The stunning vote by Amazon warehouse workers earlier this month to form a union at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, has invited fresh scrutiny of the e-commerce giant’s for-hire union busters, as well as the groups and politicians that do business with them.
But there is another category of organization that has largely evaded such negative publicity: groups that help launder the image of Amazon, by presenting the company as a fair and enlightened employer. Perhaps the worst offender in this category is Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which describes itself as “the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization.”
HRC has been criticized in the past for taking pro-corporate positions and undermining social justice causes — for example, supporting a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007 that would have excluded key workplace protections for transgender people. More recently, the organization has fallen under scrutiny for its close ties to the disgraced administration of former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In its “Corporate Equality Index 2022,” released in January, HRC said that Amazon is among the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality.” HRC gave Amazon a score of 100%, alongside other major companies like Walmart and Chevron. This marks the fifth year in a row that the company has received a flawless equality score.
HRC’s report gives few details about why, exactly, Amazon received this rating, but the organization said in a statement, “To earn top ratings, these employers took concrete steps to establish and implement comprehensive policies, benefits and practices that ensure greater equity for LGBTQ+ workers and their families.”
Amazon, it turns out, is a donor to HRC. The e-commerce giant is listed as a “platinum partner” on HRC’s website, and is among those companies thanked for their “generous support of the work of the Human Rights Campaign.” It is not immediately clear how much money platinum partners donate to HRC, but platinum is the highest level of donor listed on the organization’s website. HRC did not return a request for comment about whether Amazon’s donations influenced the company’s rating.
Amazon has used its “perfect score” for promotional purposes. A company statement released in January is titled, “Amazon earns perfect score for LGBTQ-supportive workplaces,” and vaunts the company’s supposed pro-LGBTQ credentials.
In the statement, Amazon highlights its “affinity group,” which is called “glamazon.” It states, “There are now 60 active glamazon chapters around the world that work with Amazon’s People Experience and Technology Solutions and business teams to create an inclusive workplace, host hundreds of community events, and celebrate Pride annually.” (This is not the first time Amazon has advertised its HRC score in promotional materials.)
But Justine Medina, a queer worker at the JFK8 warehouse, says the company’s vicious union busting tactics, including holding captive audience meetings and arresting organizers, are “absolutely incompatible with LGBTQ protections and a good work environment and safety.”
“Unions are one of the only ways workers can stand up and get their rights,” says Medina, an active organizer in the successful union campaign that was led by Amazon Labor Union (ALU). “Union busting hinders the rights of the most oppressed, because unions are how oppressed workers come together and secure their rights.”
There is evidence to back this up. In 2020, the UCLA Labor Center published the results of a survey of 1,004 United Food and Commercial Workers members in the United States and Canada. The study found that “three-quarters of survey participants said their local union takes concrete actions to support LGBTQ workers and 70% said LGBTQ workers are protected by their union contracts,” according to a summary.
Amazon workers say LGBTQ employees need a union for a reason: The company has faced a range of allegations of discrimination and poor working conditions from its LGBTQ workers. A May 2021 survey from Glassdoor, which allows for anonymous reviews of employers, found that LGBTQ employees are “less satisfied” at Amazon than their non-LGBTQ coworkers. Among the major companies named in the report, Amazon was one of the lower-ranked.
In 2017, a transgender woman and her husband sued Amazon, alleging a climate of harassment, slurs, discrimination and physical threats at a Kentucky warehouse. When they complained to management, the couple charged, they faced retaliation instead of support. (Amazon settled the case in 2019, and the details of the agreement were not disclosed, while the company denied wrongdoing.)
And in 2020, a transgender man at a warehouse in New Jersey filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Amazon, charging that, after telling his boss that he was pregnant, he was denied a promotion, placed on leave and denied pregnancy accommodations. (The case is still pending.)
Complaints extend up the chain of command, with LGBTQ managers and corporate employees also saying they’ve faced a climate of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, from New York to Washington. A former executive in Amazon’s web services cloud-computing business says she was fired in retaliation for pursuing a lawsuit against a manager for homophobic comments he allegedly made. The list goes on.
The general workplace conditions that pushed employees to unionize Amazon in the first place — low wages, inadequate breaks, surveillance and lack of safety protections — also, of course, impact LGBTQ workers. The best way to achieve equality, workers have argued, is to build the collective power of workers to oppose workplace injustice. “Amazon doesn’t treat us like real human beings; we’re treated just like machines,” Brima Sylla, a worker and organizer in the union campaign at the JFK8 warehouse, told Jacobin in a recent interview.
LGBTQ people comprise part of the workforce demanding better conditions. Michael Aguilar used to work at JFK8, and now is at the neighboring LDJ5 warehouse, where ALU is slated to hold a union election later this month. According to Aguilar, anti-queer discrimination is a problem at both warehouses — a charge Medina corroborates. “This building [LDJ5] has a higher percentage of queer people. There are a lot of trans people and a lot of lesbians and gays. The stories I’ve heard already are disgusting.”
Thanks to the extraordinary effort of Amazon workers to name and expose the actions of union busters, they’ve helped make association with them politically toxic, and even forced one, the research and public relations firm Global Strategy Group, to issue an apology on April 11, which states: “While there have been factual inaccuracies in recent reports about our work for Amazon, being involved in any way was a mistake. We are deeply sorry, and we have resigned that work.”
According to Medina, HRC’s “absurd” flattery of Amazon also deserves attention. “It’s indicative of the way these major corporations buy themselves publicity through back channels to make themselves look more legitimate.”
Update: After publication of this article, Kelly Nantel, a spokesperson for Amazon, sent the following statement to In These Times: “At Amazon, we believe that the rights of LGBTQ+ people must be protected. We stand together with the LGBTQ+ community, were early and strong supporters of marriage equality, and are working at the U.S. federal and state level on legislation, including supporting passage of the Equality Act. We also work hard to foster an inclusive work environment, including providing resources and benefits for LGBTQ+ employees.”
Maggie Duffy contributed research to this article.