Amazon Is Hiring Aggressive Firms to Bust Union Efforts

Since the start of the year, Amazon has subjected its almost 6,000 warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, to a relentless and aggressive anti-union campaign. Among other tactics, Amazon management has forced workers to attend multiple anti-union captive-audience meetings, which it has called “education sessions”; it has sent workers numerous anti-union text messages telling them to “vote no” in the on-going mail-in National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, which ends on March 29; and it has promoted a slick anti-union website and run polished anti-union ads on social media site Twitch. Management has also displayed anti-union posters around the workplace, employed third-party contractors to walk through the facility as human anti-union billboards, and has even installed these messages inside the stalls of the facility’s restrooms.

Amazon’s relentless campaign against the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has attracted widespread political condemnation from Democratic senators and House representatives, several of whom have visited with Amazon workers in Bessemer. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has invited an Amazon worker from Bessemer to testify before the Senate Budget Committee hearing on inequality on March 17; Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos turned down Sanders’s invitation to testify at the same meeting.

In addition, President Joe Biden criticized the company’s numerous anti-union actions, while, more surprisingly, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida supported pro-union workers over the e-commerce behemoth.

Amid public attention, Amazon has, if anything, intensified its anti-union activities. The corporation has not conducted this aggressive anti-union campaign by itself. Rather, the company is paying tens of thousands of dollars per day to outside labor relations consultants who specialize in stopping workers from choosing a union. In a sign that the company will stop at almost nothing to defeat the RWDSU campaign, Amazon has engaged the services of at least two separate firms specializing in anti-union activities — which is a highly unusual move, as even large corporations usually make do with one firm per bargaining unit campaign — and is using one of the country’s largest union avoidance law firms, Morgan Lewis. As I have discussed in a previous Truthout article, Amazon is contracting with Russ Brown, Rebecca Smith and Bill Monroe of Florida-based union avoidance consultant firm RoadWarrior Productions (RWP), at a cost of almost $10,000 per day plus expenses.

The company is also using Chuck Ahern, Bradley Moss and Mark Lema of Los Angeles-based Labor Information Services (LIS), for an as yet undisclosed daily rate.

LIS is a long-established union avoidance firm that also operates under the name, The Burke Group, or TBG. According to a filing with the Department of Labor, Amazon engaged the services of LIS starting January 3, 2021, for the purpose of “conducting meetings with employees in the voting bargaining unit to discuss the realities of signing authorization cards and voting in the upcoming election” — i.e., to convince them to vote no on the RWDSU.

The consultants from RWP and LIS have served as Amazon’s “shock troops” within the Bessemer facility, conveying the company’s virulently anti-union message to the warehouse workers.

An Inglorious 40-Year History of Union Avoidance

Formed by David Burke in 1981 and based in Malibu, California, LIS has conducted many high-profile anti-union campaigns over the past few decades in both the U.S. and in other countries. Prior to becoming an anti-union consultant, Burke worked in labor relations for several large non-union employers, including General Electric. The firm has provided anti-union persuader and other services for many corporations that are household names, including Caterpillar, Honeywell, General Electric, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Mazda, Kraft-Heinz Co., and multiple large health care providers. Several of its anti-union campaigns have notoriously involved payments of millions of dollars in consultant fees, including those at Catholic Healthcare West in the 2000s, when the hospital was accused of using taxpayer money for anti-union activities, and at Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) in the 1990s and 2000s. After years of trying, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers finally organized at BGE in 2017.

Also in the 2000s, the firm conducted an incredibly bitter five-year-long anti-union campaign at the Chinese Daily News (CDN), the then-largest Chinese language newspaper in the United States, which was based in Monterey Park, California. An organizer from the Newspaper Guild union described the LIS campaign at the CDN as “the fiercest anti-union I have ever been involved with,” while one pro-union worker described what the employees were forced to endure as “political terror.”

In the first 30 years of its existence, the firm claims that it provided anti-union services in over 800 NLRB elections, or an average of over 25 elections per year, and these are simply the union campaigns that advanced to the election stage; it does not include union campaigns that were abandoned before getting to election because of aggressive anti-union opposition. LIS has run anti-union campaigns in most sectors of the economy — recent campaigns range from education to manufacturing to health care — and it also boasts of the multilingual capabilities of its anti-union consultants: “Our language capability includes English, Spanish, Tagalong [sic], French, Portuguese, Vietnamese as well as several dialects of Chinese. If it is determined that the use of a consultant to talk directly with voters is appropriate, LIS will match the appropriate consultant with the client.”

The three LIS consultants that we know are being used at Amazon in Bessemer are all well-seasoned anti-union campaigners: Chuck Ahern is the “Western Division President” of the Burke Group and has been with the company since 1995. He describes himself as an “International Union Avoidance and Organizational Development Consultant,” who “Assists companies maintain their non-union status during NLRB campaigns and CAC applications.” (The CAC is the British equivalent of the NLRB.) Bradley Moss is “President of the Eastern Division” of the Burke Group and has worked with the firm since 1999. Also working for LIS on the Amazon campaign is Mark Lema, president and CEO of New Jersey-based LAAHR Consulting Services since 2001, which provides companies with “union avoidance” and other labor relations services.

LIS Explains Its Role in Anti-Union Campaigns

The consultant firm states that corporations such as Amazon have economic and operational reasons for fighting unions, which “lack either the understanding or concern about the nuances of the company business…. The cost of running a unionized business is 25% to 35% greater … and this figure does not reflect negotiated changes … in unionized employee wages or benefits.” The firm accuses labor advocates of using anti-union consultants as a scapegoat for failed organizing campaigns, but also states that corporations that engage its services “have a significantly greater chance of maintaining their direct relationship with employees. This is due to the commitment of the employer, and its management team coupled with the experienced consultants who get the company’s message to employees. Unions point to the proliferation of union avoidance consulting firms … as contributing to their demise.” The firm is highly sensitive to labor criticism. For the record, here is how the Burke Group has responded to comments suggesting that its consultants are “shadowy figures” engaging in scare tactics:

This type of union propaganda is designed to influence opinion against employers who retain our services. It is unfortunate, inaccurate and clearly serves as it’s [sic] own scare tactic to those read it. The truth is that we are retained in an “advisory” capacity usually well after a union has been active at a workplace. Our presence is open and communications are transparent in that information and company positions are distributed in writing and delivered to employees and ultimately the union gets copies as well…. TBG is retained for specific purposes and usually for defined periods of time. Our primary role is to teach existing management staff how to work within the bounds of the law to best educate and encourage their employees to exercise their democratic right to vote in a secret ballot election. It is a complex decision that requires a great deal of information be delivered in a compressed period of time, and time is something many employer’s lack.

International Anti-Union Activities, Including at Amazon in the U.K.

The firm claims to have an international reputation for “eliminating union incursions.” It states, “our international work in the UK, Canada, Central America, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands has been ongoing,” and that it has been “engaged by US foreign subsidiaries located in the UK and EU including the Republic of Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland and Portugal.” The firm has orchestrated several aggressive anti-union campaigns in the United Kingdom following its adoption of a statutory union recognition law in 2000 — a country in which U.S.-style bare-knuckle anti-union campaigns are still relatively rare. In 2007, the firm ran a highly controversial anti-union campaign at Cable & Wireless, which was later condemned by the Communications Workers Union, who attacked the company’s U.S.-based “union busters” for creating an atmosphere of “bitterness and resentment.” Between 2000-2002, the firm ran a “sophisticated” and “US-style anti-union campaign” at an Amazon distribution center in Milton Keynes, England, when the Graphical, Print and Media Union (GPMU) accused management of playing “every trick in the union-busting book to keep us out of the plant.” After losing the bitter organizing campaign at Amazon, the lead GPMU organizer reported that he had “never faced this level of serious resistance before.” Given this association with the Amazon in the U.K. — we don’t yet know if LIS has previously conducted anti-union work for Amazon in the U.S. — it is not a surprise that the anti-union firm has appeared at Bessemer.

Consultants such as Brown and Smith from RoadWarrior Productions, and Ahern and Moss from LIS play an often-devastating role in undermining workers’ efforts to form a union.