Corporate America loves to proclaim its love and support for "our veterans."The persistent problem of veteran suicide has provided big firms with an opportunity to demonstrate their concern about the health and well-being of former military personnel, including those they employ. Unfortunately, at companies like Amazon, this performative patriotism does not involve improving working conditions or changing any management practices that might actually make them better employers, even while they pledge to hire more employees with military backgrounds.
A recent report by Brown University’s Cost of War Project found “that four times as many men and women who have served in the U.S. military have died by suicide than were killed in post 9/11 wars.” Cost of War researchers estimate that the total suicide toll among veterans and service members during the past two decades is more than thirty thousand. According to a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than nonveterans, while female veterans are 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than civilian women.
When soldiers leave active duty, their employment status and job conditions—pay, benefits, and treatment by supervisors—can have a major impact on their emotional and financial stability. With this in mind, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation joined forces with the Trump Administration two years ago to promote a suicide reduction initiative called “Prevents.” Its objective was building “a public/private partnership to strengthen emotional well-being in the workplace.”
Major corporations were solicited to sign a “Hiring Our Heroes Challenge Pledge” and make a related commitment to “best practices for strengthening mental wellness and preventing suicide.” The latter pledge notes that their “employee populations,” including veterans, may have certain risk factors, such as “financial stress, emotional stress, and substance use and abuse.” To reduce these risk factors, the signatory firms agreed to “promote a safe, inclusive work environment and leverage employee resource groups” to “create communities of support.”
Among the first twenty-five “forward looking employers” to sign up was Amazon, along with equally anti-union firms like Walmart, Starbucks, Comcast, Sprint, and T-Mobile. The company founded by Jeff Bezos, the world’s second richest man, pledged to hire twenty-five thousand more veterans and military spouses by 2021. (Last year that goal, became 100,000 by 2024) These new hires would then be encouraged to join the company’s officially approved workplace-based “affinity group,” known as “Warriors@Amazon.” (Among this influx of veterans is retired General Keith Alexander, a multi-millionaire former director of the National Security Agency, who has become a well-compensated “warrior” on the Amazon board of directors!)
As coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders generated a huge increase in Amazon’s online order flow, shareholder value increased by nearly $500 billion, to more than $1.4 trillion. By mid-2020 Bezos’s personal net worth rose to nearly $190 billion. This enabled the Amazon founder to become an even bigger patron of a Super pac called the With Honor Fund. Its wealthy donors seek out centrist Democrats and conservative Republicans who served in the military and promise, if elected to Congress, to join “a cross partisan veterans caucus.” During the 2018 election cycle, Bezos gave $10 million to With Honor during the same week that Super pac critic Bernie Sanders introduced a bill in the Senate called the “Stop Bezos Act. “
The goal of Sanders legislation was to force Amazon to reimburse the federal government for the cost of public benefits, like Medicaid or food stamps, that thousands of its workers are eligible to collect because their pay is so low. Sanders’s attempt to hold the company accountable was not successful, in part because Congress already has too many members like the ones Bezos helps finance via With Honor. At a town hall meeting hosted by Sanders, Navy veteran Seth King, who quit Amazon after three months on the job, publicly questioned his former employer’s commitment to providing fair wages and “workplace wellness.”
He described Amazon’s employment model as “a revolving door of just bodies that they’re throwing at the floor.” Telling a now-familiar warehouse worker story, he recalled working long hours under the pressure of demanding productivity standards, with few chances to sit down or take a bathroom break. As King drove to work every day, it “was exhausting just thinking about having to come in and start another ten-hour shift, being on my feet the whole time.” At a company supposedly sensitive to risk factors for suicide, King felt like he “didn’t want to be alive anymore if that was the future that I had to look forward to. I was in the Navy for eight years, and there wasn’t a single day that I felt as miserable or isolated as I did at Amazon.”
Even other veterans hired to be warehouse managers have made similar unfavorable comparisons. One, an officer still active in the reserves, reported that his warehouse was understaffed and overheated due to insufficient air-conditioning. When mistakes occurred, he said, he’d usually get chewed out by one of his bosses. “I didn’t get treated as bad in the [military] in basic training,” he said. “You screw up—it’s a screaming, cussing, yelling tirade on the floor.” Like several other warehouse supervisors interviewed by cnet, this veteran faced pressure to leave the military because, he was told, a “manager wouldn’t be able to advance at the company if he continued to serve both the military and Amazon.” When queried about these alleged violations of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (serra)—which protects service members from job discrimination or denial of promotions due to their absence from work for military commitments—Amazon proclaimed its commitment “to supporting our military and veteran employees and providing opportunities for their long-term career growth and success.”
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An expose in the New York Times documented the degree to which Amazon actually “intentionally limits upward mobility for hourly workers.” One top executive torpedoed a proposal from Human Resources to “create more leadership roles for hourly employees, similar to non-commissioned officers in the military.” Instead, “guaranteed wage increases stopped after three years and Amazon provided incentives for low-skilled employees to leave.” Such policies reflected Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s belief that hourly workers who stayed too long at the company would become lazy, disgruntled, and entrenched, putting Amazon on what he called “a march to mediocrity.”
Pandemic Related Changes?
In response to mounting public criticism in 2020, Amazon highlighted its hiring of veterans who lost their jobs, at other firms, due to the pandemic. It also made some Covid-19 related workplace changes. Management announced what proved to be a temporary wage hike for warehouse workers, whose starting pay is $15 per hour. The company also modified its leave policy to permit employees with virus symptoms to stay home for up to two weeks with pay. Workers later contended that this policy was not fairly or consistently implemented.
By the 2020 holiday season, Amazon was acting like the pandemic was over, according to Courtenay Brown, an employee in New Jersey. Bezos, she noted, had “made $70 billion since March when the pandemic started,” but the company still “canceled the measly $2 bonus back in June.” Meanwhile, “Amazon calls us heroes in their commercials, they call us essential, but it feels like we are expendable.” Brown was among the Amazon workers who joined forces with Walmart employees in a national campaign called “Five to Survive.” As she explained, its five demands included “$5 per hour in essential pay, safety on the job, and real protections from retaliation if they speak out about working conditions or health hazards.”
Unfortunately, as former Amazon vice president Tim Bray pointed out in a New York Times op-ed piece, the company’s “productivity targets” continued to make the “already stressful work of those who sort, package, and deliver Amazon goods even worse.” According to Bray, only unionization will ensure better treatment of the company’s hourly workers, including the 4,000 veterans, military spouses, and part-time military personnel currently among them. One function of any labor organization with bargaining rights at Amazon, now or in the future, will be negotiating contract language and deploying workplace health and safety committees. Both are needed to help reduce the company’s high job injury rate, which is twice that of any warehousing rival. According to the labor-backed Strategic Organizing Center, about 40,000 Amazon employees were injured on the job just last year, a 20% increase over 2020. That amounts to 6.8 serious injuries for very 100 warehouse workers on its payroll.
But, as Amazon workers from Bessemer, Alabama, to Staten Island, New York, have discovered, one deterrent to joining an unapproved “affinity group”—like a union or its safety committee—is Amazon’s pervasive workplace surveillance. As the Open Markets Research Institute reported, the company “uses navigation software, item scanners, wristbands, thermal cameras, security cameras and recorded footage to surveil its workforce in warehouses and stores.” These tools are designed both to boost output and to closely monitor employee involvement in any workplace organizing activity.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, Amazon’s world-wide in-house spying operation has now deployed military veterans against other veterans, when the latter are part of the hourly workforce being closely monitored in the U.S.. The recent inspiring spike in Amazon organizing activity has led to an increase in its hiring of past employees of the Department of Defense, other national security agencies, and local law enforcement. In job postings for positions in Amazon’s Global Security Operations (GSO) and Global Intelligence Program (GIP), the company solicited applications from veterans able to keep its union-busting lawyers well informed about “sensitive topics that are highly confidential, including labor organizing threats against the company.” If hired, their role would be to “track funding and activities connected to corporate campaigns (internal and external) against Amazon, and provide sophisticated analysis on these topics.”
It’s not clear whether informing on fellow “Warriors@Amazon,” who work on the shop-floor, will also require some actual heavy lifting (while undercover) or just operating surveillance equipment and writing voluminous Stasi-style reports. Either way, these newly hired “heroes” will be adding little luster to whatever past military laurels they might have earned during U.S. government mis-adventures, at home or abroad.
Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early and Jasper Craven
(This article is adapted from Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs (Copyright Duke University Press, August, 2022). For more information about pre-ordering the book, see https://www.dukeupress.edu/our-veterans The authors can be contacted at Lsupport@aol.com.)