Are Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson Making a Propaganda Film for Amazon?
The “Jungle Cruise” co-stars are producing a new film for Amazon about Kate Warne and Pinkerton, a private security firm that Amazon recently hired to spy on their own workers.
In the latest case of Amazon’s extreme room illiteracy, the corporate overlords acquired a new film produced by Jungle Cruise co-stars Emily Blunt and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, based on the life and subterfuge of Kate Warne, the first female member of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Yes, the same private security firm that crushed late 19th and early 20th century labor movements, often violently, is back with a whole new feminist attitude and the backing of a remarkably successful union-busting megacorporation.
Well, the whole feminist thing might not be new—nor the Pinkertonian propaganda. This mass-market glorification of a purely capitalist and largely secretive organization has been a fundamental part of Pinkerton's continued existence. From founder Allan Pinkerton’s dime novels in its earliest, most clandestine epoch to its recent inclusion in TV shows like HBO’s 2004 epic Deadwood (where the vicious George Hearst threatened to deploy the Pinkertons to violently enforce Hearst’s pursuit of gold before the show was prematurely cancelled), the 2015 Canadian propaganda-fest The Pinkertons (which focused on their short stint working as for-profit abolitionists), and video games like Red Dead Redemption 2, which depicted their efforts to tame the lawless West through spectacular violence, the Pinkertons seem to relish in the publicizing of their exploits.
But in the wake of recent unearthed documents revealing how Amazon deployed the agency to spy on its warehouse workers and labor unions in Europe, the latest iteration of propaganda feels the most flagrant.
When asked about how the news hit her last week, Britney Gil, writer and producer of the Reaction podcast—which chronicles the ways right-wing groups and ideologues engage with progressive change in the social order—noted the historical call-and-response of Pinkerton propaganda. “It’s quite literally history repeating itself in a way that’s almost vulgar,” Gil tells The Daily Beast. The cheap novels were one thing, undoubtedly crucial to “distract from the deeply unpopular labor battles the Pinkertons were playing a huge role in,” she explains, but “the fact that this [film] is being produced by Amazon is wild to me… It’s almost insulting to the intelligence of average people in this country.”
Amazon’s enlisting of the Pinkerton Agency—now a subsidiary of Swedish monitoring and investigation group Securitas AB—in Poland, France, and Austria, was first reported by Vice last November and showcased an espionage group that had drastically changed the nature of its work in the 21st century. Instead of more direct action against strikers and labor movements, the use of Pinkerton operatives in the Wroclaw, Poland, warehouses was, at least ostensibly, to investigate allegations “that management coached job candidates on how to complete job interviews and possibly even conducted the process for them,” the report claims.
According to the report, Pinkerton spies found “no identifiable evidence of coaching on behalf of the agency recruiters was observed.” Other risk analysts would utilize LinkedIn to track “organized labor and union activity in France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—noting where organized labor groups are strongest and could influence Amazon workers.” Risk analysts were also found to create false social media accounts to spy on workers and report on worker’s environmental campaigns, possible drug trades, and warehouse theft.
To be clear, Amazon surveilled different labor movements and campaigns due to the mere possibility that their workers might join up and demand better working conditions. “Two other reports from late 2019 on future warehouse sites in Lower Saxony and Bavaria in Germany highlighted the presence of the labor union Verdi and the increasing presence of environmentalist groups, including Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, and Greta Thunberg’s youth-led environmentalist group Fridays for Future, as a threat, noting that Fridays For Future was ‘increasing their influence especially on young people and students.’”
But this wasn’t the first time Pinkerton would go after kids and unions with very little evidence of culpability.
Prior to the Progressive Era, Allan Pinkerton’s group focused their energies on breaking labor movements with violence and deception, loudly and quietly. In one of their more infamous acts of upheaval, during a peaceful 1886 labor strike at Haymarket Square in Chicago where demonstrators were protesting for an eight-hour work day, an unknown person threw dynamite into the crowd, with police and Pinkerton agents surrounding the area. In the ensuing trial, seven anarchists were charged for the explosion (though there was no evidence that they actually threw the explosive), four were sentenced to death (with two of their sentences being commuted to life in prison), with the other four defendants being pardoned by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, who questioned the Pinkerton narrative.
The Haymarket affair was just one of the hundreds of campaigns led by Pinkerton to squash strikes and quell labor movements. Just six years after the Haymarket fiasco, a gang of Pinkerton agents would engage in a 12-hour gun fight with striking workers at an Andrew Carnegie steel mill who refused to ratify a new union contract which boasted significantly lower wages than they’d negotiated. In response, Carnegie—through his agent Henry Frick—fired all 3,300 steel workers and sent 300 Pinkerton agents to occupy the enclave and violently break the spirits of the workers there.
With a burgeoning labor movement on the horizon, these acts signaled a shift in public perception. Seen as corporate attack dogs who would incur any amount of collateral damage in order to stop criminals—one famous instance saw the Pinkertons, who at the time were pursuing Jesse James and his gang, blow up his Missouri home, maiming his mother and killing his adolescent half-brother Frank (Jesse wasn’t even there)—the Pinkertons had to adjust to a time of general civility and evolving attitudes toward workers’ rights. So they began to move a lot quieter, utilizing agent provocateurs and literary propaganda—like the exploits of one Kate Warne—that could both stifle and subtly influence labor and workers’ movements from the inside.
They had a lot of practice with this sort of thing as Kate Warne, and many other Pinkerton agents, mastered the art of hiding in plain sight. The Warne story is one of intrigue. Much of her history isn’t really well known before she joined the agency. “She was said to be a holy, not ugly but not beautiful woman,” Gil says of Warne, “so she was able to insert herself into Confederate circles under the guise of being a Southern belle and there she would gather information about troop movements and numbers and would relay that information to Pinkerton.”
Warne became a sort of cult hero and central figure to what is called the “Baltimore Plot”—likely hatched by Allan Pinkerton himself—a highly glossy account of an assassination attempt against President Lincoln. “There isn’t a lot of great documentation of this outside of Pinkerton’s writings and he was well known to be an exaggerator,” Gil begins when asked about Warne, “but supposedly she got wind of an assassination attempt in Baltimore while keeping watch over Lincoln during a train ride—this is where the agency’s motto “We Never Sleep” supposedly comes from. When Lincoln was doing a tour before ending up at the White House, he was passing through Baltimore, Allan Pinkerton supposedly received the intel so instead of going to Baltimore, they changed trains, he passed through the city in the night, and skipped the stop altogether. It kind of hounded him his whole presidency; people called him a coward. In retrospect, it’s hard to say whether that was the right move or not.”
Warne became a fundamental part of Pinkerton’s expertly crafted image. “She was an icon for Allan Pinkerton, specifically. He really played her up as a person who played a really crucial role in the Civil War. She was a figure he returned to over and over again in his propaganda… detective work was a profoundly male and misogynist culture so for her doing that work, it was unheard of. It played a big role in the popular imagination of what spy work could be.”
In a moment where mass organizing within tech and media has swept the country, the Pinkertons are once again at the center of a propaganda campaign. “I don’t know if I’ve ever rolled my eyes back into my skull as hard as I did when I first read the headline of that movie,” labor organizer Emma Kinema told The Daily Beast with a chuckle. “It’s just the height of conservative identity politics where they’re like ‘It’s a woman, so it’s great’ but it’s a bloody, murderous organization that has destroyed lives and whole communities over its history. So it’s absolutely absurd to me.”
Kinema, who is the campaign lead organizing tech unions with the Communications Workers of America (disclosure: I helped organize a union effort alongside Emma while working with Medium earlier this year), feels the effort to distance the Pinkertons from their union-busting history and make them out to be a progressive organization is “just horrifying.” Labor union leaders have a very different idea of who the Pinkertons are. “When I think of the Pinkertons, I don’t think of a detective agency. No one does anymore. What I think about is miners being shot in the hills in Appalachia. I think about loggers with their mills being burned down and terrorized when they decided to organize in the Pacific Northwest. Those are the things that come to mind. Even if [Warne] was just a secretary, you know, let’s not have an interesting biopic about this person.”
“The narratives that women, people of color, and LGBTQIA people have developed for themselves as methods of liberation are being weaponized by the state, by police—you know, cops at pride—by corporations, to beat us back into submission," Gil pointed out, "it’s very damaging, I think. To see that at the same time Amazon is engaging in union-busting, to say, Oh look at this woman who paved the way for females in law enforcement, I find that very distasteful.”
In large part, Pinkerton had taken a back seat in terms of name recognition in the 21st century. The most publicity they received was their inclusion as villains in Red Dead Redemption 2, for which they sued game developers Rockstar and Take Two. The developers countersued and, according to a report from Game Informer, “insisted the historical nature of the game made the use of the Pinkertons fall into fair use.” Both sides would officially withdraw their claims in April of 2019.
A year earlier, the Pinkertons were called in to handle a telecommunications labor dispute in West Virginia at a company called Frontier Communications. Frontier hired the Pinkertons, and while strikes up until that point were largely nonviolent, during a strike, a scab employee—who many believe to be a part of the agency—pulled a gun on the demonstrators to intimidate them.
More and more though, tech companies have been hiring the Pinkertons to spy on their employees. A 2016 Guardian article referencing Facebook and Google as Pinkerton clients mentions the ways the group would “send investigators to coffee shops or restaurants near a company’s campus to eavesdrop on employees’ conversations,” making mention that folks like Mark Zuckerberg and others sought to “crush” employees who might leak information.
This, of course, comes at a particularly controversial period in Amazon’s history, as warehouse workers in Alabama, after seemingly losing their unionization votes by almost two-thirds, have appealed to the National Labor Relations Board because Amazon installed a mailbox just outside the office (the votes could only be submitted by mail) that many believed to be monitored by the company. Speaking with Truthout last April, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Director Joshua Brewster stated, “When you see this box, as you see, it’s right by the front door. Everything at Amazon is tracked. Everything is surveilled. So this idea that this massive box that’s 20 feet from the front door of Amazon isn’t being surveilled is ludicrous.”
This is one of the clearest instances of Amazon flaunting their own union-busting exploits. “It almost feels like they’re trying to rub it in workers’ faces,” Kinema remarks. “They know they’re cruel, ruthless and corporate, and want to squeeze every ounce of profit out of their workers and every community they exist in. They don’t even want to hide that anymore; they’re owning it now.”
It’s hard to know whether stars like Emily Blunt or Dwayne Johnson are even privy to the allegations against Amazon, much less if they actually care. The Daily Beast reached out for comment to their representatives (and Amazon) for this piece but received no response. It does, however, speak to just how entrenched shady practices are to our public understanding of major corporations. Managers at Amazon frequently referenced how their drivers had to pee in water bottles in order to reach their daily quotas—a fact that we just learned about in March. “Amazon is evil, we make jokes about it, but we all still shop there,” Gil says.