An annual program in which Amazon offers to pay workers at least $1,000 to quit their jobs could threaten a unionization drive in Bessemer, Alabama.
On Sunday, there were concerns on Twitter that the drive was specifically targeted at the Bessemer warehouse, but Amazon runs this program nationally and has for several years. This year’s program, and internal documentation spelling it out, was first reported by labor reporter Kim Kelly. "We love that you're part of the team. But if you have goals outside of Amazon, we want to support you," a handout obtained by Kelly says. "That's why we have a voluntary resignation program called 'The Offer' — an exit bonus starting at $1,000, based on how many Peaks you've worked."
Regardless of its national scope, if workers in Bessemer who are supportive of the union take it, the drive there could be threatened.
"I researched and found out they do it at a lot of facilities and what not. But it was a good time to do it now in Bessemer. That could hurt the votes,” Michael Foster, one of the leaders of Bessemer’s union drive, told Motherboard. “If they quit the vote won’t count. To me it’s just to prevent the people from getting the union in. They need to thin out some people. It’s kind of a polite way to do it."
The program is an annual one done each February. Bessemer’s warehouse opened in March so this is their first run-in with the buyout. The program is first mentioned in a 2014 letter to shareholders—then dubbed "Pay to Quit"—but, as the letter states, "invented by the clever people at Zappos" which was acquired by Amazon in 2009. It is now called “The Offer,” as it was at Zappos. In a 2008 essay reviewing the practice, Harvard Business Review framed the tactic as a way for Zappos to filter out those who "don't have the sense of commitment they are looking for."
Amazon adopted a similar tune in its 2014 shareholder letter, saying that it made this offer to "encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want." What really mattered, Amazon added, was that "an employee staying somewhere they don't want to be isn't healthy for the employee or the company." To that end, Amazon offers $2,000 for one to two "peaks" at Amazon (employment on or before December 1), and an additional $1,000 for each year until you reach $5,000.
“Amazon has a number of different opportunities that are designed to help employees achieve their personal and professional goals,” an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard. “While we hope employees stay with and grow their careers at Amazon, this is a voluntary program that’s designed to provide extra support for those who decide that Amazon isn’t part of their long-term career plan, and it’s been offered every year since 2014.”
John Burgett, an Amazon worker in a Jeffersonville, Indiana warehouse who closely documented his experiences from 2014 to 2016, offered a different rationale for the program:
“It appears that Amazon accomplishes two goals with “The Offer.” It removes inveterate employees whom the company might consider a liability and an unnecessary expense so it can replace them with fresh new-hires at starting wage with no tenure regarding benefits. It saves the company money in stock payouts, 401k payouts, regular and overtime pay, vacation pay, VCP payments, other [sic] benefits. In this way, “The Offer” payout is quickly recovered, and what remains is all savings to the company.”
Even before “The Offer,” Amazon has gone to great lengths to deter workers that include, but are not limited to: hiring contract workers who can't vote in a union election to walk around with "Vote No" pins; bombarding workers with anti-union propaganda online, in text messages, and in every physical space at work; convincing county officials to change traffic light patterns outside the Bessemer warehouse, undermining canvassing efforts by union organizers.
Lauren Kaori Gurley contributed reporting.