Tactics used by Amazon to defeat the union organizing drive at the company’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse have highlighted the need for Democrats to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). The legislation is a sweeping proposal that would implement the strongest protections for workers since 1935, when collective bargaining itself was first given legal protection in the United States.
If signed into law, the PRO Act would impose tougher restrictions on management during union election campaigns. The legislation would stop companies from forcing workers to hear anti-union propaganda at so-called captive audience meetings. It would ban managers from influencing the size of the bargaining unit sought by union organizers, and would prohibit stall tactics designed to allow managers to wage fearmongering campaigns to scare workers out of voting for union representation. Amazon employed all of these tactics in the run-up to the union certification vote at Bessemer, and was also accused by organizers with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) of engaging in tactics that are already illegal under current law. The PRO Act would drastically increase the consequences for companies found guilty of committing unfair labor practices during organizing drives.
But while the struggle in Bessemer showcased how the PRO Act would drastically benefit workers in the U.S., the struggle to pass the legislation itself highlights the power of Amazon, which has grown in recent years to become the second-largest employer and the second-largest spender on lobbying in the U.S. The PRO Act is supported by President Biden. It has passed the House. But currently, it only has the support of 47 out of 50 Democrats in the equally-divided Senate. Of the three Democrats resisting calls to cosponsor the PRO Act, two faced election campaigns last year: Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia). They both received significant campaign donations from individuals employed by Amazon. Kelly received $139,270, and Warner received $44,896.
While Kelly received more money from individuals employed by the firm, the money given to Warner is particularly illuminating. It came almost exclusively from the top echelons of Amazon: prominent executives such as Jay Carney and David Clark, two men who earned notoriety on social media in recent weeks for attacking pro-RWDSU lawmakers. Clark, in particular, was the subject of ridicule for claiming that Amazon was “the Bernie Sanders of employers” because it pays workers a minimum of $15/hour. In reality, Amazon’s market power pushes down wages in warehouses throughout the logistics industry, and only four other companies have more employees on food stamps, according to a Bloomberg analysis published in December.
The deluge of money from Amazon executives like Clark came after Warner supported Virginia officials flooding Amazon with subsidies in exchange for the company placing its second headquarters (HQ2) in northern Virginia. Amazon decided on moving part of its HQ2 to Crystal City, Virginia, after a lengthy process that involved local jurisdictions publicly competing with one another to offer the company publicly funded giveaways (Carney was described by CNBC as the “architect” of the plan). The contest started in September 2017, and ended more than a year later in November 2018, with Amazon choosing locations in Crystal City, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and Long Island City, New York, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens.
The company withdrew its plans to move part of its HQ2 to Queens, however, after a backlash from local officials. Progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were outraged at the likelihood of longtime residents being displaced by well-paid techies coming from outside of the community to take jobs — in plans fueled by billions in subsidies to boost the net revenue of an incredibly profitable company run by Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man. But while both U.S. senators from New York met the outcome of the HQ2 competition with silence, the same couldn’t be said for their counterparts from Virginia, who were elated. Warner was particularly vocal, releasing a statement immediately after the announcement saying that he was “really excited” about the Crystal City plans. Later that morning, he appeared at a Yahoo Finance summit where he fist-pumped when the publication’s editor-in-chief, Andy Serwer, brought up the HQ2 news.
“This process is probably the most unique kind of economic development, where the whole county is chasing it,” Warner said, hinting that the HQ2 announcement would likely be followed by news from Virginia Tech University, a publicly run institution, about the establishment of a new campus in northern Virginia, which would be built specifically to complement the Amazon facility. Warner then conceded, when asked by Serwer, that he wasn’t aware how much these Amazon developments would cost the public. “I’ve not actually gone through all the particulars of the announcement,” he said. “I’m sure Amazon extracted a good deal for themselves.”
The cost would soon become clear. Three months later, in February 2019, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law a bill that gave $750 million in subsidies to Amazon. The subsidy total wasn’t as much as those offered by other jurisdictions vying for HQ2, but Virginia’s deal was made sweeter to Amazon by the state’s union-busting “right-to-work” laws. (The PRO Act would invalidate these misleadingly titled laws, which enable workers to starve unions of dues while still benefiting from contracts negotiated through collective bargaining.) Then in June 2019, Virginia Tech unveiled its plans to build a $1 billion campus, with up to $250 million coming from the subsidy package approved by the state legislature and Northam. Heralding the news, at the Virginia Tech press conference, was Senator Warner, fresh off of a three-week stretch in which he was showered with campaign cash from Amazon executives.
The first donation to roll into Warner’s coffers came on May 17, 2019. Amazon’s Vice President of Public Policy Shannon Kellogg gave Warner $1,000. Four days later, Amazon Senior Vice President Doug Herrington, who is in charge of “North America Consumer,” maxed out on donations to Warner, giving him $5,600, with half earmarked for Warner’s primary, and the other half slated to go to his general election campaign fund. Warner was not facing a primary opponent at the time of the gift. He never would. His primary contest was canceled altogether due to the lack of a challenger.
Three days after Herrington’s money came, Warner’s campaign was blessed with $2,800 from another vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, who was described by CNBC as a top lieutenant to Jay Carney, in an article which said that Amazon public policy views influence peddling as “watering the flowers” with the goal of cultivating “a well-tended ‘garden’ of pro-Amazon policymakers, from state governors and senators down to local officials and economic development teams.” The same day that Huseman gave to Warner, David Levy, the vice president of Amazon Web Services, gave Warner $1,500. Six days later, on May 30, 2019, Carney himself donated $2,900 to Warner’s campaign war chest.
The same day that Carney donated to Warner’s reelection campaign, Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky gave the senator $2,800. The following day, Jeff Wilke, then-Amazon CEO of worldwide consumer business, matched the $5,600 maximum donation given by Herrington. Olsavsky and Wilke were, alongside Carney, part of Amazon’s S-Team, which was described by CNBC as “the 18 most senior executives who work closely with [CEO Jeff Bezos].” Then on June 8, two days before Warner spoke at the Virginia Tech HQ2 campus press conference, David Clark, who now holds Wilke’s old position, gave Warner the $5,600 maximum. The three-week “flower watering” left Warner — who had no primary challenger and wasn’t facing a competitive general election component — with $27,800 from the top tiers of Amazon’s corporate structure.
When asked by Truthout if Warner’s hesitancy to sign onto the PRO Act was influenced by his support for HQ2, and Amazon’s aversion to unions, a staffer for the senator sent a two-word reply: “Absolutely not.”
Still, Warner’s stated opposition to the bill doesn’t deviate much from the kind of talking points one might hear from managers and lawyers specializing in the sort of “union avoidance” that Amazon has become famous for. In a virtual press conference on April 12, Warner cited his opposition to elements of the bill that would stop the misclassification of gig workers as independent contractors — something that would give workers like Uber drivers status as employees, and all the rights under labor law that come with it, such as the right to organize a union. He also said he was opposed to “some of the process issues around [the] election voting process for unions” in the PRO Act — provisions written to benefit workers trying to organize unions, like those recently thwarted by Amazon in Bessemer.