperation at the leadership level of Amazon that’s like, “We believe we really are a good employer. Like, what else can we do to change the narrative?”

Wood: I mean, what’s interesting is that Amazon has always had a really good reputation. Does this more aggressive posture on Twitter suggest that they’re actually a little worried about that?

Del Rey: I think absolutely. I think for years, they’ve tracked very closely, internally, customer brand reputation. And so whether part of this is them actually seeing data that shows it’s having an impact, or them just knowing the reality that could be awaiting them, I think that for sure is a concern here. It’s hard, though, when you look at the sales numbers of this company — record profits — to really see that consumer pushback manifests itself in any meaningful way. And I don’t know that it’s sort of a fair expectation of people just trying to, like, get the best deal they can, to be the ones to sort of take the stand, if it’s true that Amazon’s labor conditions need to be drastically improved. If it’s true that, on the business reputation side, that Amazon violates antitrust law in any of their practices. So I think Amazon is concerned about consumers 100%. I think consumers are not going to be the ones that sort of take the big stand when what they’re giving up is good prices and convenience.

Wood: I mean, you look at the sales numbers, and you look at how consumers feel about Amazon, and you think maybe the better strategy here would just be to keep quietly kicking butt and stay off Twitter.

Del Rey: Well, and for a long, long time, that was the strategy. I mean, for a long time, all the press was really positive. And then, when it became bigger and bigger, and there was more scrutiny, the most common response I got the first couple years I covered this company was either “No comment” or no response to stories that did not shine a positive light on the company. But under Jay Carney’s leadership since he joined the company around five years ago, you’ve seen moments like this surface. Nothing as in your face as this instance on Twitter, but you’ve seen certain comments given to media outlets in response to a story that are just like, “Did a spokesperson for the most powerful company in the world really just say that to The Wall Street Journal?” So we’ve seen parts of this, and it’s not always clear how much of it is Jeff Bezos versus Jay Carney or another spokesperson who’s been there 20 years — a guy named Drew Herdener — but there has been a change in the last couple years.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Here’s a little more reading on the actual union vote and how it’s working. Assume that for the participants it will carry roughly as much stress as the presidential election. Workers have expressed fears that if the union succeeds, Amazon might straight up shut down the warehouse, although it’s committed a lot of money to it. And if it does care about reputation, a move like that would not help.

There’s also a story from the Intercept about how Amazon started this program back in 2018 to recruit employees to go on Twitter if they had a clean human resources record and a good sense of humor, who could defend the company by being polite and blunt, according to leaked documents from Amazon. And, apparently, part of the reason everyone thinks all of them are bots is that they were instructed to all use a specific Twitter format — a name and the initials FC (for Fulfillment Center). Very human and organic, yes. Not at all creepy, Dear Leader behavior, even a little bit. Also, the operation was named Veritas.

By the way, these employees were specifically instructed to ignore any tweets that came their way mentioning the union. And honestly, the whole thing has gone so deep that even the ones that seemed human … weren’t. Like the FC account who tweeted that she was “barely scraping by” and didn’t want to add union dues to her monthly expenses. That tweet was followed by a series of tweets clarifying that, in fact, she’s doing fine, Amazon is great, she’s more than scraping by and the CEO is awesome. That turned out to be a parody account. But I think the fact that it seemed so possible might suggest it’s time to move on from this initiative.

And as we were talking about all this, our producer Stephanie Hughes was reminded of the time she toured a fulfillment center back in 2019, when one of Amazon’s other PR ideas was to bring people to the warehouses so they could see how cool they were. On the tour of a warehouse in Edison, New Jersey, when Steph was paired with a Girl Scout troop, she spoke with Jessica Ribbecke, who was a tour ambassador and whose job it was to pack boxes all day and tape them shut. Here’s that exchange:

Regan Quilty leads a tour of Girl Scouts at the New Jersey Amazon fulfillment center. The girls learned how humans interact with robots at the warehouse.
Regan Quilty leads a tour of Girl Scouts at the New Jersey Amazon fulfillment center back in 2019. The girls learned how humans interact with robots at the warehouse. (Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace)

Stephanie Hughes: What’s an average day like for you? Like, tell me about your day.

Jessica Ribbecke: An average day? Well, oh boy, an average day?

Amazon PR: There is no average day.

Ribbecke: I really don’t have … every day is different. Every day is different.

Hughes: What do you like about work?

Ribbecke: I like people. I like to be here with people, with all these people. I like everything. I like my job. I like packing. I like the people I work with. I like the building.

Hughes: What’s challenging about it?

Ribbecke: Nothing. I don’t have any challenges.

Hughes: It’s got to be a little hard.

Ribbecke: No, nothing.

Hughes: You don’t get tired?

Ribbecke: No. Drink some chocolate milk in the morning and you’re good to go all day.

Uh-huh. Chocolate milk and no challenges at all. Sounds totally veritas.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer