Laboratories of Resistance: Union organising in precarious employment sectors
Retail, logistics and service sectors are notorious for poor working conditions and anti-union tactics across countries; this is reflected in a low degree of workers' mobilisation in these sectors. Yet, four years of strike action at Amazon in Germany have turned workers' struggle for union representation, collective agreement and improved working conditions into a "laboratory of resistance". This struggle is documented in the 2015 report "The Long Struggle of the Amazon Employees" which has now been translated into English. The important question it raises is how to organise precarious workers.
In collaboration with TradeMark, a Belfast-based trade union and political education organisation, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Brussels Office, results of the study were presented and discussed at an event in Belfast, 1 June 2017. Hosted by Unite the Union, the presentation gathered approximately fifty senior representatives from at least seven unions from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, among these Communications Workers Union, Financial Services Union, GMB, Independent Workers Union, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Mandate, Services Industrial Professional Trade Union, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, Unite the Union. The audience also featured other leftist actors, among them representatives of the Irish Right2Water, Right2Housing and Repeal the 8th movements.
Author Jörg Boewe’s presentation covered the situation of union organising and dynamics between unions involved in collective struggles at Amazon in various European countries. He described constraints and achievements since strike action began as well as cross-border solidarity, when Amazon workers in Poland refused to work extra shifts, thus undermining Amazon's attempts to move production away from the sites of strike action. This talk was embedded in a description of working conditions at Amazon. The audience was both particularly interested in and alarmed at surveillance tactics ("digital Taylorism") and intimidation practices regularly employed by Amazon. Ensuing discussions revealed the degree of anti-union tactics employed by companies in Ireland and Northern Ireland, where professional union-busting companies are regularly used to break resistance.
The event facilitated exchange of experiences, networking, and discussion of tactics and forms of resistance against the backdrop of the local situation. Although there are no Amazon fulfilment centres on the island of Ireland, working conditions in the local retail and service sectors mirror in many ways the challenges to union mobilization faced by Amazon employees. The desperate attempts by governments to attract foreign direct investment to their peripheral economies benefit corporations rather than workers. Companies threaten to take production elsewhere in order push through ever harsher practices. Resulting precarious working rights, low pay as well as fixed-term and "zero hours" contracts are the death of workers' mobilisation.
While the struggle of the Amazon employees is still on-going, it already demonstrates that it is possible for workers, even in a dire situation and in the face of powerful multinationals, to resist and bring about change through industrial action. Can this be a model for struggles elsewhere? The "laboratory of resistance" at the German Amazon plants certainly speaks of the determination that is needed to take up the challenge, and much more so of the strategy, collective intelligence and concrete exercise of democracy among workers that is necessary to succeed in fighting for better working conditions and a life in dignity. To achieve this, as our discussion in Belfast made clear, it is important that unions change the way they organise: rather than service stations, unions have to be rank-and-file, in the workplace organisations; rather than members, unions need activists; and rather than promoting competition among workers they must unite in solidarity across sectors and state borders.
An extended interview with Stevie Nolan from Trademark Belfast and Ada Regelmann from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Brussels Office, first broadcast on Northern Visions TV on 14 June 2017, is available here (starting from minute 9:58).