According to tech news outlet Gizmodo,  Amazon has issued a 45-minute, anti-unionisation training video to employees of grocery chain Whole Foods – a brand that the online retail giant acquired last year for almost $14 billion.
In the film, which Whole Foods team leaders have been instructed to show to their staff, a cartoon Amazon representative says: “We are not anti-union – but we are not neutral either.” In efforts to explain that somewhat self-contradictory statement, the video goes on: “We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our customers, our shareholders or, most importantly, our associates. Our business model is built upon speed, innovation and customer obsession – things that are generally not associated with unions. When we lose sight of those critical focus areas, we jeopardise everyone’s job security. Yours, mine, and the associates’.”
It adds: “You would never threaten to close your building just because associates joined a union. But you might need to talk about how having a union could hurt innovation, which could hurt customer obsession – which could ultimately threaten the building’s continued existence.”
The video urges staff to keep their eyes and ears peeled for so-called ‘warning signs’ of unionisation, including:
- use of phrases or words such as ‘living wage’ or ‘steward’;
- associates raising concerns on behalf of their co-workers;
- workers “who normally aren’t connected to each other suddenly hanging out together”, and
- workers showing an “unusual interest in policies, benefits, employee lists or other company information”.
It also stresses that Amazon prefers an open-door policy of ‘direct management’, in which workers are free to raise issues with bosses individually. However, a former Amazon Fulfilment Centre worker tells Gizmodo: “[The company] preaches that they have this open-door policy and then when you try to go through that open door, instead of being allowed in, you are now set up.”
Is it okay for companies to use training videos to convey this type of messaging?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Amazon sees that its business model is based upon the core competencies of speed, innovation and customer obsession, and the claim here is that trade-union recognition would impede all of that, because unions support neither speed, nor innovation, nor customer obsession. The firm’s evidence for that claim is unclear. But as an independent organisation, Amazon is absolutely entitled to build the business it wants, create the culture it wants, and use whatever medium it wants to convey those messages to its staff.”
However, she points out, “in the longer term, the question of whether a lack of union recognition will put certain customers off Whole Foods remains open. Much the same can be said for whether the business practices that Amazon is looking to implement throughout the chain will have a similar effect on its appeal. If employees consider this non-recognition overtly prohibitive and, in sufficient numbers, consider that it makes Amazon an undesirable employer, then that will also have an impact on Whole Foods’ success as a brand.”
Cooper notes: “it is curious that, in this era, where there is a widespread acknowledgement of stakeholder capitalism – which is to say, it’s not just about shareholders, or customers, but everyone in the value chain – that Amazon is taking such a hard stance. It may make more sense for the firm to be open to working with a trade union that recognises the value of supporting speed, innovation and customer obsession. So, the question for Amazon is whether its current, adversarial approach is going to have an impact upon how it is perceived by customers – or, indeed, whether it will lead to difficulties with recruitment.
She adds: “Amazon must also weigh up whether employees may consider its anti-trade union position poses a threat to their welfare – a sentiment that could risk broader unrest in the staff base.”
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Image of Whole Foods signage courtesy of Pamela Brick, via Shutterstock