Democrats Press Amazon on Legality of Worker Chat App That Would Block Words Like “Union”

“If you are concerned about your workers discussing topics like ‘restrooms’ or ‘slave labor,’" write Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Cori Bush, and others, "the answer is ... to improve your treatment of workers."

Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, from left, Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, during a news conference on the Keeping Renters Safe Act outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. House Democrats set up a Tuesday vote on a bill that would suspend the U.S. debt ceiling through December 2022 and temporarily fund the government to avert a shutdown at the end of this month. Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Representative Cori Bush stand together during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 2021. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In April, The Intercept reported on a plan by Amazon to ban words related to labor unions in its new internal messaging app, amid an explosion of organizing in its warehouses and a successful union drive in Staten Island, New York. On Thursday, Democratic members of Congress led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri sent a letter to Amazon demanding answers about the chat app, what it suggests about working conditions generally, and whether it is in compliance with federal labor law.

The Intercept reviewed internal company documents revealing a plan by Amazon to block and flag employee posts on a planned internal messaging app that contain certain keywords criticizing Amazon’s working conditions, such as “slave labor,” “prison,” and plantation,” as well as “restrooms” — presumably related to reports of Amazon employees relieving themselves in bottles to meet punishing quotas.

“I urge you to modify your approach,” the letter, signed by Warren, Bush, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, says. “If you are concerned about your workers discussing topics like ‘restrooms’ or ‘slave labor,’ or exploitative working conditions generally, the answer is not to interfere with your workers’ ability to communicate with each other, but to improve your treatment of workers.”

“If it does launch at some point down the road,” Amazon spokesperson Barbara M. Agrait told The Intercept in April, “there are no plans for many of the words you’re calling out to be screened. The only kinds of words that may be screened are ones that are offensive or harassing, which is intended to protect our team.”

Addressed to Andy Jassy, the president and CEO of Amazon, the letter raises concerns that the company may have violated federal labor law, which protects worker communications regarding labor organizing.

“Amazon’s compliance with federal labor laws is an important matter of public concern especially given the company’s status as one of the largest retailers in the country,” the letter states.

Federal labor law requires that employers report expenditures on activities that interfere with employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and, the letter notes, Amazon has not reported any such expenditures in relation to the app. The letter also asks Amazon to disclose any spending in relation to the planning, conception, design, uses, rollout, and implementation of the app.


Biden’s NLRB Was Essential to Unionizing the Amazon Warehouse in Staten Island

The National Labor Relations Board last month found merit in charges that Amazon had violated federal labor rules when it required workers to attend anti-union meetings. Despite the anti-union efforts, the Amazon Labor Union stunned the nation by winning a union election at a sprawling warehouse in Staten Island — the first such union of any Amazon facility.

In a landmark ruling earlier this week, the NLRB found that Amazon illegally threatened employees with adverse consequences like loss of benefits and reduced wages if they voted to unionize at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island. (Unlike the other Staten Island facility, the union vote at this warehouse narrowly failed.)

President Joe Biden has voiced support for the Amazon union effort, meeting with Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls at the White House last month.

“This disturbing report is part of a pattern of worker exploitation, retaliation, and union busting on the part of Amazon. Notably, Amazon faces complaints brought by the NLRB for firing workers in retaliation for organizing and for threatening, surveilling, and interrogating workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York,” the letter states. “Unfortunately, the Proposed App and its anti-worker censorship fit all too well with Amazon’s track record of worker surveillance, inhumane treatment, and union busting.”

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