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Amazon Reportedly Has Pinkerton Agents Surveil Workers Who Try To Form Unions

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than a century ago, the titans of industry hired private agents to crack down on labor strikes and union organizers at steel mills and factories in the U.S. Those agents were called Pinkerton detectives. Now the giant of a new industry is using the same approach. A story from Vice magazine's Motherboard reports that leaked documents show that Amazon hired Pinkerton operatives in Europe to surveil workers. The story also reports that Amazon monitors workers who try to form unions or take part in protest movements. We need to note that Amazon is an NPR funder.

Lauren Kaori Gurley is the staff writer who broke this story. When I spoke with her earlier, I asked her to explain what these documents say about how Amazon keeps an eye on employees.

LAUREN KAORI GURLEY: It involves collecting data, it seems, from Facebook groups, from social media. In some cases in the case of the Pinkertons, there is a line in one of the documents that we've obtained that says that Pinkerton operatives were inserted into a warehouse in Wroclaw, Poland, to gather intelligence on what their warehouse workers were up to. They believe that some people were tinkering with the application interview process, so some people were sent in to figure out what was going on.

SHAPIRO: This leak focuses on Amazon's operations in Europe. How likely is it that the company is doing similar things in the U.S.?

GURLEY: So our source told us that they do the same thing in the U.S. They sort of create - they gather the same intelligence. But one difference is that unlike Europe, there are no Amazon unions in the U.S. No Amazon workers have unionized in the U.S. There have been several failed attempts. But we do know that they're tracking how many people are attending meetings, how many people are joining unions. So I imagine that in the U.S., they're tracking labor organizing activity but not union members yet.

SHAPIRO: We asked Amazon for comment, and they told us that they hire Pinkerton to secure shipments. And they said, quote, "We do not use our partners to gather intelligence on warehouse workers." Is that consistent with what these documents show?

GURLEY: No. So - not at all. The documents say Pinkerton operatives were inserted into an Amazon warehouse in Wroclaw, Poland, to investigate an allegation that warehouse workers were circumventing sort of the application process for applying to warehouse jobs, so I would say that it goes directly against what Amazon is saying. They indeed, at least in this one instance we know, if these documents are correct, that Amazon has used Pinkertons explicitly to spy on warehouse workers.

SHAPIRO: Amazon also told us that everything they do is fully legal. What does the law say about union organizing activities and surveilling workers?

GURLEY: Right. I think the laws are a lot - I mean, I'm not a lawyer, but I believe the laws are a lot stronger in Europe than they are in the United States. In the United States, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects workers' rights to join trade unions, to organize, to engage in concerted activities to improve their working conditions. Now, there are also lots of laws that make that difficult. So lots of companies around the United States - it's very common for them to hold anti-union campaigns when workers seek to organize. And it's sort of up to the NLRB, the national labor board. They determine whether that's legal or not.

SHAPIRO: This is the busiest shopping season right now in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Does surveillance change at this time of year?

GURLEY: Yes. So during what they call peak season - so it's the time between Black Friday and Christmas - they put out a series of reports called peak season reports detailing all sorts of risks to Amazon's operations. These are, like, lists of the protests that are scheduled, the number of people who are - you know, said they'd be attending them on Facebook, the location, the time. And the reason why they do this, I think, is because during the holidays, the workload at Amazon warehouses increases. Workplace injuries are the highest by far if you look at the data. And so this is typically a time when workers stage strikes, walkouts. So Amazon's very also concerned about protecting itself during this time. It's sort of the highest-stakes time.

SHAPIRO: That's Lauren Kaori Gurley, a staff writer for Vice's tech magazine Motherboard. Thank you for your time today.

GURLEY: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: And we also reached out to Pinkerton. We've had no response from them yet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.