The last few months have seen some small but significant events in Amazon, especially in Europe. Whilst in the USA its attitude towards unions is one of extreme hostility and resistance, in Europe its management have seemingly found unions harder to ignore.
Amazon remains the world`s highest profile super employer, buying up rival companies, dominating markets and setting new rules and forms of competition. Jeff Bezos is the world`s richest man, worth over £145bn (enough to pay off Britain’s ‘national debt’ to put it into some context) and its tax operations seem to be further away from the full amounts it is due to pay than ever. According to USA Today, the company paid zero federal taxes in the USA last year and its ‘tax avoidance schemes’ have been heavily criticised in the European Union and within most of the member states where it operates. The same newspaper alleges that Amazon is only paying on average about one third of what it should reasonably be expected to pay in tax across the world.
But still it grows and grows. It takes 43% of global on-line sales, it has 63m subscribers, it takes 10% of world retail sales and employs 560,000 workers directly all over the world. But in the last 7 months, Amazon has seen organised opposition from its own workers. Coordinated strikes in Germany and Italy have led to the first ever collective bargaining agreement with Amazon anywhere in the world in Italy. In Germany, the workers won a Christmas bonus payment and walk outs have been organized by unions in Spain and France. Amazon – proudly and openly anti-union – is being forced to sit down and negotiate with unions.
In Britain, this has not happened yet. But the GMB has started chasing Amazon down on their health and safety practices and anti-worker policies. The GMB surveyed its members in Amazon (including workers at plants in Gourock and Edinburgh) and the report makes some astonishing claims like ambulances being called out 600 times to Amazon sites in the last three years, with over half of them resulting in hospitalization. The report makes claims about workers suffering huge amounts of body injuries and strains, working 15 hour – shifts and not being able to take comfort breaks and so using bottles to pee in. An astonishing 87% of members surveyed claim to be in constant or occasional pain as a result of injuries suffered at work.
Amazon workers were able for the first time to give evidence in Parliament under the promise of anonymity to a Select Committee. Supported by Labour MPs, their evidence is recorded in proceedings in Parliament and MPs have promised to investigate the claims made.
The GMB has joined with the other unions trying to organize in Amazon. As part of an UNI Global Union Amazon Alliance of unions, the GMB meets with other Amazon workers from Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Poland, Czech Republic and the USA. They all next meet in London in November to further extend their solidarity activities with each other. Unions in Australia, Ireland, Denmark and Mexico have also been invited to join the group at its next meeting.
The collective solution the Alliance aspires to is to help each other build union membership and spread opposition to what are claimed to be quite ruthless management policies. So, every action is to be notified amongst members of the group and support and solidarity organised. Solidarity activity has grown as the strikers in Germany and Italy, for example, chose the same dates for combined strike action to maximise pressure on Amazon. Polish delivery drivers refused to cross picket lines in Germany, thus thwarting one of the Amazon tactics of moving work into relatively less unionized Poland.
In February this year, Jeff Besoz was in Berlin to accept an award for ‘services to e-commerce’. He was met by a demonstration of Amazon strikers from Germany and supporters from Spain, Poland, Italy and France. The demonstration was organized with `Make Amazon Pay` – a social movement organization trying to call Amazon to account over its tax policies. It was addressed by strikers, by the President of the German union, Ver.di, Frank Bsirske and by the leader of the German Social Democrats, Andrea Nahles.
Amazon is not about to become a union company. It is pushing unions back all over Europe and the USA remains union free for Amazon. The unions see this as a long-term campaign of maybe 10 years or more. But we can see an upsurge in worker and union activity in Europe that may impact on Amazon enough to concede in Europe that they must negotiate and bargain with unions rather than fight them.
At UNI Global four yearly Congress in Liverpool recently, a protest action was held to signal support for Amazon workers. As the t-shirts and placards said `We are humans, not robots`
Nigel Flanagan is a senior organiser with the UNI Global union. His blog is http://www.thetravellingrenegade.com/ and he is the Associate Producer of the film, ‘Jack Jones: An Unsung Hero’ (2018).