Late Disclosures Concealed The Extent Of Amazon’s Anti-Union Campaign
While Amazon workers in Alabama and New York were trying to unionize their warehouses last year, the tech giant hired a large cast of anti-union consultants to undermine the organizing campaigns. Known as “persuaders,” these consultants led meetings in the warehouses and pulled workers aside for one-on-one conversations, all with the aim of turning workers against the idea of a union.
The law requires that persuaders file timely disclosure forms with the Labor Department, so that workers understand who their employer has hired and how much they are paying them to lobby against unionization. But it appears the firm that performed the most work for Amazon last year did not report its arrangement with the company until well past the legal time frame for doing so, HuffPost has found. Other consultants seem to have filed late disclosures as well.
The consultants’ apparent failure to report their dealings with Amazon within a reasonable amount of time left workers in the dark about the details of their employer’s pressure campaign. Some disclosures weren’t submitted to the Labor Department until the ballots were literally about to be counted in both union elections at the end of March, defeating the entire point of the transparency law.
“It’s useless to people a year after they provided the service,” said Connor Spence, an Amazon worker and vice president of membership for the Amazon Labor Union.
Spence was researching Labor Department filings as his union campaign was underway at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, New York. He believed it was important to uncover the consultants’ arrangements with Amazon so workers could make an informed decision about their vote. But he had little faith that the filings in the Labor Department’s online database accurately reflected the scope of the company’s consulting army.
Workers at the JFK8 warehouse ultimately voted 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of joining the Amazon Labor Union, a stunning upset that established the first Amazon union in the U.S. The results are still not clear in a separate union election at Amazon’s BHM1 warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers there have voted 993 to 875 against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, but more than 400 challenged ballots could still change the outcome.
Both employers and consultants must disclose details of their relationships to the Labor Department, just as unions must file in-depth annual reports laying out their finances. The employers’ reports are due at the end of the first quarter the year after the consulting work was performed. But the consultants must inform the government about their dealings within 30 days of an agreement being made with the employer.
“It’s useless to people a year after they provided the service.”
– Connor Spence, vice president of membership for the Amazon Labor Union
It can be helpful for union organizers and supporters to be able to show their co-workers how much their employer is spending on anti-union consulting as opposed to, say, giving them modest raises.
As HuffPost first reported, Amazon’s disclosure filings show it spent roughly $4.3 million on anti-union consultants last year, with a typical rate of $3,200 a day for each consultant, plus expenses. More than $2.9 million of that money went to the Michigan-based Rayla Group, whose president is listed as Penne Familusi-Jackson.
Familusi-Jackson signed an agreement with Amazon on Oct. 12, 2021, which would have made her disclosure filing due in mid-November at the latest. But Familusi-Jackson’s disclosure form appears to have been submitted on March 31, the day ballots in both elections were being counted. It listed 16 persuaders on the Amazon campaign.
In her contract with Amazon, Familusi-Jackson agreed to file disclosures to the Labor Department “within the prescribed timeframes.”
When reached by phone and asked about the timing of her disclosures, Familusi-Jackson said she would get back to HuffPost. She didn’t respond to follow-up texts.
Another consultant, Katie Lev, signed an agreement on Oct. 28 for her firm, Lev Labor, to help Amazon on Staten Island, according to Amazon’s annual filing. The contract noted seven other individuals who would work for the firm there. HuffPost could not find a filing submitted by Lev detailing her arrangement with Amazon. Like Familusi-Jackson, Lev’s agreement stipulated timely reports submitted to the Labor Department.
Consultants only have to report their activities if they speak directly with workers, as opposed to simply coaching managers on what to say. It’s not clear whether the work by Lev’s firm required disclosure, although Amazon chose to report it. Lev did not respond to emails or phone calls asking about her Amazon work and whether she disclosed the arrangement to the Labor Department.
In a recent disclosure for her union-related work on behalf of the custom map company Mapbox, Lev claimed she was “hired to educate rather than persuade”: “All voters were encouraged to vote the way that was best for them and not to feel pressured.”
Lev’s firm received at least $371,000 for its Amazon work last year.
Consultant Edward Echanique reached an agreement with Amazon on Nov. 8 to persuade workers at the Staten Island warehouse, according to filings. Echanique’s disclosure for that work is dated Jan. 3, 2022, weeks after the end of the 30-day window. Echanique didn’t respond to voicemail messages or texts asking if he had disclosed his work on time.
Amazon said in its filing that it made no payments to Echanique during 2021, so details of any payments made to him this year probably won’t be public until 2023.
A disclosure form for consultant Bradley Moss’ Amazon work appears to have been submitted on March 30, 2022 ― the very last day of voting at the JFK8 warehouse. Reached by phone, Moss said the form would have been submitted by the companies of David Burke, a union avoidance consultant who Moss worked for. (The union alleges that in the course of his work, Moss referred to the union’s leaders, Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, who are Black, as “thugs.”)
According to Amazon’s filings, the company paid Burke through two entities: a firm called Labor Information Services, of which Burke is president, and the Burke Group, of which he’s also president. Burke first disclosed his Amazon work in a filing last March, and workers were well aware of his presence in the campaigns. His groups received at least $691,000 for their Amazon work in 2021.
A woman who answered the phone for Labor Information Services acknowledged that some of the disclosure forms it was responsible for had been late, including Moss’. She attributed it to a mix-up. She noted that an annual filing that detailed the firm’s work for Amazon had been submitted in early March.
The Office of Labor-Management Standards, a branch of the Labor Department, enforces disclosure requirements. A spokesperson for the office said in an email that it could not comment on specific cases or potential violations, but noted that enforcing the disclosure requirements “is our No. 1 priority.”
“We are aware that some employers and consultants have filed deficient reports, and others have not yet filed reports covering reportable agreements and expenditures,” the spokesperson said.
The vast majority of filings handled by the office involve unions and their finances. But the office’s director, Jeffrey Freund, has said he’s trying to improve compliance on the management side. He said the evidence suggests many employers and consultants are not disclosing what the law requires. He has even started promoting a tip line.
The Labor Department generally does not pursue criminal cases against employers or persuaders for not filing their forms when they’re due. If officials believe someone has failed to follow the law, they may open an investigation and pressure the parties involved to rectify something that’s late or incomplete. But under the law, criminal prosecutions can only arise when the violations are “willful,” which can be difficult to prove.
The lack of serious penalties is one reason reports are filed late or probably never filed at all.
Amazon declined to comment on its consultants’ fillings. The company submitted its own disclosure report on time, listing the payments to its consultants for 2021 in its report last month. But by waiting until the last moment for an employer to do so ― that is, March 31 ― Amazon was able to keep its anti-union spending out of the public eye until labor board officials were counting ballots in both union elections.
“It appears the firm that performed the most work for Amazon last year did not report its arrangement with the company until well past the legal time frame for doing so.”
On Staten Island, the Amazon Labor Union had been asking to hold its election at a later date, according to Seth Goldstein, a lawyer who’s been advising the young union pro bono. Goldstein said Amazon had pushed for an earlier election and ultimately succeeded, with the labor board setting March 30 as the date for voting to end.
Spence knew he wouldn’t see the full sum of Amazon’s anti-union spending until after the fact.
“It was very convenient” for Amazon, he said. “Literally the next day they had to disclose how much they paid the union-busters.”
Spence and others have argued for tighter reporting requirements and stiffer penalties for companies and consultants who fail to disclose their dealings.
Terri Gerstein, a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute think tank, recently argued in The American Prospect that employers like Amazon should have to reveal their persuaders sooner. She noted the murkiness surrounding the Rayla Group: The firm’s address appears to be a post office box at a UPS Store in Troy, Michigan. “When well-paid proxies are deployed to convince people not to unionize, those workers have a right to know the specifics,” Gerstein wrote.
The victory of the Amazon Labor Union at JFK8 will probably force Amazon and other employers to reevaluate their playbook when it comes to anti-union campaigns. But for now, Amazon still seems reliant on persuaders to make their case against unionization in the warehouses. The Amazon Labor Union says several consultants have turned up at a smaller Staten Island facility, known as LDJ5, where a union vote is expected to be held later this month.
Spence said the union was successful at JFK8 in part because workers exposed the consultants and their work, relying mostly on the consultants’ past filings related to other employers. It wasn’t always easy. Spence said some consultants concealed the names on their visitor badges and refused to identify themselves.
He said it would be much better if workers could see their employer’s contracts with consultants in real time, as opposed to having to wait months, or even over a year, to see what their agreement was.
“We still won,” Spence said. “But it would have been very helpful to show all that [information] to employees.”