The Long Struggle of the Amazon Employees
Laboratory of Resistance
On the morning of 9 April 2013, some 1,100 employees of the Amazon fulfilment centres in Bad Hersfeld, a small town in central Germany, formed a picket line in front of the gates. They were kitted out with whistles, high-visibility vests bearing the logo of service sector trade union ver.di, and posters calling for a collective agreement based on the rules applicable to retail and mail-order companies. Something had happened that nobody, least of all Amazon itself, had thought possible. For the first time in its almost 20-year history, the US online retailer was faced with a strike, originating not in the US but in Germany, which is not known for its strong strike culture. The walkout became a media event, with TV teams and photographers gathering by the ‘yellow tower’ of the FRA3 fulfilment centre in Bad Hersfeld every day. This was a modern-day David and Goliath story – a few hundred strikers taking on the world’s leading online retailer.
More than six years have passed since then, and Amazon now holds the “dubious record for the longest labour dispute” in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany (WSI 2016). Amazon employees have downed tools on more than 300 days, and the strikes have spread to six of the company’s eleven German sites (as at July 2019). Nevertheless, the strikers have not come tangibly closer to achieving their goal so far: Amazon stands firm in its refusal to even begin negotiations on a collective agreement.
The online retailer gives every appearance of being unfazed by the walkouts. Its stock response to press queries is that the strikes “have not had any impact on Amazon’s punctual deliveries to customers” and that black ice and snow cause Amazon far more headaches than industrial action.
Amazon boss Jeff Bezos even told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that his company is an “excellent employer in Germany” and is aligned with the collective agreement applying to the logistics sector as a whole (Lindner 2014). The message is clear, and is not conveyed solely by company management: there are repeated reports about Amazon employees who express their annoyance at the “negative portrayal” of their employer by ver.di. For a time, expressly ‘pro-Amazon’ and ‘anti-ver.di’ groups even formed at some Amazon sites.
While these explicitly anti-union groups no longer exist, strikers at Amazon still have to contend with large groups of employees who are “indifferent” or outright opposed to the union (Dörre et al 2016: 177). Between 30 and 50% of permanent employees at the Bad Hersfeld, Leipzig, Rheinberg and Werne sites are union members, though, and on a good day, half the shift or more can be found demonstrating in front of the gates. Yet the strikes at Amazon remain minority strikes.
This study is based on participatory observation of a number of trade union meetings. When we were gathering material for the 2015 study, we interviewed various industry experts and solidarity group members, plus full-time salaried and volunteer union officials from Germany and other countries. For the updated edition, we interviewed eleven more full-time salaried and volunteer union officials from Germany and further afield – including Orhan Akman, who is ver.di’s national coordinator for the retail sector and is currently heading up activities targeting Amazon at ver.di’s national headquarters – plus two Amazon experts. We also conducted a short quantitative survey, polling shop stewards on Amazon’s efforts to obstruct union and works council activities. All the interviewees had some connection to the labour dispute at Amazon. We would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their assistance and their trust in us.
Following the introduction, we will review the impact of Amazon’s approach to collective agreement standards in the German retail sector and examine how work is organised at the company’s fulfilment centres (Part 2). We will then address Amazon’s global expansion and trade union responses to it in Europe, the US and Latin America (Part 3) before turning to the dynamics of the labour disputes in Germany (Part 4). Here, we will focus both on the strikers’ achievements and management’s actions, especially its sophisticated attempts to obstruct trade union and works council activities. We will conclude by providing an interim assessment of the conflict to date and outlining four major challenges that we believe Amazon employees will face in their fight for humane working conditions (Part 5).
To observers who feel solidarity with the strikers, the situation is an odd one. From one point of view, the conflict seems to be never-ending, with the risk that the strike movement may run out of steam. Has ver.di miscalculated? Has it underestimated its opponent?
Did it rush into the conflict ill-equipped and underprepared? This line of thinking prompted Konstanz-based social scientist Stefan Sell to advise ver.di to halt strike action for a time and instead focus on driving forward “the further organising of employees at the sites here in Germany” (Sell 2015). The tageszeitung even branded the strike “Germany’s saddest labour dispute” (Beucker 2017).
Yet anyone on the ground in an Amazon fulfilment centre is sure to form a completely different impression. Even after six years, the strikers are showing no signs of flagging. The fulfilment centres are veritable hives of union activity to an extent that is not often witnessed even in union strongholds – despite unfavourable conditions, massive union-busting efforts and intimidation. Most fulfilment centres now have active shop-steward structures, something that exists virtually nowhere else in the entire retail industry. Workplace strike committees at Amazon discuss industrial action strategies and try them out, and employees from different sites are in contact with one another and even with colleagues abroad. They are assisted by the solidarity groups that have formed at some sites and at national level. The bulk of these activities are carried out during leisure time, since most of the fulfilment centres are still a long way from having established works council structures that would enable members to be relieved of their normal work duties to perform some of the tasks. While there are now works councils at all the sites, stable trade union majorities are the exception rather than the rule, although ver.di members were able to improve their position – substantially, in some cases – in the works council elections in 2018 (Schulten 2018). Pro-employer works councils exist, and some councils are split into pro-union and pro-employer factions. This makes the high-level activities of the workplace union groups all the more remarkable.
The employees have certainly made some headway, but their progress receives little coverage in the mass media. Their successes have taken the form of seemingly minor achievements, like modest wage increases (which have nonetheless been applied regularly since the start of the dispute), a small Christmas allowance (which is not yet an entitlement), decentralised break rooms, a larger canteen and better hygiene conditions at the water dispensers. The Bad Hersfeld works council even managed to bring an end to the mandatory feedback talks that drew the ire of many employees (see section 4.8).
After over six years of industrial action and trade union efforts on the shop floor, the situation is ambivalent. Despite all the progress that has been made, doubts persist as to whether a transnational corporation such as Amazon can be brought to heel by strike action alone, and especially by strikes that do not extend beyond a single country. This is partly because the conditions are not conducive to mobilisation, owing chiefly to specific heterogeneous workforce structures and the anti-union pressure exerted by the company on its employees (explored in greater depth in Parts 2 and 4). The conflict has, in a sense, reached a stalemate. “Ver.di is not yet in a position to extend strike action far enough to force Amazon to give in, while Amazon has not yet managed to dissuade the active cores of unionised employees who are keeping the labour dispute going” (Dribbusch 2019: 10).
Amazon has long pursued a strategy of locating its fulfilment centres in economically underdeveloped regions, where many employees have few alternatives to working for Amazon. After years of unemployment or precarious work, many are largely content with their jobs. Besides, the proportion of employees on fixed-term contracts is extremely high, especially at the newer sites. Amazon has also begun systematically shifting orders from strike-hit fulfilment centres to other countries, particularly Poland, the Czech Republic and France (Boewe 2014). This highlights the urgent need for enhanced international cooperation between trade unions – not only between executive boards, but also (and most importantly) through direct contact between workplace union activists.
1.2 Ratcheting up the pressure
However, if ver.di cannot win the dispute on collective agreement coverage at Amazon in Germany through strike action alone, what can and must be done? In 2015, two courses of action stood out to us. One was the exertion of pressure by means of a broad-based, high-profile alliance campaign. This would pick up on the widespread discomfort with Amazon’s business practices in diverse sections of society and spotlight its flagrant wrongdoing, thus turning up the heat on the company. At the same time, in an age where supply chains straddle borders and orders can be shifted abroad at short notice, we underlined the necessity of close networking – at the very least with strikers in France, Poland and the Czech Republic. In 2019, we can see that while both measures have been implemented to some extent, Amazon remains fundamentally unwilling to cooperate with trade unions on regulating working conditions.
Constant efforts to spotlight Amazon’s failings: Even after six years, the dispute at Amazon is still generating coverage in the (regional and national) media. Of course, not every strike day – of which there are just under 35 a year – at Leipzig, Rheinberg, Werne or Bad Hersfeld makes it onto the front page of a newspaper. That said, the strikes still garner media attention, especially at Christmas and Easter and on Amazon Prime Day, the latter date having become a traditional day for walkouts in several European countries. In the last few years, ver.di has successfully set the employee rights agenda at Amazon and substantially increased public interest in the dark side of Amazon’s business model – a far cry from its image as an innovative company where everyone is working around the clock to meet customers’ every need. Ver.di’s efforts in this direction are exemplified by the protests against the presentation of the Axel Springer Award to Jeff Bezos in recognition of his ‘visionary entrepreneurship’. A good 500 people turned out to voice their displeasure with Bezos at the award ceremony in Berlin in April 2018. While most of them were employees of Amazon’s numerous sites, there were some leftist activists among the demonstrators, and the Make Amazon Pay alliance joined ver.di in protest. In the end, the many reports on the award ceremony – even those appearing in the international press – were dominated by images of trade union banners and high-visibility vests bearing the ver.di logo.
Internationalisation of the dispute: UNI Global Union (UNI), the international umbrella association of service employees, has been working on the international coordination of member associations present at Amazon since 2014. From its humble beginnings as a small working party of trade unionists from Germany, France and Poland, UNI’s Amazon Alliance has grown considerably and now holds regular meetings bringing together union representatives from 15 European and North and South American countries, plus Australia (see Part 3).
“The battle to decide Amazon’s future will be waged in Germany,” a leading secretary of British trade union GMB (General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union) and the union’s Amazon coordinator, freely acknowledged in 2014 (USI3). This pronouncement would probably be made in less definite terms today because, as we will show in Part 3, significant progress has been made on international union organising at Amazon in many countries – not least in the ‘belly of the beast’, the US itself.
That said, trade unions have not, to date, been able to establish such strong organising power and active rank-and-file support in any other country as in Germany, Amazon’s biggest market outside of North America.
 The following codes have been used for interview excerpts:
“AEN” stands for “Amazon employee national” (i.e. in Germany), “AEI” stands for “Amazon employee international”, “USN” stands for “union secretary national” (ver.di), “USI” stands for “union secretary international”, and “EXP” stands for “expert”. The figures appearing after each abbreviation are there for numbering purposes.