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Wired Magazine: Amazon Takes Down Controversial Job Postings

Published: Friday, September 18, 2020 - 10:49am
Updated: Saturday, September 19, 2020 - 9:31am
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MARK BRODIE: Amazon [in early September] took down a couple of job postings that had started going viral on social media. The positions were with the online giant's Global Intelligence Program, which is based here in Phoenix. And as my next guest writes, the job descriptions included, quote, "collecting information about labor organizing threats against the company," end quote. Louise Matsakis is a staff writer at Wired magazine and joins me to talk more about this. And Louise, first off, tell me about these job postings. What were the positions they were looking for?

LOUISE MATSAKIS: The postings were for two analyst jobs to join Amazon's Global Intelligence Program, which is based in Phoenix, Arizona. They were almost kind of CIA-like. The hirees would be responsible for, among other things, collecting information about labor organizing threats against the company. And the idea was that those assessments could be used in court filings, such as in restraining orders against activist groups, was what the posting said.

BRODIE: So do we know what the postings were actually for? I mean, Amazon took them down and said they were in error. Do we know what the error was and maybe what they're actually looking for?

MATSAKIS: So a spokesperson for Amazon told me that it was not an accurate description of the role and that these postings were uploaded in error. But I think it's important to say that Amazon didn't say that they weren't going to hire for these positions, just that the description, the way that they detailed these things was inaccurate. And I think that that's interesting because we know that a lot of other big corporations have similar jobs to this. But for a, you know, a lack of a better way of putting it, usually they don't say the quiet part out loud like this. Usually the descriptions are a little bit more vague. So I think that Amazon maybe revealed a little too much here, but I don't think that they necessarily are changing their course.

BRODIE: Can you sort of walk us through the history? Because it's been kind of an interesting history in terms of labor organizing within Amazon and some of its subsidiaries like Whole Foods.

MATSAKIS: Yeah. So Amazon, unlike a lot of other tech companies, has this huge labor force made up of mostly low-paid workers, right? Those are its Flex drivers who actually deliver packages to people's doors. Those are Whole Foods, you know, grocery store workers. Those are warehouse workers, which is probably what people are most familiar with. And basically in all those aspects of the company, there's been a lot of pushback in recent years about low pay, about the ways that their jobs are organized, because, you know, Amazon relies on a lot of algorithms to control its workforce. But there've been a number of protests across the country. And basically since the beginning, since the early 2000s, Amazon has, you know, very forcefully opposed unionization efforts. But I think in the last couple of years, workers have really pushed back against its policy. So that's kind of the climate in which these job postings were, were put up.

BRODIE: So how could these positions be presented as violations of the National Labor Relations Act and their protections for organizing workers?

MATSAKIS: So the National Labor Relations Act guarantees private sector workers in the U.S. the right to form a union. It also provides a number of legal protections for certain organizing activities. So were Amazon to have, you know, this intelligence agency within the company that was spying on pro-union workers, that could be considered a violation. However, a lot of companies violate the National Labor Relations Act every year, and the problem is that it can be really hard to enforce. So I think it's not totally unusual that you see a big company like Amazon maybe doing something that might violate the law. But it's still very troubling. And I think it's something that, you know, it should definitely concern regulators.

BRODIE: Yeah, I was interested if there's any potential legal recourse for this, but it sounds like what you're saying is it's really difficult to prove the case in court.

MATSAKIS: Yeah, I don't think that there's any repercussion necessarily for just, you know, uploading a job posting. But I think it really speaks to Amazon's stance toward unionization, right? Instead of trying to hire an analyst to look at maybe why some of these workers are so upset with their jobs, they're trying to hire an analyst to spy on what they're doing potentially, right? I think that that sends a very clear message to workers, especially workers who are interested in unionizing, where the company stands.

BRODIE: What are some of the issues that are driving Amazon workers to want to organize in the first place?

MATSAKIS: So I think it's a number of things. They kind of fall into a couple of buckets. I would say the first one is just low pay. You know, a lot of these workers are doing extremely strenuous jobs. You know, if you work in one of these warehouses, especially one that doesn't have robotics, you might be walking 10 miles a day. I think there are a lot of problems with the computer technology that Amazon uses. You know, they really push you to your limit. How many items can you, you know, move in the warehouse a day? The computer kind of dictates that rate. And the same goes for delivery drivers who are, you know, put on this algorithmic route that basically tries to get them to deliver as many packages as humanly possible. You know, we've seen instances where drivers had to pee in water bottles because their computer-driven route was so strenuous. I think that another box is things like, you know, enough break time. We saw workers in Minnesota who felt like they weren't given adequate brakes to pray and to do other protected religious activities. I think those are some of the big issues. And I think that honestly, a lot of why these workers are so upset is because of the nature of Amazon as a company, right? They see that it's run by the richest man in the world. They see how much power and wealth this company has. And they feel like it's not trickling down to them.

 

BRODIE: So you mentioned that Amazon said that the descriptions did not accurately reflect the positions. Is it safe to say there's going to be a lot of attention on whenever these positions are reposted to see what they say and trying to read between the lines in terms of what that person might actually do?

 

MATSAKIS: Yeah, I think that there's definitely going to be renewed scrutiny on Amazon here to see kind of like, what are they doing, right? Because there's been so much press about how Amazon treated workers during the coronavirus pandemic, specifically, that I think people are really eager to see, will any long-term changes be made? You know, how are they thinking about these issues? Especially because they've attracted so much attention from lawmakers, and also, Amazon is under a lot of antitrust scrutiny over how much power it's accumulated. So I think there's a lot of attention on this company right now. And those job listings are, you know, a small part of that.

BRODIE: You reference, though, how the kind of job that Amazon appear to be looking to hire is not super unusual in the tech world. Are other companies as obvious about what they're doing? Like are, are other tech companies really trying to use this kind of, as you described, like a CIA type position to try to discourage labor organizing?

MATSAKIS: So I would say it's not just tech companies, but a lot of large corporations do do this. I think that a number of them tend to farm it out to a consultant so they can have some sort of plausible deniability like, "We're not doing that. You know, our hands are kind of clean. It's the third party consulting firm that we're working with." You know, there are a number of different law firms, consulting groups that actually, you know, blatantly advertise, "We will help you squash a union dry. We will help you combat labor organizing at your company." So the fact that that whole cottage industry even exists, I think, speaks to the fact that there's a lot of demand for it, right? I think that they're definitely not the only company participating in this. However, it is extremely unusual to be so blatant about it.

BRODIE: All right. That is Louise Matsakis, a staff writer at Wired magazine. Louise, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

MATSAKIS: Thanks for having me.

 

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