Delivering union rights in Amazon

We are all Amazon nowadays. We have cardboard packages that come through the letter box, the deliveries you can track on line and we trawl through the catalogue style website. For some workers, ‘being Amazon’ means something else. The Amazon employment model is brutal. Zero hours of course, long shifts, low pay, a neglect of workers’ health and safety that is truly exceptional and the deployment of robots that continues to outpace the work of the humans. It is also extremely and actively anti-union – its HR personnel are hired only with a proven record of union busting activities.

In Scotland, Amazon reached a new low. Workers discovered living in tents in December 2016, by the M90 near Dunfermline, in freezing temperatures because they could not afford to travel to work. But with no union to take up the issue, the workers remain desperate. Yet Amazon is now fighting Walmart, the world`s third biggest employer. It’s a huge corporate battle, and the Financial Times has predicted a ‘financial bloodbath’.

By buying the giant US ‘Whole Foods’ company for $13.7bn and immediately slashing its prices Amazon is aiming to destroy Walmart’s US business of stores and shops, to replace it with an on-line service and a new store called ‘Go Amazon’ – where a smart phone app automatically charges you for everything you leave the store with. No check outs, no queues, no workers. Walmart have reacted by linking up with Google Express and Uber to fight on line fire with on line fire. But for every little benefit to a customer, there is a huge loss to workers.

So, is Amazon all powerful? Not according to some unions organising inside Amazon. It was refreshing to meet members of the German union Ver.di who have been taking selective strike action against Amazon. We were attending an alliance meeting of unions from Europe and the US who are trying to work out a common plan to organize unions inside the company.  

The strikers have already taken 40 days of action this year. The action varies. It sometimes involves all nine Amazon centres or just some of them. Work was shifted by Amazon to Polish sites near the border, so the workers started calling strikes on Polish holidays. Union membership is 4,000 out of a company of 10,000 jobs. Turnover in the jobs is about 30%, so on a strike day the company can be missing 70% of its workforce.

Although Amazon awards wage rises and improvements directly to the German workforce, it’s a tactic to try to reduce support for the strikes. But it seems nobody is fooled. Conditions are improving- but the workers want proper negotiations and bargaining, not bribes and gifts. The strikers, one man and two women, all with no previous union experience, were eager to explain their tactics and strategy.

‘Everything happens with our say and after our discussion’, they told me. Each of the nine sites has a ‘Regional Secretary’ and a committee of workers to decide the tactics and the organization. They said that this was an important part of the strikes success. ‘We were the ones who decided to strike on Polish holidays’, they explained with clear pride.

They may not be alone for long. In Britain, the GMB has started a new organising campaign. They have also managed to get Amazon workers allowed parliamentary privilege to give evidence about the working conditions. In Poland, Solidarnosc is organising Amazon workers. They have won a recognition agreement with Amazon and have just submitted a 30% pay rise, but there is still a long way to go to get a majority of the 10,000 Polish workers unionized.

Union activity is up in all the European countries, with demands being tabled and workers being organized. In France, Italy and Spain unions are hard at work inside Amazon. ‘It`s a 10-year plan’, one organiser told me, ‘but we can win’. Things may seem bleaker in the US where the bulk of Amazon business is. But the US unions are fully committed and are they can only benefit from union success against Amazon around the world.

Amazon is now starting operations in India, South Korea, Mexico and Australia and unions are reporting that Amazon may be reaching its high tide of using non-union labour. To expand, it is going to have to look at some already unionised companies along supply chains or in new business areas. We can still all be Amazon. But we want it to be a union organized Amazon, better for the workers and better for the customers – and then maybe the tents can come down in Dunfermline.  

Nigel Flanagan was formerly a UNISON activist based in Liverpool. He now works for the global union UNI, based in Switzerland but working all around the world. He is also a Director of the Jack Jones Trust, formed to commemorate the life of the former TGWU General Secretary.