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Exclusive: Inside Amazon’s plan to “neutralize” powerful unions by hiring ex-inmates and “vulnerable students”

Teamsters Local 63 members join union workers to rally in downtown Los Angeles, California, in March 2021, to show support for unionizing Alabama Amazon workers.
 Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In June 2021, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the most powerful unions in the world, published a “special resolution” about Amazon, labeling the tech giant “an existential threat” and vowing that “building worker power at Amazon and helping those workers achieve a union contract is a top priority.”

But inside Amazon, company officials were already preparing for battle, according to a leaked internal memo viewed by Recode and reported on here for the first time. The document, from May 2021, offers rare insights into the anti-union strategies of one of the world’s most powerful companies. The memo laid out two crucial goals for Amazon: establish and deepen “relationships with key policymakers and community stakeholders” and improve “Amazon’s overall brand.” The company has faced heightened scrutiny and worker activism in recent years amid reports of harsh working conditions and higher-than-average injury rates, resulting in a series of unionization attempts from Bessemer, Alabama, to Staten Island, New York.

“This engagement strategy is particularly important at this time given the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) attacks against Amazon, and its campaign to unionize our workforce,” the memo warned.

To achieve these goals, the memo proposed strategies to help Amazon boost its reputation and simultaneously “neutralize” company critics by befriending these critics’ own allies and by launching feel-good initiatives to turn the media and local politicians into company boosters. Amazon’s employee relations team was developing a separate “internally-facing strategy,” the memo said.

The document also offers an unvarnished look at how seriously Amazon perceives the threat of the Teamsters, which has more than 1.2 million members across industries, including logistics and warehousing, and whose leaders have vowed to disrupt Amazon’s growth plans as long as the tech giant opposes unionization efforts.

Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien told Recode in July that his union is intent on “disrupting [Amazon’s] network until they get to a point where they surrender” and stop resisting workers’ unionization efforts. One of the Teamsters’ main issues with Amazon’s employment model is that, for most of its front-line workers, “there’s no means to an end to a full-time career,” O’Brien said.

While the memo for the most part proposes strategies for Southern California, Amazon leadership saw it as a potential playbook of sorts to be utilized elsewhere, according to a source familiar with the strategy. If these anti-union tactics proved successful in California, which is a key logistics hub in the state most crucial to the company’s US operations, company leaders hoped to replicate the strategy in “hot spots” in North America, such as Boston and Chicago, where the company has faced heavy pressure and criticism from union organizers.

“As a business that delivers to neighborhoods across America, we work hard to strengthen our connections in the communities we serve,” Amazon spokesperson Paul Flaningan said in a statement. “We’re constantly exploring ways we can improve for our employees, our customers, and our community partners. That includes employees at all levels of the organization developing documents, engaging in planning sessions, and discussing different ideas — some of which get enacted, some of which don’t. Preparing for many different possible scenarios enables us to respond quickly to shifting business demands and external factors and one document should not be interpreted as a strategy or position.”

“I love the fact that we are [occupying] space in their head,” the Teamsters’ O’Brien said. “They should know we are coming.”

California beefin’

California was always destined to be a major battleground between Amazon and the Teamsters.

According to the internal company memo viewed by Recode, “California houses Amazon’s largest footprint in the world” and an employee base of more than 200,000 workers across a variety of warehouse formats and Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh grocery stores. Beyond that, Amazon also indirectly employs tens of thousands of other workers in California who deliver Amazon packages out of Amazon vans for small delivery firms that sign exclusive agreements with the tech giant.

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