Leaked Amazon memo shows efforts to shape public opinion on warehouses, critics say – Orange County Register

Inland Empire lawmakers and a warehouse worker advocacy group are condemning what the group says is a leaked memo that details Amazon’s efforts to buy influence through charitable donations and oppose legislation deemed hostile to the global retailer’s interests.

The eight-page memo also reveals Amazon’s plans to no longer donate to the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum over a display of artwork showing an Amazon facility ablaze.

And it describes Perris’ mayor as “an influential elected leader that we have cultivated” while noting reluctance by some local politicians to accept Amazon’s campaign donations.

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The Ontario-based Warehouse Worker Resource Center, which seeks to improve warehouse working conditions, released the memo, which it says came from a source it can’t publicly reveal. The Southern California News Group was unable to independently confirm the memo’s authenticity.

“In Amazon’s leaked memo, they detail a strategy to paper over these valid concerns with donations, media clippings and support for policy changes that either benefit Amazon or hurt their competitors,” center Executive Director Sheheryar Kaoosji said in a Tuesday, Dec. 5, news release.

“Amazon sees our community as nothing more than warehouses and bodies to staff those warehouses. It’s a paper thin façade and they should invest just as much time into actually addressing working conditions, pay and the extreme environmental cost to Southern California and the people here.”

An Amazon spokesperson said Tuesday that the center’s description of the memo “is a blatant mischaracterization of Amazon’s work, and in fact, Amazon is proud to be engaged philanthropically in communities across the country.”

“Partnerships with community leaders and stakeholders help guide how Amazon gives back,” the spokesperson, Jennifer Flagg, said via email. She did not say whether the memo is authentic.

Flagg added: “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.”

In an Inland Empire that’s become a hub for the logistics industry, Amazon stands out as a major player. The online retailer employed 162,000 Californians as of January 2023, many of them in fulfillment centers in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Logistics is a major economic driver for a region lacking the highly educated workforce needed to attract high-paying jobs in industries such as medicine and technology. But critics said the Inland Empire pays the price for being America’s shopping cart, from low-paying jobs in sweltering warehouses to toxic truck emissions that shorten lifespans and disproportionately affect communities of color.

The unsigned memo outlines a “community engagement plan” to “to support Amazon’s operations and physical retail businesses in Southern California.”

It describes using charitable donations, including a holiday toy drive and donations to anti-hunger efforts, to bolster Amazon’s image while cultivating good press by pitching Amazon-friendly stories noting the company’s work in the community and strengthening ties with nonprofit groups “who can be vocal advocates for Amazon.”

“There are currently not enough Amazonians serving on prominent boards in Southern California,” the memo adds.

Under the heading “What Will We Stop Doing in 2024,” the memo states: “We will not fund organizations that have positioned themselves antagonistically toward our interests.”

“For example, in 2022 and 2023 we donated to The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside. In 2023, the Cheech Center exhibited a local artist who depicted an Amazon facility on fire, and the artist then gave an interview expressing hostility towards Amazon. We will not donate to The Cheech.”

In March, the Southern California News Group published an interview with the artist behind “Burn Them All Down,” which was on display at The Cheech.

“Toni Sanchez’s print has a stylized Amazon warehouse in flames depicted in triplicate,” columnist David Allen wrote. “Around each picture is the same message, also in triplicate. ‘Burn Them All Down.’”

Artist Toni Sanchez stands by her artwork, "Burn Them All Down," at The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum in February 2023. According to what an advocacy group says is a leaked internal Amazon memo, Amazon decided to no longer donate to The Cheech in response to the museum's display of Sanchez's work. (File photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Artist Toni Sanchez stands by her artwork, “Burn Them All Down,” at The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum in February 2023. According to what an advocacy group says is a leaked internal Amazon memo, Amazon decided to no longer donate to The Cheech in response to the museum’s display of Sanchez’s work. (File photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

In an emailed statement, Drew Oberjuerge, the Riverside Art Museum’s executive director, wrote: “This is the first time we are learning of any concerns Amazon has had with The Cheech for an artwork in our community gallery, and to date, they have not communicated with us.”

Amazon supported The Cheech’s inaugural gala with a $5,000 in 2022 and “an unsolicited duplicate $5,000 payment” was sent a year later, Oberjuerge said.

“Neither payment was designated for an exhibition and the company has not communicated any questions or concerns about an artwork or requested the return of its donations,” she added.

“At The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture of the Riverside Art Museum, we invite all to support our mission, which includes presenting thought-provoking exhibitions. We believe in supporting artists and curators who challenge, surprise, delight, annoy and anger. It’s through this dialogue we better understand our shared experience.”

The memo also appears to describe Perris Mayor Michael Vargas — referred to in the memo as “Marty” — as “an influential elected leader that we have cultivated through (personal protective equipment) donations to support the region, touring him and his team, and ongoing engagement. He also influences the governing body of (Amazon’s San Bernardino air hub).”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon donated 600 COVID-19 testing kits and six pallets of disinfectant wipes to Perris, city spokesperson Stephen Hale said via email.

In an emailed statement, Vargas said: “I vehemently oppose claims that I have been ‘cultivated’ by Amazon through PPE donations and have been courted as an influential governing member of (the San Bernardino air hub), which is not in my jurisdiction.”

“My relationship with Amazon is no different than any other business within the City of Perris, and in no way am I being used to influence legislation or provide preferential treatment to large scale businesses,” Vargas said.

“We are one of several cities with Amazon fulfillment centers and this document aims to paint myself and the City of Perris as an example of a manipulated municipality for future development.”

Under the heading “Dogs Not Barking,” the memo notes a reluctance from some unnamed elected leaders “to accept directly Amazon’s political contributions. Similarly, I learned of an effort by labor to discourage a local significant non-profit to not accept our charitable contribution.”

The memo cites Amazon’s efforts to oppose legislation by Assemblymembers Eloise Reyes, D-Colton, and James Ramos, D-Highland, to require distance buffers between new warehouses and homes, schools and other sensitive uses.

Reyes “continues to advocate (a) warehouse moratorium, and environmental legislation that would be detrimental to Amazon’s interests,” the memo read.

In a news release, Reyes said being mentioned in the memo is “a badge of honor for being recognized for standing up for both environmental justice and workers.”

Reyes said the memo “reveals Amazon’s strategy of funneling funds to non-profit groups to oppose crucial legislation protecting our communities from the impact of warehouses and hindering labor organizing.”

She added: “It’s disheartening to see Amazon by passing direct community engagement and the requested community protections to instead (prioritize) financial incentives to advance their business objective.”

Ramos also referenced the memo in a Tuesday news release describing revisions to his warehouse buffer bill.

“It is crucial that we work toward a (compromise) in the Inland Empire to ensure we protect local jobs and address environmental concerns — especially after learning today of an active effort by Amazon to halt a balanced approach to this issue,” he said in the release.

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