April 2015 All Hands, “Letter to Matt”

Matt is an excellent public speaker. I have always enjoyed listening to him address employees at All Hands meetings, regardless of subject matter. He is composed, well prepared, knowledgeable about every aspect of the company, large or small, and fields questions with fluidity. It is hard to throw him a curve ball. Personally, he is disarming–professional, amiable, attentive.

I had never spoken with Matt personally before the April 1, 2015 all hands meeting. I had not gone into that meeting intending to speak with him, but something came up in the meeting that compelled me to do so.

I wasn’t taking any notes or documenting anything at the time, so I don’t remember any of the minutes from that meeting. It was, no doubt, standard fare. But towards the end of the meeting, Matt presented a short PowerPoint regarding Amazon’s stance on unions. I believe it was accompanied by some stock photos or videos of Amazon workers happily doing their jobs, and some discussion about how unions are contrary to the company’s production objectives. He ended the short presentation with something like–It’s not that we’re against unions, we just don’t believe they fit in well with our business model.

Now, I had just discovered the National Labor Relations Board Agreement, and I was fairly familiar with its language. I was astonished by Matt’s presentation. It made me think three things: the company has really big balls, the company is willing to walk a very fine line between legal and illegal activities, the company is willing to thumb its nose at the National Labor Relations Board.

Matt didn’t write this presentation. It was undoubtedly scripted in Seattle. I might have imagined it, but I thought I noted an almost imperceptible faltering in his steadfast manner during the speech, as if he understood, as well as I did, the significance of what he was saying.

There was only one other time that I thought I noticed a similar hesitation from Matt. That was in his office, when I said to him, “It seems like Amazon spends a lot of resources manipulating employees rather than dealing with them honestly and directly.”

When Matt was giving his it’s not that we’re against unions speech, I decided to speak with him after the meeting, if possible. After the meeting, still in the large west breakroom, he appeared to be free, so I walked up to him. He easily turned and focused his attention towards me, as he does with any employee who attempts to engage him. I hadn’t thought about what I would say, but I said this: “What’s the turnover rate here?” He said, “We generally don’t discuss that.” We spoke for a few minutes. I told him, “People are miserable here.” He asked, “Why are you here?” Now, I don’t believe the question “Why are you here?” is ever an appropriate response to a worker’s grievance, but in Matt’s defense, I was putting him on the spot pretty heavily, and he remained professional and friendly. The answer I gave was: “Well, the obvious answer is, I have to eat. But, also, I haven’t given up on Amazon.”

Matt’s non-anti-anti-union speech directed to a captive audience at a mandatory All Hands meeting in April 2015 was the last vestige of the thick-headed, old anti-union message–clumsy, overt. The company has gotten much smarter, hired some occupational psychologists, changed to a psychological approach, revamped the whole program: Befriend workers with rhetoric and psychological manipulation. Gauge their mood with discreet daily psychological testing and intensive worker data analysis. Dominate dialogue. Minimize dissension. It wants to say–You’re important to us, and you’re proud to be here. You’re an important part of the team.

Matt agreed to meet with me to discuss the issues we had touched on. I asked him if I could have a few weeks because I wanted to consolidate my concerns in written form. He said to make an appointment with his assistant in three weeks. I began writing “Letter to Matt.” I had originally intended that document to be a kind of union manifesto, but I thought better of it and changed the tone for a number of reasons: I have to eat. The company appeared to be making some changes. A union run would be a suicide mission. I thought I might even get a job offer out of it.

I made the appointment and met with Matt in his office, April 30th, 2015. Mostly, at that point, I just wanted to hand him the document. We had an interesting conversation. Matt, more than any manager, has been willing to speak with me a little more openly about the challenges the company and the workers face together, but, as much as I like him, he has a script, too. And for Matt, varying far from that script would change the very nature of his position with the company.

Two weeks later, we received a raise for the exact amount I had suggested, bringing starting wage from eleven up to twelve dollars per hour. (I can’t take any credit for this. It had obviously been in the works already, but I believe the company saw the same problems I was seeing: a terrible reputation as an employer in the community and ridiculously high turnover [even by Amazon standards] was making it difficult to bring in enough employees to maintain operations.) The timing of this raise is significant. SDF8 usually makes its “annual wage survey” and any adjustments in the fall. In the fall of 2015, SDF8 made no mention of its “annual wage survey” or adjustment, other than to point to the raise employees received in June. So, this was not an extra raise, but an early raise. I believed, and many new and seasoned employees repeated the sentiment, that it would have been good for labor relations had the company offered another small raise in the fall.

Matt later remarked, “Your paper was spot on.” I met with him privately two more times in his office. I never got a specific job offer. We had some discussion of that, and I think Matt and some HR managers were trying to accommodate me, but as I mentioned above, my focus was changing, because the programs the company was implementing seemed to be designed, not to change actual policies, but to change the perception of those policies, both internally and externally. The last thing Matt said to me when I saw him on the production floor, shortly before he moved to his new position in Ohio, was, “You should come by my office, and we’ll talk about where you want to be at Amazon.” I never did. And when the Learning Department Senior Operations Manager, who knows I have an English degree, recently asked me, “Why didn’t you apply for the open Learning Coordinator position?” (I was up on the mezzanine packing–transferred from pick for the day. Mezz-pack is a quieter pack area than AFE where each packer has his own separate workstation.) I said, “Look around at all the sad faces.” He acknowledged this, and told me he had seen a young woman lying down on the floor of her workstation earlier that day. I said, “I don’t want to perpetuate this. I want to fight this.”