The Industry

Amazon Workers Are Denouncing Unions by Using Suspiciously Similar Tweets, but It’s Apparently Not Coordinated

A worker sorts products into bins inside an Amazon Fulfillment Center.
A worker sorts products into bins inside an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Robbinsville, New Jersey, on Nov. 27, 2017. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

If you were to post an article on Twitter this week about efforts to unionize Amazon, there’s a good chance that one or more fulfillment center workers might barge into your mentions to proclaim that they don’t want a union. They might tell you, in eerily symbiotic fashion, that collective bargaining is unnecessary because they already receive medical and dental benefits, or that “unions are thieves.”

Indeed, in recent days, Amazon’s fulfillment-center ambassadors, a group of about 20 employees whom the company has tasked with testifying about its working conditions on Twitter, have been coming out in full force against unions. Over the past two weeks, the “FC Ambassadors” have sent out dozens of tweets decrying unions as inefficient and unnecessary. While there have been rumblings of anti-union sentiment among ambassadors in the past, the frequency of tweets on the topic seems to be escalating rapidly. This outpouring of criticism against collective bargaining is apparently in response to the campaign to unionize Amazon’s retail workers in New York City.

Amazon began employing select fulfillment-center workers to testify positively about its labor conditions and compensation practices on social media in August. At the time, a swarm of Twitter accounts with usernames that included the title “Amazon FC Ambassador” materialized to respond to people who were denouncing the company. Various reports over the years have found that Amazon workers are under immense pressure to meet demanding target numbers and in some cases rely on federal assistance due to low pay. The ambassadors often used nearly identical language and statistics to assert that their benefits and pay were generous, that their day jobs were low-stress, and that they’d never had to urinate in bottles to avoid missing productivity targets, as one investigative report found.

The launch of the PR campaign was met with derision on Twitter and in the media, as onlookers referred to the ambassadors as “creepy” and “Stepford-like.” The ambassadors pushed on past the initial blowback and continued posting on largely the same topics in the ensuing months.

More recently, the nature of the accounts’ messaging has begun to shift, and it’s become more clearly opinionated. Ambassadors have been explicitly writing that they personally do not want unions at Amazon. Some have criticized unions in general, arguing that they promote cronyism and laziness. Many of the messages have been in response to articles posted on Twitter about tensions between Amazon and unions in New York City, where the company plans to build one of its new headquarters.

As with previous topics, ambassadors have been making nearly identical arguments and, in some cases, using precisely the same language. A popular claim is that Amazon employees can just find another job if they really want a unionized workplace, because “it is your choice where you decide to work.” At least two ambassadors have expressed that sentiment using exactly the same words, down to the identical folksy idiom.

(This logic obviously ignores the fact that workers in this country also have a legal right to choose to try to unionize their current workplaces.)

Multiple ambassadors have also claimed that they don’t “feel the need” for a union because they already receive particular benefits.

Other common talking points are that workers at Amazon purportedly have direct access to HR and managers if they have concerns and that the ambassadors don’t want to pay union dues.

An ambassador who had been particularly active in denouncing unions for Amazon, posting at least 20 tweets on the subject, told me on Twitter that she was doing so to “tell a different side of things” in response to “a lot of people” talking about unions recently.

A couple other ambassadors told me that they had not received any information from management about unions. There are no ambassadors who have publicly supported unionization at Amazon.

Amazon spokesperson Ashley Robinson told Slate that the company had not requested the ambassadors to speak out on unions, nor had it provided them with any talking points. Robinson said that the outpouring of anti-union sentiment has been completely spontaneous, and she was not sure why there had been so many tweets on the matter in the past week or so. The similarities between the tweets, she said, may have been because ambassadors were copying each other. (An official statement from the company is printed at the end of this article.)

Amazon has in the past described the FC ambassador program as simply an effort to “honestly share the facts based on personal experience.” While previous tweets from ambassadors have definitely sought to defend Amazon, they’ve usually been presented as objective fact checks about working conditions. While the topic of unionization is adjacent to workplace issues, it’s a marked shift for these ambassadors to now be offering identical negative opinions on the matter.

Ambassadors themselves have claimed that they do the social media posts during work hours along with their other duties, such as picking and packaging, in the facility centers. A former Amazon employee told a Yahoo Finance reporter that ambassadors receive days off, gift cards, and breaks from physical labor for posting on Twitter. Amazon denies that ambassadors receive any extra perks. There is no set procedure for recruiting ambassadors; some employees are selected by managers for the job, while others apply for it themselves. When asked whether there are any rules prohibiting managers from selecting Amazon ambassadors based on union stance, Robinson told Slate that employees who support a union wouldn’t want to be ambassadors anyways.

If Amazon were asking the ambassadors to come out against unions, or intentionally only selecting anti-union employees to become ambassadors, the company could be running afoul of labor laws. Seattle University labor-law professor Charlotte Garden noted, “In general, the NLRA [National Labor Relations Act] forbids employers both from rewarding employees for expressing anti-union sentiments, and from individually polling employees about their support for unionization.”

The fight over unionization for Amazon’s New York City workers has become contentious. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the Teamsters have been aggressively pushing the city to put its $3 billion HQ2 deal with Amazon on hold until the company agrees to permit workers in Queens to unionize. Amazon has pushed back, with an executive telling the city council during public testimony that the company would oppose unionization efforts.

Amazon sent Slate the following statement on the ambassador program:

Because there is misinformation about our employment practices in recent news, social media ambassadors have been working to correct that by sharing their personal experiences and without coaching. We hear from many associates who say they’re offended when they see people making assumptions about what it’s like to work in an FC without having all the information. The social media ambassador program is an effort to empower employees so they can educate people about the actual fulfillment environment as they are the true experts. For anyone else who is curious, come take a tour and find out more.