Amazon had a bizarre week on Twitter. However the union vote is the large information.
This week in Bessemer, Alabama, votes are being counted from Amazon warehouse workers considering whether to unionize. Amazon has fought with all its might against union efforts and also against members of Congress. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren criticized the treatment of employees, and Amazon’s official Twitter account attacked the attack. Some Twitter users also claimed they were very happy Amazon employees, and not all were real.
I’ll go into that in “Quality Assurance,” the segment in which I take a closer look at a big tech story. I spoke to Jason Del Rey who covers Amazon for Recode. He said this union vote was big regardless of the outcome. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jason Del Rey: Also, I think if it’s a close loss it would also be seen as a positive sign just because Amazon has never had a union in the US. Even then, we would see other efforts, at least within the Amazon facilities in the country. You know, a few thousand or more than 1,000 people in a facility vote for a union, I mean [I] I think that says something, especially given the pressure management has put on these people over the past few weeks.
Molly Wood: Well, and then Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren criticized Amazon on Twitter for the way it treated its employees. And we’ve seen Amazon take a pretty new direction in social media. [and] strike back quite aggressively.
King: So we saw executives from Dave Clark, the CEO of Amazon’s global consumer business, to the Amazon-authored Amazon corporate accounts [public relations] People who are both snarky [and] What I think a lot of people would say would be an inappropriate tone. I reported that this instruction to become more aggressive came directly from Jeff Bezos. After my story exploded, you see executives like Jay Carney who have been on Twitter for the past two days and responded to both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And each tweet started with a version of “With all due respect” or “With all due respect.” I kind of laughed when I saw this because it’s such a departure from what we saw a week ago.
Wood: I mean, it’s one thing to say, “Be more aggressive.” Do you think it’s a case where potential employees take this idea way too literally or then feel surprised themselves at how bad it seemed?
King: I’ve had several former executives reaching out to me and pointing out certain tweets – there was a group of tweets that were aggressive or snappy – and I’ve had some who reached out to me and somehow know how Jeff Bezos writes, who said to me like, “This one or that sounds and looks a lot like something Jeff would say himself.” And so I don’t know the exact answer [but] I suspect some of these were actually made by Jeff himself. And I think they just didn’t necessarily think about it like everyone else thought they could. I think there were high-level people in this company who disagreed on this point. So, when you saw the reaction, it may have been convincing enough to reverse the stance on the tone they were supposed to be adopting.
Wood: So you have these aggressive tweets from official accounts. And then you also have these personal accounts on Twitter that claim to be Amazon employees who are really happy with the work environment, some of which are clearly bots. How are any of them real?
King: Amazon launched a program a few years ago that essentially gave some warehouse workers who had a positive experience the opportunity to tweet, respond to reviewers, and tell them about their experiences while on their work shift. This seems to be an extension of it or a part of it. I think some of them are absolutely real people. There was at least one instance of an account that popped up this week that was classified as unreal by Amazon. Who is behind this and whether the goal was to embarrass Amazon still seems to be up in the air. I think this initiative, which was a few years ago, speaks to a degree of desperation at the Amazon executive level: “We believe that we are really a good place to work. What more 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 stance on Twitter mean that they’re actually a little worried about it?
King: I absolutely think so. I think they’ve been following the customer brand’s reputation very closely internally for years. Whether part of it is actually seeing data that shows it is having an impact or just knowing the reality that could be expected, I think this is certainly an issue here. However, when you look at this company’s sales numbers – record profits – it’s hard to see that consumer pushback is manifesting itself in a meaningful way. And I don’t know it’s a fair expectation from people who are just trying to get the best possible deal to take the position when it is true that Amazon’s working conditions must be improved dramatically. If it is true that on the corporate reputation side, Amazon is violating antitrust law in one of its practices. I think Amazon is 100% concerned about consumers. I think consumers won’t be the ones to take the big stance if they forego good prices and convenience.
Wood: I mean, you look at the sales and you see how consumers think of Amazon and you think the better strategy here is just to kick your ass and stay away from Twitter.
King: Well, and for a long, long time that was the strategy. I mean, for a long time all the press has been really positive. And then, as it got bigger and bigger and more attention, the most common response I got in the early years reporting on this company was either “No Comment” or no response to stories that didn’t Throw a positive light on the company. But, under Jay Carney’s leadership, since joining the company about five years ago, you’ve seen moments like these. Nothing is as flashy as this instance on Twitter, but you’ve seen certain comments made by the media in response to a story that goes exactly like this, “Did a spokesman for the world’s most powerful corporation really only say that to The? Wallstreet Journal? “We’ve seen bits and pieces of it, and it’s not always clear how much of it is Jeff Bezos versus Jay Carney or some other spokesman who’s been there for 20 years – a guy named Drew Herdener – but in recent years something has changed.
Although the facility is large, there are plenty of bathrooms available. My building has 12. Each bathroom can be 3-6🚽. That’s enough. Plus with 20-30 minute breaks this is more than enough time
– Yola at OAK4 @ (@AmazonFCYola) March 28, 2021
Related Links: More Insights From Molly Wood
Learn more about actual union voting and how it works here. For example, suppose the contestants will have about as much stress as the presidential election. Workers have expressed fears that if Amazon successfully unionizes, it could close the warehouse immediately, despite investing a lot of money in it. And when it comes to reputation, such a move wouldn’t help.
There’s also a story from the Intercept about how Amazon started this program in 2018 to attract employees to Twitter when they have a clean workforce record and a good sense of humor that could defend the company by being polite and dull are leaked documents from Amazon. And apparently, part of the reason everyone thinks they’re all bots is because they’ve all been directed to use a specific Twitter format – a name and the initials FC (for Fulfillment Center). Very human and organic, yes. Not scary at all, dear leader behavior, even a little. Operation was also called Veritas.
Incidentally, these employees were specifically instructed to ignore any tweets that came their way and mentioned the union. And frankly, it went so deep that even those who looked human weren’t. Like the FC account who tweeted that she “barely comes around” and didn’t want to add union dues to her monthly expenses. That tweet was followed by a series of tweets that made it clear that she’s actually fine, Amazon is great, she more than just pops by, and the CEO is great. That turned out to be a parody account. But I think the fact that it seemed so possible might suggest that it is time to deviate from that initiative.
And as we talked about all of that, our producer Stephanie Hughes was reminded of the time visiting a fulfillment center in 2019 when one of Amazon’s other PR ideas was getting people to the warehouses for them to see could see how cool they were. While touring a warehouse in Edison, New Jersey, when Steph was hooked up with a Boy Scout troop, she spoke to Jessica Ribbecke, a tour ambassador whose job it was to pack boxes and tape them down all day. Here is this exchange:
Regan Quilty is already running a tour of Girl Scouts at the New Jersey Amazon Fulfillment Center in 2019. The girls learned how humans interact with robots in the warehouse. (Stephanie Hughes / Market Place)
Stephanie Hughes: What does an average day look like for you? Tell me about your day.
Jessica Ribbecke: An average day? Oh man, an average day?
Amazon PR: There is no such thing as an average day.
Ribbecke: I really don’t … every day is different. Every day is different.
Hughes: What do you like about work
Ribbecke: I like humans. I like to be here with people, with all these people. I like everything. I like my job. I like to pack. I like the people I work with. I like the building.
Hughes: What’s challenging about that?
Ribbecke: Nothing. I don’t have any challenges.
Hughes: It must be a little hard.
Ribbecke: No nothing.
Hughes: You don’t get tired?
Ribbecke: Have 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.