As Amazon pushes to build more warehouses in the Coachella Valley and the rest of Southern California, leaked internal documents show it's planning to fight back against any worker unionizing efforts and hopes to turn local elected officials and nonprofits into allies, including through donations to the Palm Springs Unified School District Foundation.
The internal Amazon memo provides a stark look at the company’s carefully laid-out plans to grow its influence in California, improve its reputation through charity work and push back against “labor agitation” from the Teamsters and other groups.
The eight-page document — titled “community engagement plan” for 2024 — provides a rare glimpse into how one of America’s biggest companies executes on its public relations objectives and attempts to curtail reputational harm stemming from criticisms of its business. It also illustrates how Amazon aims to methodically court local politicians and community groups to push its interests in a region where it could be hampered by local moratoriums on warehouse development, and where it is facing resistance from environmental and labor activists.
The memo was leaked to the nonprofit labor organization Warehouse Worker Resource Center and posted online this week. The Associated Press independently verified its authenticity. When reached for comment, Amazon did not dispute the authenticity of the document. But it said in a prepared statement it is proud of its philanthropic efforts.
“Partnerships with community leaders and stakeholders help guide how Amazon gives back,” said Amazon spokesperson Jennifer Flagg. “Through employee volunteerism or our charitable donations, it is always Amazon’s intention to help support the communities where we work in a way that is most responsive to the needs of that community.”
Amazon's Coachella Valley plans
Among the Coachella Valley-focused aims laid out in the document: "focus on earning trust with the Mayor of Desert Hot Springs through a comprehensive deployment of CE (community engagement) support."
That comes as the company says it's planning a "middle-mile" center in Desert Hot Springs, where goods will be temporarily stored as part of its supply chain before going on to "fulfillment" centers elsewhere to be delivered to customers.
Mayor Scott Matas said he wasn't surprised by the leaked plans and imagined any major corporation seeks to cultivate relationships with local officials and groups. He said a regional Amazon official had earlier asked to meet with him and they talked about local issues where the company could donate to help, including food insecurity, homelessness and youth sports.
"I'm one of five councilmembers, and being the mayor, I guess I'm kind of (a) figurehead of that," Matas said. "They want to earn our trust as a council and build a large project within our community. And I understand that."
Matas said that if he decides to run for re-election next year — he has not announced his plans — he likely wouldn't accept any donations from Amazon, especially since one over $250 would force him to recuse himself from voting on any issues involving the company.
Another part of the Amazon memo says: "We will also strengthen relationships with organizations who can be vocal advocates for Amazon such as Palm Springs Unified School District Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Inland Empire, Spark of Love Toy Drive, Juneteenth Long Beach, and HRC of Orange County."
The director of the Palm Springs Unified foundation, Ellen Goodman, said she wasn't aware of the Amazon document or the strategies laid out in it. But she said in an email that "Amazon has made contributions in the past to support the foundation’s micro grants for classrooms and tennis shoes distribution" and that the foundation plans to apply for more funding from the company.
Fighting against unions
In the memo, Amazon says its top public-policy priority in Southern California is addressing “labor agitation that uses false narratives and incorrect information to affect public opinion and impact public policy.”
Earlier this year, the Teamsters unionized an Amazon-contracted delivery firm in the city of Palmdale and subsequently supported protests around company warehouses after Amazon refused to come to the bargaining table. Last year, dozens of Amazon workers at a company air hub in San Bernardino, a city about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, walked off the job to demand safety improvements and higher pay.
Those same issues were raised by workers at a company warehouse in New York City where employees voted to unionize with the Amazon Labor Union in 2022. The e-commerce giant has been challenging the union’s win for more than a year in a case that’s still being adjudicated by the National Labor Relations Board.
Challenges in Inland Empire
The Amazon memo also says the Seattle-based company faces “significant reputational challenges” in Southern California, where it’s “perceived to build facilities in predominantly communities of color and poverty, negatively impacting their health.”
The Inland Empire has seen a boom in warehouse development over the past few decades. But there’s also been a groundswell of local opposition to new warehouses, with multiple municipalities enacting moratoriums on developments.
In January, dozens of environmental and community groups sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom urging him to declare a one-to-two-year moratorium on new warehouses in the area, arguing a temporary pause was necessary to address the “gaps in current legislation” that allows for pollution and congestion.
In the memo outlining Amazon’s goals for next year, the company says it plans to “earn the trust” of community groups and nonprofits, such as the San Bernardino Valley College Foundation, Children’s Fund, and Feeding America, to push back against state bills “that will continue to threaten the region’s economy, and Amazon’s interests.” The two bills cited include state legislation that, if passed, would prohibit companies from building large warehouses within 1,000 feet of private homes, apartments, schools, daycares and other facilities.
The memo also says the company plans to “positively affect” legislative attempts to ban single-use plastic by “showcasing Amazon as a leader in sustainability and counter the voices of environmental activists against Amazon.”
It also details local politicians Amazon is engaging and says the company has “cultivated” Michael Vargas, the mayor of Perris, through pandemic-related “donations to support the region, touring him and his team, and ongoing engagement.” Vargas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Courting good press; payback for criticism
Media coverage is a top concern of Amazon. The document previews the company’s goals to generate positive news stories for itself through charitable campaigns, including a food drive hosted by the Los Angeles Food Bank where employees would drop off donations “in big media moments that are broadcasted/posted.” The memo suggested curating similar moments during a back-to-school donation event and a holiday toy drive, where drop-offs occur and Amazon executives, as well as groups who receive grants from the company, “speak about Amazon’s impact” to the media.
The company additionally says it won’t continue to support organizations that “did not result in measurable positive impact” on its brand and reputation and will stop funding groups that are antagonistic towards its interest. It noted it will stop donating to The Cheech, an art museum in Riverside, citing an incident this year where the center exhibited a local artist who depicted an Amazon facility on fire and gave an interview “expressing hostility” toward the company, the memo said.
In a section of the document titled “Dogs Not Barking,” the memo lists the three things Amazon will watch closely in the region next year: warehouse moratoriums, labor organizing among contracted delivery drivers, and community groups that are not accepting charitable donations. It says some elected leaders have been hesitant to accept political contributions from the company.
Sheheryar Kaoosji, the executive director of Warehouse Worker Resource Center, said in a statement that the organization works directly with Amazon warehouse workers in the region who consistently talk about low pay, high injury rates and other concerns.
“These are critical issues that impact the entire Inland Empire, but specifically the 45,000 people who work for Amazon here,” Kaoosji said. But, he said, the memo details Amazon’s strategy “to paper over these valid concerns with donations, media clippings and support for policy changes that either benefit Amazon or hurt their competitors.”
This article includes reporting from Associated Press reporter Haleluya Hadero and Desert Sun reporter Ani Gasparyan.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amazon memo shows PR, anti-union plans for growth in Palm Springs area