Amazon deletes anti-union listing, watches workers’ “secret” social groups

Enlarge / An Amazon Flex driver delivers an armload of packages in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 18, 2018.

Amazon is working extremely hard to counter both internal unionization efforts and external bad press even as working conditions for its Flex drivers seem to get ever more desperate amid the persistent pandemic, a set of new reports reveals.

The Internet’s biggest everything store has been busy during the COVID-19 pandemic. As in-person retail bottomed out, online retail skyrocketed and Amazon hired an additional 175,000 warehouse, grocery, and delivery workers to keep up with the sharply increased demand this year provided.

One of the ways Amazon gets packages to your doorstep is through Amazon Flex. The program is basically like Uber, but for Amazon: drivers use Amazon’s app and their own cars to collect packages from Amazon facilities and deliver them to local homes. Typically, drivers sign up for a scheduled two-to-four-hour delivery block or shift, but Flex also makes “Instant Offers,” which are immediate, on-demand deliveries drivers can pick up like an Uber or Lyft fare.

Competition for those Instant Offers in some markets is so intense that some drivers are apparently trying a novel workaround, Bloomberg News reports: they’re sticking phones in trees.

The trees in question are outside Amazon facilities and Whole Foods stores in greater Chicago, Bloomberg explains. The devices in the branches monitor Amazon’s dispatch services for an available offer, and when one is made, they register as “closest.” They sync with drivers’ real phones, giving the drivers an edge in being able to secure a higher-value route.

Some drivers complained to Amazon about the apparent edge their peers are getting from the tree phones. Bloomberg obtained an internal Amazon email saying the company was investigating the matter but was unable to share its findings with other drivers.

“Amazon knows about it, but does nothing,” one unnamed driver told Bloomberg.

Monitoring complaints

Amazon is fully aware of all the complaints Amazon Flex drivers make—not only about trees full of phones, but about every topic. The company has infiltrated and closely monitors groups on social media platforms where Flex workers talk amongst themselves, Vice Motherboard reports.

The tool Amazon uses to monitor social media discussions (as well as several reports generated by that program) was left sitting around exposed on a website called Shark and Ink, Motherboard found. The site “has no obvious ties to Amazon, and the tool does not use traditional Amazon infrastructure, suggesting Amazon wanted to keep the tool and its surveillance secret,” Motherboard observed. After the story was published, however, Amazon confirmed that the information the reporters found was indeed genuine.

Amazon was monitoring more than 60 groups, according to a list Motherboard found (PDF). Employees were not supposed to make public the existence of the social media-monitoring program, according to a page that was included among the files: “The information related to different posts reported out from various social forums are classified,” Amazon instructed employees. “DO NOT SHARE without proper authentication. Most of the Post/Comment screenshots within the site are from closed Facebook groups. It will have a detrimental effect if it falls within the reach of any of our Delivery partners. DO NOT SHARE without proper authentication.”

In other words: don’t let the drivers find out we’re watching, because then it will be harder for us to watch.

Motherboard shared a redacted report (PDF) showing what kind of information the software pulls together. The reports include the full names and posts from drivers who make noteworthy posts in social media groups, as well as data categorizing what kind of content is seen most often. Issues with the app, for example, were logged between 29 and 56 times per week in the analysis of one group that Motherboard shared.

As the report demonstrated, analysis of the Facebook group’s contents allowed Amazon employees to spot actual pain points for drivers and escalate recurring issues internally to teams equipped to handle them. However, reading these “secret” groups also gave Amazon advance insight into drivers “planning for any strike or protest against Amazon.”

Anti-organization efforts

Preventing employees from organizing is a key focus for Amazon right now. It’s apparently so important to the company that it was hiring for at least two roles specifically dedicated to monitoring and preventing “labor organizing threats,” among other risks—listings it took down as soon as the Internet noticed.

The listings sought experienced analysts, preferably fluent in a second language (including Hindi, Tagalog, Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, or Brazilian Portuguese) and with prior experience in analytics from “the intelligence community, the military, law enforcement, or related global security role in the private sector.”

The analyst’s key responsibilities, according to the listing, would be to compile white papers and reports for senior company leadership with assessments of certain risk factors. The “dynamic situations” upon which the holder of the position would be expected to report include “protests, geopolitical crises, conflicts impacting operations” and other “sensitive” topics. The analyst would also report on “highly confidential” matters “including labor organizing threats against the company” and “establish and track funding and activities connected to corporate campaigns (internal and external) against Amazon.” And last but not least, the analyst would help Amazon’s in-house lawyers put together documents for use in court filings, “including restraining orders against activist groups,” since legal uses intelligence assessments “to demonstrate to court[s] of law that activist groups harbor intent for continued illegal activity vis-à-vis Amazon.”

Amazon this spring fired at least three corporate employees who spoke out about conditions for employees working in the company’s many distribution centers. Employees complained that breakouts of COVID-19 were rampant and that Amazon was not taking sufficient action to prevent workers from falling ill. (Amazon repeatedly denied the allegations, saying it had enacted robust and thorough precautions in all its facilities.)

“Won’t stop us now”

The leader of a walkout at the Staten Island warehouse location in March, Chris Smalls, was also fired. Amazon claimed at first his termination was unrelated to his workplace activism. Shortly after, however, Vice obtained an internal memo from Amazon’s general counsel trying to minimize Smalls.

“He’s not smart, or articulate,” David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, wrote about Smalls, who is Black. “To the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers… Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”

In a statement to CNBC, Amazon said of the Intelligence Analyst listings, “The job post was not an accurate description of the role—it was made in error and has since been corrected.” Amazon did not, however, say what the “error” in question was.

“Workers, especially Black workers, have been telling us all for months that Amazon is targeting them for speaking out,” said Dania Rajendra, director of Athena—one of those employee activist groups Amazon wants to gather intelligence against. “This job description is proof that Amazon intends to continue on this course.”

“Every single person in the United States has the right to speak up and to join with others to improve the conditions under which we live and work,” Rajendra added. “And we have every right to demand better for our communities from a corporation worth a trillion dollars… And since Monday is Labor Day, let’s remember that Pinkertons and ‘goon squads’ didn’t stop communities around coal mines or auto plants or sugar plantations from organizing for real democracy in past centuries—and these ‘intelligence analysts’ won’t stop us now.”

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