Faced with union organizing efforts in Alabama and New York City last year, Amazon did what most U.S. employers in its position would do: It went out and hired a bunch of anti-union consultants to throttle the campaigns.
An unknown number of these consultants cycled through Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island from last year until this March. Many of them had the misfortune of crossing paths with Connor Spence.
Spence, 26, is a tier 1 associate at JFK8, and vice president of membership for the Amazon Labor Union, the new independent labor group that stunned the country last week by winning an election and creating the first union inside Amazon’s U.S. operations. Spence had no prior experience in labor organizing, but he took a particular interest in these “union avoidance” consultants, and was determined to see the union beat them at their own game. It did: Workers ultimately voted 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of unionizing, in what’s already considered one of the greatest labor victories of the last century.
In an interview with HuffPost, Spence explained how he and his friends pulled it off.
“Their job is to operate in the shadows,” Spence said of the consultants. “When you expose them for what they are, it makes it very difficult for them to do their job.”
According to Spence, Amazon ran a two-pronged campaign against the fledgling union — one “above ground” and the other “below ground.” The above-ground campaign consisted of large group meetings where someone — often an Amazon manager — delivered scripted speeches and slideshows aimed at undermining the union. These are commonly called “captive audience” meetings, because employees have no choice but to attend.
The below-ground campaign belonged primarily to the consultants. Paid a typical rate of $3,200 a day apiece, the consultants worked the warehouse floor, pulling workers aside for one-on-one conversations. They stood out in their white-collar clothes and were usually white or Latino, with the bilingual ones focusing on Spanish-speaking workers. Some said they were flying back and forth between New York and Bessemer, Alabama, where a separate Amazon union campaign was underway by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.
Some were nice. Some weren’t. Whatever their dispositions, their goal was to turn workers against the union.
Like an experienced organizer, Spence gathered whatever information he could on them. Consultants who have direct contact with workers in an organizing campaign have to report their arrangements, including fees, to the Labor Department. Although these documents only shed light on past work, Spence and his friends were able to compile unflattering dossiers, to show workers that the consultants get rich “convincing poor people to stay poor.”
“We turned the internal systems against [Amazon] in ways even some managers wouldn’t know how to do.”
They created flyers identifying the most prolific union busters in the warehouse, listing where they’re based (typically far away), and how much money they had earned on union-busting campaigns. They would put stacks of the flyers in break rooms throughout the facility so everyone would see them and know how much Amazon was spending to fly anti-union consultants in from around the country.
The consultants sometimes concealed the names on their visitor badges, so Spence urged union supporters to try to figure them out through chit-chat. When one consultant named David refused to divulge his last name, Spence found it on a warehouse list of third-party vendors: David Acosta.
“We turned the internal systems against them in ways even some managers wouldn’t know how to do,” Spence said.
The union Twitter account sent out a “union-busting alert” on Acosta, with his photo and disclosure forms listing his fees. According to Spence, Acosta told him he was impressed Spence had figured out his last name. Acosta did not immediately respond to questions from HuffPost on Monday sent via LinkedIn.
Another time, the Twitter account blasted out a photo of a consultant in the warehouse identified as Juan Cruz, saying he “tries to hide his name” and “is very mad about this picture.” They urged followers to boost the tweet. As of this writing, it’s been retweeted almost 5,000 times.
To this day, there are certain consultants Spence was never able to identify.
Some were more effective than others. According to Spence, several male co-workers had grown fond of a female consultant who liked to chat them up: “all the guys in her department were in love with her.” When union organizers started bad-mouthing her as a union buster, the men defended her.
But the organizers produced copies of her disclosure filings showing she had raked in nearly $20,000 for just one week of union avoidance work.
“They felt betrayed,” he said.
Spence would follow in the footsteps of the consultants around the warehouse, handing workers copies of the consultants’ Labor Department filings, showing their $300-per-hour fees.
“Their eyes would get real wide. ’What the fuck? How do they get this job?’ That was probably the best way to discredit them,” he said.
Union organizers believed some of the consultants broke labor law by making threats or interrogating workers on their union sympathies, which is illegal. Worried this could weaken union support, they started filing “unfair labor practice” charges at the National Labor Relations Board with the help of Seth Goldstein, an experienced labor lawyer who was advising the campaign.
“I thought Amazon was flabby and stupid in some of things they did. They made a lot of mistakes.”
Goldstein said they ultimately filed dozens of ULP charges against Amazon, including some that directly implicated the consultants. The campaign succeeded in getting the labor board to pursue a case against Bradley Moss, a consultant who allegedly called organizers “thugs” and suggested unionizing would be futile, which a company can’t legally do.
Under pressure from the labor board, Amazon eventually entered into a national agreement saying it wouldn’t retaliate against workers trying to organize.
“I thought Amazon was flabby and stupid in some of things they did,” said Goldstein. “They made a lot of mistakes. They have a lot of money, but we were able to bust up the anti-union captive audience meetings and expose the union busters.”
Goldstein is an attorney for a local affiliate of the Office and Professional Employees International Union. He worked with the Amazon workers on a pro bono basis and says he received only a T-shirt for the arrangement.
Unfair labor practices come with notoriously weak penalties, but they could embarrass both Amazon and the consultant. So after a consultant spoke with a worker, Spence would approach the worker and ask them to recite everything the consultant had said. As Spence got a better handle on the law, he would ask workers if they were willing to talk to the NLRB when it seemed a line may have been crossed — for example, if someone suggested they might lose their jobs.
A culture of boldness proved crucial. As the campaign’s support grew, more workers became willing to put their names to these charges — something workers are often afraid to do for fear of retaliation. According to Spence, the more aggressive consultants started moderating their behavior as the unfair labor practice charges piled up, talking less directly about the union and more about working at Amazon.
“We were able to get lots of workers to do affidavits,” Spence said. “A major component of our campaign was being brave and not capitulating to fear.”
Another element was cunning.
Organizers tried to lay traps for the consultants. As a union buster was making his rounds one day, Spence approached a trio of union sympathizers he knew the consultant would speak to. He told one of them to act ardently pro-union; another to act staunchly anti-union; and the third to come off as a fence-sitter. The idea was to see how differently the consultant spoke to the three archetypes, and figure out which was most likely to draw an unfair labor practice charge.
“I really wanted to see if we could trip these guys up,” Spence explained.
Many experienced organizers would recognize such strategies, but Spence and his co-workers were learning and deploying them on the fly. Unaffiliated with an established labor group, Amazon Labor Union was short on resources but had credibility as a campaign comprised entirely of Amazon employees. Its president, former JFK8 worker Chris Smalls, had been fired in 2020 after leading a walkout over safety issues. The company then schemed to smear him.
Spence said Smalls was a favorite subject of the consultants in one-on-one talks.
“One thing they’d say is when we win, Chris is gonna be a millionaire. He’s gonna go buy a Lamborghini [with our union dues]. It’s something they would never say in a captive audience meeting,” he said.
The captive audience meetings were usually left to Amazon managers, many from out of state, Spence said. Speakers would walk workers through the details of collective bargaining — paying union dues, negotiating a contract — but always with the anti-union subtext that’s the hallmark of these meetings in any campaign.
As the union committee grew, they tried to turn the captive audience meetings into opportunities. They would record the talks so they could later correct the information for workers, or file a charge if they believed a speaker crossed a legal line. And they would openly challenge the talking points they were fed, a common organizing tactic meant to show everyone in the room that union supporters weren’t afraid.
“Once we had an organizer in a meeting, the goal was to completely shut it down,” Spence said. “We’d interrupt them whenever they made inaccurate statements, and ask so many questions that they had no choice but to end the meeting. As time went on, even milder people who were pro-union started speaking out.”
Eventually, Amazon started trying to cull known union supporters from the room.
“They got frustrated and started throwing our members out, which just enraged everybody,” Goldstein said.
Organizers will never get a full picture of how much Amazon poured into its failed effort to defeat the campaign. The company did not respond to a request for comment on its anti-union spending. Disclosure forms Amazon filed last week show it doled out $4.3 million to union-avoidance firms last year, but that figure would not include most of its legal work, or much of the anti-union messaging it plastered around its warehouses through posters and televisions. Meanwhile, the results of a separate election at the BHM1 fulfillment center in Bessemer remain too close to call. The RWDSU is trailing 875 “yes” votes to 993 “no” votes, but hundreds of challenged ballots could still tip the balance in the union’s favor.
Spence believes more Amazon facilities will follow the lead of JFK8 and unionize. He said anything is possible if the organizers inside a warehouse demonstrate their fearlessness to everyone around them.
“The whole [idea] was to lead by example,” he said. “The last thing you want is someone to go up to the polling booth and be too scared to check off ‘yes.’ If you can get in the managers’ faces and show how pro-union you are, then voting ‘yes’ seems like nothing in comparison.”