POLITICS
05/04/2021 19:06 BST | Updated 05/04/2021 19:20 BST

Jay Carney, Biden's Former Spokesman, Now Battling Unions As Amazon's Top PR Guy

The awkwardness shows how much the political grounds have shifted when it comes to the world's largest online retailer.

As he rolled out his plan to revitalize American infrastructure on Thursday, President Joe Biden deployed a bit of rhetoric common to Democratic politicians across the ideological spectrum, slamming internet giant Amazon by name for using “various loopholes so they’d pay not a single solitary penny in federal income tax.” 

Other politicians who’ve said as much have been met by fierce pushback from Amazon’s communications team, led by Jay Carney, a member of owner Jeff Bezos’ inner circle. The same day, Carney chastised Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, alleging she had her facts wrong for saying almost the exact same thing. 

“With great respect, Senator @ewarren, this isn’t correct about Amazon’s tax payments,” Carney wrote on Twitter. “But changing the law is certainly more productive than faulting companies for following it-and far better than threatening to break up American companies so they can’t criticize elected leaders.”

Biden’s bit of rhetoric saw a much gentler pushback: a quibble with the use of the term “loophole,” a reminder that the tax credit Amazon uses has proven bipartisan popularity. Carney’s tweet notably didn’t mention Biden by name. 

Part of the reason for the disparity? Carney isn’t just any corporate flack. He used to be Biden’s spokesman.

Biden has expressed solidarity with the workers at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, tacitly endorsing the most closely watched union election in decades. Over the course of the battle over that union, Amazon’s public relations machine ― with Carney at the head ― has kicked into high gear and become increasingly combative.

Carney standing across from other prominent Democrats in the Amazon fight is more than political awkwardness. It shows how the party has shifted in its view toward Amazon and big tech between the Obama years and the Biden years, leaving Carney defending a company that many Democrats now see as a monopoly bullying workers into poor conditions and smaller companies out of business.

While Obama touted unions as a bedrock of the middle class, the former president did not have harsh words for Amazon. To the contrary, Obama visited an Amazon warehouse in Tennessee as part of a “middle class” jobs tour in 2013. Such a promotional stop by a leading Democrat would be much harder to fathom today.

Carney left his longtime job as a journalist with Time magazine in 2008 to become Biden’s first communications director as vice president and then became President Barack Obama’s press secretary. Many of Biden’s closest allies, including White House chief of staff Ron Klain and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, are his former co-workers. Carney joined Amazon in 2015. 

He’s still a Biden fan. On Twitter, his pinned tweet is a picture of himself with a Biden-Harris sign a few days after the 2020 election. In his background photo, Biden has his arm around him. He also frequently tweets out praise for the new administration.

“I strongly support President Biden and believe he and his team have been doing an excellent job in these first months while managing multiple challenges,” Carney told HuffPost in a statement, his only on-the-record response to questions.

A White House official said Carney had not reached out about his work with Amazon.

Reflecting on the awkwardness of the current situation, HuffPost reached out to a number of Carney’s former colleagues. None of them would comment for this piece. The union seeking to represent the Alabama workers, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, also declined to comment.

Carney’s jump to Amazon in 2015 bothered plenty of progressives and revolving-door watchdogs at the time, but it would draw even more criticism today, with Amazon the subject of antitrust and labor hearings in Washington.

Amazon has pulled out all the stops to prevent workers at an Alabama warehouse from joining a union, even hiring pricey “union avoidance” consultants. The company’s anti-union campaign drew a historic, if implicit, rebuke from Biden in a Feb. 28 speech. He didn’t mention Amazon explicitly, but Biden condemned employers who try to pressure workers not to organize, while referencing a union vote in Alabama. 

Since then, the company has taken an increasingly defensive tone with high-profile critics who have supported the workers.

Carney tangled with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) last Tuesday, after the Vermont senator said the Alabama workers were “sick and tired of being treated like robots.” Sanders had met personally with several workers in Birmingham the previous week. 

“With all due respect, Senator @BernieSanders, you’re wrong on this. We treat our employees with dignity and respect,” Carney retorted. 

Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, criticized Carney for managing Amazon’s anti-union public relations efforts for months while rarely being quoted on the record.

“You do not see the name Jay Carney in any of these stories,” Shakir said. “Why is he slinking away from one of the biggest political stories Amazon has been involved in?”

More Perfect Union, a progressive media outlet Shakir co-founded, released a video montage of Carney repeatedly proclaiming the Obama administration’s support for collective bargaining rights. Mike Casca, Sanders’ spokesperson, has also repeatedly highlighted Carney’s role in shaping Amazon’s response. 

(Sanders himself has been friendly to Carney in the past, calling to thank him after Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15.)

Amazon’s communications team also tussled with Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan. After Pocan alleged that Amazon workers have so little break time that they urinated in bottles, Amazon’s PR twitter account asked him if he really believed such nonsense. Soon harried Amazon workers were sharing photos of pee bottles with the media. Amazon later acknowledged the bathroom problem among its delivery drivers, while calling it an industrywide issue.

Amazon’s workplace problems have even made it onto the Senate floor, after Sanders, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, invited Alabama Amazon worker Jennifer Bates to testify on why employees like her need a union. Bates ripped into the company in her March 17 appearance via Zoom.

As the company’s labor battles heat up, Carney’s perch at Amazon requires him to push back against vocal workers whom Democrats are now eager to rally around.

Former Amazon worker Chris Smalls said he is still bothered when he sees Carney defending the company. Amazon set off a controversy last year when it fired Smalls from its Staten Island warehouse shortly after he organized a lunch-hour walkout over safety concerns. The company said Smalls had violated social distancing and quarantine rules. On Twitter, Carney alleged that Smalls “knowingly put our team at risk” ― a charge Smalls denies.

Vice later published leaked notes from a strategy session in which Amazon executives hatched a plan to deal with Smalls, calling him “not smart, or articulate.”

“I still think about him strategizing that smear campaign along with the rest of them,” Smalls told HuffPost. “It still bothers me.”

Smalls later filed a lawsuit against Amazon alleging unsafe working conditions during the pandemic.

“They owe these workers a lot more than tweets,” he said.