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Amazon Workers Across Europe Take On Jeff Bezos

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum and just over a year ago there was little union activity anywhere inside Amazon, the world`s largest e-commerce company. Yet last week across Europe Amazon was hit for the second time by coordinated industrial action.

Not only has successful strike action in Germany and Spain (supported by solidarity action in Poland) badly affected the ‘Amazon Prime’ sales discount events, but it has resulted in allegations of police violence against strikers in Spain. 80% of the Spanish workforce walked out and 6 of the 9 German ‘fulfilment centres’ were once again left in chaos as workers walked off the job. Polish workers then coordinated solidarity by organising not to cover work transferred from Germany by Amazon in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the strike.

This is not just a sudden outburst of action. In November last year coordinated strikes between German and Italian workers on the infamous peak shopping day `Black Friday,` led to the first ever written collective bargaining agreement between Amazon and any trade union in the world. The Italian agreement improved the pay and hours of shift workers and represented a breakthrough for European unions who are now tabling the same agreement across Europe.

In the UK the GMB have now submitted a formal recognition claim to Amazon in Rugeley - one of the 14 sites in which they aim to organise in Amazon`s largest European market. In France, the unions have mounted a number of localised protests over conditions in Amazon workplaces with some significant success.

There is plenty to protest about. Amazon employs over 538,000 workers and indirectly employs many more along its supply chains - delivery drivers included. Work conditions are appalling. Huge usage of zero hours contracts, anti-union activities, long shifts, wrist monitors, and work paces set by robots are all part of Amazon’s treatment of workers. Add to this insufficient breaks, direct and harsh supervision styles and most significant of all a widespread defiance of health and safety regulations and you can see why there’s a problem. In some work places the infamous ‘peegate’ scandal emerged where workers had insufficient time to use toilets and so were peeing into water bottles.

In the UK a health and safety survey of GMB members showed that 80% of its members claimed to be sick because of work. Using public information requests they also discovered that one Amazon workplace had recorded over 600 call outs for NHS ambulances for workers over a 3 year period. A nearby Tesco recorded 9 over a similar period. Exhaustion, poverty, ill health and constant worry about the hours and shifts you work are the lot of Amazon workers.

Amazon is essentially a company that still does its business mostly in the USA. This is where the business model of Amazon is at its most developed. In addition to the harsh employment conditions it deploys other weapons in its war for power in the economy. It rarely pays corporation tax. In 2017, according to USA today, it paid no Federal taxes at all. In Europe it channels all its tax liabilities where possible through the notional tax arrangements of the small kingdom of Luxembourg.

Yet politicians clamour and compete for its expansion into their back yard, trading off the welcome creation of large numbers of jobs (as they see it) against the more reprehensible impact of Amazon. This includes the destruction of local businesses, the impact on the communities of low wages and precarious work, the lack of tax revenue and the possible disruption caused by sudden increases in traffic and related activity. Most of all, they seek to expand into as many new areas of business as they can. The purchase of ’Whole Foods’ last year was a move to compete for the grocery business of Walmart.

To win globally, the unions have to win in the US, not just in Europe. Unions must think better, plan better and coordinate more. UNI Global Union is seeking to do that by bringing all these unions together to share information, coordinate campaigns and organise solidarity wherever possible.

Amazon is still expanding around the world, finding new business in China, India and Mexico. When Karl Marx wrote of “capitalism creating markets around the world by telegraph and steam engines,” he had identified the principle that Amazon lives by - expand or lose. The unions have embraced this factor and are seeking to globalise their activities.

Ultimately the best chance of success comes from workers choosing to resist by joining unions and organising. The Spanish workers who were attacked by the Police, the German workers who risk their work being moved to Poland, the US workers who live in fear of being caught trying to organise a union, the British workers peeing in bottles - they are the ones who will create better employment and safe jobs in this company. They have already created the world`s richest man Jeff Bezos. At an estimated value of $150 billion (also the richest man in history) he can definitely afford it. 

By Nigel Flanagan, Senior Organiser at UNI Global Union.