By Casper Gelderblom, for Unionist.com
In July of this year, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos became the richest man in modern history. While his fortune now exceeds $150 billion, Amazon employees face low wages, brutal workloads, inability to take time off and, crucially, union busting. The month Bezos became the world’s richest man, however, was also the month that thousands of Amazon workers in different European countries jointly stood up against him through strikes and slowdowns. As a result, this year’s Amazon Prime Day (July 16) set a new record—an unprecedented level of protesting.
The July protests that took place in Spain, Germany and Poland were not the first of their kind in Europe. The first-ever strikes against Amazon were waged by German workers as early as 2013. Although these strikes resulted in regular raises, Amazon refused to codify the slightly improved working conditions in collective bargaining agreements. Moreover, the company’s 2015 expansion into Poland, where labor laws are relatively lax and unions’ rights limited, threatened to undermine the effectiveness of future strikes in Germany. To prevent Amazon’s divide and conquer strategy from succeeding, German and Polish activists have since met in a number of cross-border meetings to coordinate their efforts.
Such transnational cooperation, in various cases facilitated by the global labor federation UNI, has already played an important role in the organization of strike action elsewhere in Europe. In November 2017, striking Amazon workers in Italy were joined by members of the German services union Verdi for a two-day work stoppage. The effectiveness of cross-border solidarity became clear soon after, when Italian unions successfully negotiated wage increases and worktime protections through Amazon’s first-ever collective bargaining agreement. Another example of transnational coordination between Amazon employees is the activist platform Amazing Workers, which brings together Amazon workers from different European countries under the slogan “united across borders,” to discuss strategies. Then, this year on April 24, Amazing Workers organized a rally in Berlin to protest Bezos’ reception of the Axel Springer Award, which lauded the CEO’s “visionary entrepreneurship.”
The European strike in July had its roots in Spain, where a group of Amazon workers called for a national strike to “gain back a collective agreement that enshrines our historical rights and sets better working conditions, as we deserve.” On March 21 and 22, according to the majority union for Amazon workers at the national level (the Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras), more than 95% of Spanish Amazon workers supported the strike. Amazon reportedly responded to the strike with reprisals, and by firing a number of temporary workers. While the Spanish workers were not easily intimidated and have since continued to pressure Amazon, they also recognized that the company would most likely employ its operations in other parts of Europe to counter the effect of strikes and protests in Spain. Consequently, a group of Madrid-based workers issued a statement positing that European Amazon employees’ could improve their working conditions only “if we struggle together.” At the same time, they argued, action at the European level was the only way to encourage and help workers in Amazon centers without union representation to organize. To realize the potential of joining forces across borders, the group therefore called for a Europe-wide strike in July under the name “Amazon en Lucha.” In Germany, their call was met by approximately 2,400 workers at six of Amazon’s fulfillment centers in the country, out of a total of about 12,000 employees. In Spain itself, 1,000 out of 1,600 workers participated in the three-day strike. Although strict labor laws prevented Amazon workers in Poland from taking part in the strike, many of the company’s Polish employees staged a work-to-rule. In addition to the actions in Germany, Spain and Poland, Amazon workers in the United Kingdom marched in a trade union festival that coincided with the strike, holding signs reading “We Are Humans, Not Robots.” And finally, in Italy, workers union Fisacat declared its solidarity with the strikers.
In response to the strikes and protests against its treatment of workers, Amazon did not acknowledge the workers’ grievances. Instead, a spokesperson claimed that the company is “a fair and responsible employer,” committed to “ensuring a fair cooperation with all our employees, including positive working conditions and a caring and inclusive environment.”
Despite this commitment to responsible employment and fair cooperation, the working conditions of Amazon workers across Europe have shown little to no signs of improvement. In response, during Black Friday (November 23), a second European strike took place. In the US, meanwhile, news outlets reported that American workers—East African immigrants in the Midwestern state of Minnesota – were the first to force Amazon to negotiate in that country. The workers protest also began around Prime Day, which coincided this year with Ramadan. Now, the workers at the fulfillment center there are threatening to strike during the company’s busiest season—just before Christmas—if management refuses to address workers’ concerns about the pace of work and worker treatment.
It remains to be seen, of course, what the European Amazon workers’ cross-border action will result in. One thing seems certain: activists’ ability to mobilize thousands of workers in different countries is very encouraging for anyone who disagrees with Amazon’s self-proclaimed status as a fair employer. Indeed, if labor is to maintain its historical position as effective defender of working people’s rights, unionists have to take inspiration from the transnational cooperation pioneered by the German, Spanish and Polish Amazon employees mentioned in this article. Global companies like Amazon use global tactics—workers have to do the same.
—Casper Gelderblom is a member of the European Trade Union Confederation’s Youth Committee and a postgraduate student in Political Thought at the University of Cambridge.