In theory, the current union drive at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, only affects the 5,800 employees of the year-old facility, some of whom began organizing during the pandemic. But because they could be the first Amazon warehouse workers to unionize—and because Amazon is Amazon—the drive has gained national attention. On Sunday, Joe Biden issued what is perhaps the most pro-union statement made by a modern president. Though he didn’t call out Amazon by name in the video posted to Twitter and YouTube, he did reference “workers in Alabama” and asserted, “Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment.” In recent weeks, prominent Democrats like Stacey Abrams, celebrities like Danny Glover, and the NFL players’ union have also thrown their support behind the drive.
In the video, Biden seems to obliquely criticize Amazon’s campaign to undermine the drive by stating, “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.” Amazon has undertaken aggressive measures to dissuade workers in Alabama from joining a union, including sending them near-daily text messages, holding mandatory anti-union meetings, and posting “Vote No” signs in the bathroom stalls. The company has also sought to stifle the pro-union movement in the area, attempting unsuccessfully to ban mail-in ballots for the union vote and allegedly changing the timing of a traffic light outside the Bessemer facility so that labor organizers would be unable to canvass workers who had stopped there. (The city of Bessemer has denied tampering with the light.)
This messaging isn’t just happening in Bessemer, but also on the internet. Amazon launched the website DoItWithoutDues.com, which claims that workers are at risk of paying for a union that won’t be able to secure them benefits and pay they don’t already have. (The website does not mention that Alabama is a “right-to-work” state, so employees will not have to join the union or pay dues if they don’t want to.) Bessemer employees have reported seeing ads on Facebook and Instagram linking to the DoItWithoutDues website. Amazon has also tried to make the hashtag #DoItWithoutDues a rallying cry for union opponents on social media. Do a search for the hashtag on Twitter, though, and you’ll find that it’s been largely co-opted by critics and pro-union users. A popular gag among these users is to flood the DoItWithoutDues.com’s “contact us” form with nonsense.
Amazon’s “FC Ambassadors” have also returned to pooh-pooh the union drive. FC Ambassadors are employees at Amazon’s warehouses who spend part of their workday replying to people who criticize the company on Twitter. They’ll often espouse the perks of working for Amazon and claim that they don’t have to urinate in bottles to stay on track with productivity goals, as one investigative report notoriously discovered. These accounts were previously involved in trashing the ultimately unsuccessful efforts to unionize Amazon’s retail workers in New York City. They’ve now turned their attention to Twitter users who are calling for the Bessemer facility to unionize, using many of the same talking points from the DoItWithoutDues website. Indeed, many of them have been arguing that paying dues is a waste of money.
Others have contended that unions aren’t necessary because Amazon already provides them with sufficient benefits.
The way these accounts are describing the benefits they receive—particularly the reference to “medical, vision, dental insurance”—is almost exactly the same as the wording on anti-union signs that Amazon has been posting in employee bathrooms and the messaging on the DoItWithoutDues website.
I reached out to multiple FC Ambassadors, none of whom are based in Alabama, to ask them whether they’d received any information about unions from the company. None replied. Amazon has said in the past that it doesn’t ask FC Ambassadors to express anti-union sentiments on Twitter; doing so could run afoul of labor laws. The company has claimed it does not select ambassadors based on their opinions about unions and that any anti-union sentiment that comes from these accounts hasn’t been coached. Whatever the case, you won’t find a pro-union voice among these ambassadors.
So far, the FC Ambassadors’ war for hearts and minds doesn’t seem to be going well. Their anti-union tweets aren’t getting any likes, and people usually only reply to refute their arguments. But in Alabama—where workers began organizing over concerns about the fulfillment center’s coronavirus protections and what they described as grueling productivity demands, but where Amazon offers better pay than other local blue-collar employers—a successful union drive seems far from assured. While union organizers seem confident that they’ll prevail, reports indicate that the Bessemer workforce is divided on the issue.