Union president blasts Amazon CEO's promise to do a 'better job' for workers as 'empty words'

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the union that recently lost a vote to organize Amazon (AMZN) warehouse workers in Alabama, sharply criticized Jeff Bezos on Friday over the CEO's pledge in a shareholder letter the day before to "do better" for its employees.

The remarks from Bezos likely indicate a public relations effort to minimize the damage inflicted on the tech giant's reputation over the course of the months-long union drive at its facility in Bessemer, Al., said Appelbaum, who leads the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, or RWDSU.  

Appelbaum called on the company to implement the sentiment expressed by Bezos through improved working conditions and the abandonment of anti-union intimidation efforts.

"We cannot just allow him to get away with empty words," Appelbaum tells Yahoo Finance. "Where they say nice words, what we really need are nice actions."

"I certainly hope that what Bezos says is not just another PR effort at damage control," he adds. "We’ve seen too many examples about how Amazon has been more concerned with dealing with public relations damage than dealing with the underlying problem."

A tally completed on April 9 found workers at the warehouse in Bessemer voted overwhelmingly against the union, though RWDSU has vowed to file charges claiming Amazon illegally interfered with the election. 

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the remarks from Appelbaum.

'We need a better vision'

In the shareholder letter on Thursday, Bezos acknowledged the need to improve treatment of employees at the company, referring to the recent union vote.

“I think we need to do a better job for our employees," Bezos wrote in the letter, which will be his last before he steps down as CEO later this year. "While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees — a vision for their success.

Bezos added that he has “always wanted to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company,” and he’s committing the company to be “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”

Workers at the warehouse in Bessemer criticized what they say were grueling conditions enforced by digital devices that they say track them every minute. Employees also claimed inadequate safety protections heightened stress and health risks tied to COVID-19. 

Amazon strongly rebuked such claims, citing a host of safety measures implemented during the pandemic and a compensation package that includes benefits and entry-level pay of $15.30, more than double the federal minimum wage.

In his letter, Bezos referenced surveys that show 94% of workers at Amazon fulfillment centers would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work. He also said that Amazon employees are free to take informal breaks, in addition to the 30-minute lunch and 30-minute break they receive each shift.

The National Labor Relations Board, which tallied the votes, found that 1,798 votes were cast against the union and 738 were cast in favor. While 76 ballots were void and 505 were challenged, Amazon's victory was decisive. 

Still, just 3,041 of 5,876 eligible voters cast ballots. Appelbaum said observers should not interpret the union vote results as evidence of worker contentment but rather anti-union intimidation undertaken by Amazon. 

"People should not presume the results of this vote means that workers are satisfied with Amazon’s working conditions," he says. "Instead, what the results really demonstrate is the powerful impact of employer intimidation and interference."

"People throughout the United States and around the world need to hold Bezos and Amazon accountable for the desperate need to make change in working conditions at their warehouses," he says.

Over the course of the union drive, which began last summer, RWDSU never spoke with Bezos, Applebaum said. But he would welcome a dialogue with Bezos about working conditions at the company, he added. 

"If he is serious about making change, we would welcome a conversation with Bezos about what we have heard and what we have discovered," he says.

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