Study: Amazon Uses Power of Police to Subdue Workers and Enforce Obedience
Tuesday, Feb 22, 2022

BESSEMER, A.L. (February 22, 2022) – Amazon is using local police departments and private security contractors to create a prison-like work environment at its facilities in Bessemer, Alabama and other predominantly Black cities across the South, according to a new report by researchers at Rutgers University, Michigan State University, and The Roosevelt Institute. The preliminary findings of the ongoing, multi-disciplinary study suggest the company has “militarized” its human resources functions and created an organizational culture of “near-carceral obedience” at its facilities in communities of color.

“The Bessemer, Alabama case study uncovers a system of worker control fueled by infantilization, constant surveillance and near-carceral expectation of obedience,” said Tamara Lee, a Rutgers University Assistant Professor and co-author of the report. “When we view this data with a racial lens, what emerges is a portrait of Amazon as a modern plantation and company town that uses off-duty police, private security and internal technology that creates the impression of a corporate police state. These workplace policies, combined with evidence of racialization and tokenization of workers of color and other vulnerable identity groups, triggers the collective histories and unique oppressions of Black workers, heightened by the legacies of policing in the southern Black Belt.”

The research indicates Amazon’s connection with local law enforcement creates what researchers define as a “corporate police state, making it difficult for workers and others to discern the scope of Amazon’s power in relation to the state” and brings a strong racial lens to Amazon’s policing practices and intimidation of its workers. 

“As one of the largest employers in the US and worldwide, Amazon has created hyper-surveilled workplaces that are under constant presence of the police or other private security officers,” said Michigan State University Associate Professor Maite Tapia. “In places like Bessemer, Alabama, where the majority of the workforce is Black, the workers have compared their workplace to a plantation and told us they felt like slaves. It shows the unchecked power Amazon has on workers and their communities.”

The report is the result of a multi-method study, involving qualitative interviews with union organizers, current and former Amazon workers, and community organizers. Researchers analyzed an array of data, including documents from the National Labor Relations Board, documents made available through Freedom of Information Act requests, and supplemented with publicly available data. 

“As of now, our quantitative research indicates that Amazon is more likely to engage police on an off-duty basis in the Southern Black belt, particularly in areas with a generally high police presence per capita,” said Tapia.

Initial findings include: 

  • Amazon’s engagement with local police helps subdue workers and has amounted to a “militarization” of human resource functions.
  • Amazon’s created corporate police states. Locating Amazon facilities in economically deprived areas, the company is creating modern-day company towns, which includes developing tight-knit relationships with local police, postal services, and others within the local and state governments.
  • Interviewees described to researchers a racialization of employment relations, including the intentional targeting and tokenization of marginalized racial and ethnic groups via workplace policies and programming. 
  • Public records indicate Amazon engages police on an off-duty basis throughout the country, but engagement is significantly more prevalent in Amazon fulfillment centers located in the Southern “Black belt.”
  • Of those Amazon fulfillment centers engaging local police in an off-duty capacity, those located in areas with a higher percentage of Black residents are more likely to engage police for security. 

“Amazon, like most large corporations, has a business model designed to squeeze workers and they will continue to attack unionization efforts unless policymakers strengthen labor protections,” said Roosevelt Institute Deputy Director Alí Bustamante. 

Research continues and a full report will be available in 2022, highlighting the impact these practices have beyond Bessemer, as researchers seek to determine whether racialized employment dynamics are a southern strategy, or used across other regions and workforces. 

“The data analysis conducted so far shows that Amazon’s off-duty engagement with police is a national phenomenon, but one that takes a particularly intense form in the Southern region,” said Sanjay Pinto, a Fellow at the Worker Institute at Cornell University and the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers. “Our ongoing research will seek to unravel both the Southern story and the broader scope of Amazon’s policing power.” 

"Our quantitative data suggests that Amazon is more likely to engage off-duty police at its facilities in the southern United States, within the region historically known as the Black belt,” said Lee. “As we continue to gather qualitative data nationwide, we will be looking to see how this type of public-private militarization of security impacts all workers but may be more oppressive for certain marginalized groups. At any location in which Amazon has formal agreements with local police departments, I think it raises important questions about the corporate use of public law enforcement equipment and personnel, and other public subsidies, for the purposes of worker control.”

The ongoing research is led by researchers at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations and Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, alongside support from Jobs With Justice Education Fund and Open Society Foundations.

The research team can be made available for interviews upon request.

Press Contact: 

Joel Mendelson
Jobs With Justice

Steve Flamisch
Rutgers University