Amazon Workers Are Organizing a Global Struggle

In recent weeks, dizzying statistics have circulated on social media about Amazon’s pandemic-era boom and the obscene wealth accrued by its CEO, and Earth’s richest man, Jeff Bezos. The company reported revenue of $96.1-billion just last quarter, which, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, means Bezos could personally pay Amazon’s 876,000 workers a bonus of $105,000 each – and would still be as filthy rich as he was prior to the pandemic. Warehouse workers in the US and UK, who have been forced into perilous proximity while dealing with the surge in orders, have been offered a $300 holiday bonus. Many who toil in other areas of Amazon’s vast supply chain will receive far less, if anything at all.

Numerous business publications framed the trillion-dollar empire’s bonuses as a generous offering. “Amazon spends another $500-million on bonuses. Some of its workers are still going on strike,” read a CNN Business headline. The notion conveyed apparent incredulity that low-wage employees would fight for more from a corporation famed for worker abuses, such as pressure for productivity that saw warehouse employees reportedly urinating in bottles so as to avoid bathroom breaks.

The incredulity is misplaced. Yes, Amazon workers are escalating the ongoing struggle for their rights, protections, as well as fair pay – and, for the first time, the strategy is international.

Garment workers gather on the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Nov. 27, 2020.

Workers Launch International Campaign

Black Friday saw the launch of a new wave of organizing by a global coalition of warehouse workers, trade unions, and activists under the banner Make Amazon Pay – the first such coalition of broad international scope. Coordinated strikes, work stoppages, and protests of varying size have taken place in Bangladesh, India, Australia, Germany, Poland, Spain, France, the UK, the US and beyond. The workers and organizers deserve vigorous support: The stakes of leaving Amazon’s power and practices unchecked – from the further decimation of the global working class, to irreversible environmental degradation – are intolerable.

“Amazon is able to build power by operating on a global level without opposition,” said Casper Gelderblom, a Netherlands-based trade unionist and coordinator with the Progressive International, one of the groups organizing the Make Amazon Pay effort. “We have to match the transnational scope of its organization with an internationalist strategy.”

Make Amazon Pay brings together worker collectives – from hawkers in India to warehouse workers in Poland – with large international union federations. The coalition also includes major nonprofits such as Greenpeace to address stunning facts like the scale of Amazon’s carbon footprint, which is larger than two-thirds of the world’s countries.

On November 27, the coalition published an open letter signed in solidarity by over 401 parliamentarians from over 34 countries, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, and Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., from the United States. The letter, which pledges support for the Make Amazon Pay effort, is addressed to Bezos. It begins, “We, elected representatives, legislators, and public officials from around the world, hereby put you on notice that Amazon’s days of impunity are over.”

It’s easy to see that Amazon is too powerful, that its carbon footprint is a travesty, that it intimidates workers, lowers wages, busts unions, and ensures precarity. The corporation also pays scant tax bills. In 2019, Amazon paid just 1.2 per cent federal tax on its US profits; the prior two years, it paid none. It’s harder to know what a successful multifront, international resistance to Amazon’s hegemonic power would look like.

Make Amazon Pay’s demands to the company are broad but no more than fair: permitting workers to organize; ending surveillance and harassment; improving pay and health and safety conditions; ensuring job security; committing to zero emissions by 2030; ending Amazon Web Services contracts with fossil fuel companies; ending partnerships with the forces of racist state violence, like police and immigration authorities; and paying taxes in full.

The coalition has developed a robust policy platform, rich in references to existing laws and precedents, intended to guide lawmakers to use legislative tools to make the demands a reality. In the face of Amazon’s might, however, the campaign can, on paper, look like a fair-minded wish list. Anyone who cares about working people and life on this planet can commend it; realizing the proposed changes and diminishing the corporation’s planetary death grip is a different question.

Coalition organizers see a necessary first step in recognizing the expanse of Amazon’s supply chain operations, often obscured to the consumer. The company is best understood not as a retailer but a monopolist empire: a 21st century East India Company, and no less colonialist in its practices of exploitation and resource extraction. Amazon’s infamous warehouses are “the nearest site where customer comfort and worker exploitation come into contact,” wrote political economist David Adler and organizer James Schneider, both members of the Progressive International secretariat. “But,” they argue, the fight against Amazon “must stretch across the global economy and the regulatory archipelago that runs through it.”

While coordinated, the recent worker actions around the world have reflected the current labour concerns specific to different regions of Amazon’s domain. Garment workers in Bangladesh staged a protest outside an Amazon supplier in Dhaka, behind a bright red “Make Amazon Pay” banner. The company has reportedly not paid its Bangladeshi suppliers for completed orders that were canceled in the pandemic. Workers in Germany went on a three-day strike, an escalation in a yearslong battle with Amazon for better pay and working conditions; approximately 2,500 people took part.

In Poznań, in the west of Poland, workers brandished the same “Make Amazon Pay” signs during a coordinated work stoppage. Polish workers have been organizing for weeks – including staging wildcat strikes – to have their minimal holiday bonuses raised to match the amounts workers in other countries will receive. Warehouse workers told me by video conference that employees in Poland had been paid four times less than their counterparts in Germany; through union organizing, that discrepancy has shrunk to three times less, while the cost of living is by no means three times cheaper. In the US, workers are taking historic steps just to unionize.

In every jurisdiction, especially at this time of mass unemployment and global economic devastation, organizers are at a disadvantage against Amazon’s ability to attract precarious, unprotected employees ready to take any available work. Contracts are often fixed-term, zero-hour, and unstable. Bogus self-employment contracts for de facto Amazon employees are common, even in countries where many workers are unionized.

“This is Amazon policy, rotating workers. It’s extremely difficult to organize,” said Jan Pękala, a forklift driver and union shop steward from southern Poland. “With every new worker, you have to start again.” His colleague from the warehouse in Poznań, Roman Lupiński, agreed: “It creates fear, people on unstable contracts feeling like they can lose their jobs.”

Amazon relies on the same strategy globally. “Covid has really chilled workers,” said Sheheryar Kaoosji, director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, who spoke to me from Ontario, California. “They brought in a lot of people desperate for work. We have to meet people where they’re at, to build a long-term strategy.” Kaoosji organizes in and around San Bernardino, where one of Amazon’s largest facility clusters is expanding. The corporation employs 30,000 in the area alone; the asthma rates in the Amazon-occupied region are twice as high as the national average. “This is the year that Amazon really consolidated power,” Kaoosji said, offering that this made the imperative to organize stronger. “It’s the right time to be doing this.”

Regulating a Big Monopoly

One of the keys to the Make Amazon Pay policy platform are guidelines to regulate the sort of contracts Amazon offers to workers, like making it more costly for the company to rely on “self-employment” contracts. These precarious agreements have become normalized in the neoliberal labour market, and regulating against Amazon’s use of them would have a knock-on effect for labour rights in general.

“The situation at Amazon is a look into the future of labour, the future of our economy, and the future of the planet,” said Tlaib, the House member from Michigan and letter signatory, told me by email. “The results of the experiment are clear – left to their own devices, giant corporations like Amazon will ruthlessly extract every last dollar from their workers and the communities they exploit, enriching executives while grinding workers to the bone and putting their profits before the livability of the planet.”

Tlaib stressed that it is possible to force Amazon to change its practices, as was evidenced when it raised its minimum wage in the US to $15, following sustained pressure from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., among others. Likewise, the push last year by left-wing lawmakers in New York, working alongside local organizers, thwarted Amazon’s seemingly unstoppable plans to open up a second headquarters in Queens.

Tlaib told me that “there are already bills in Congress that would help us fight back against this staggering corporate greed, and there are some other important interventions that will need to be drafted.” The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, for example, passed the House earlier this year, and would dramatically weaken decades of anti-worker, anti-union labour laws in this country.

Make Amazon Pay’s international lens makes crystal clear the need to empower workers to unionize and enable unions to be effective for workers. “We have a lot more control as unionized workers,” Natalia Skowrońska, a packer in the Poznań warehouse, told me. She noted that while Amazon regularly finds ways to bypass the union, the workers’ “capacities are far greater as an entity that the company has to contend with.”

The success of Amazon workers in France in forcing Amazon to address concerns about Covid-19 safety shows the necessity of pro-worker legislation combined with strong unions. Mass protests, strikes, and union complaints led to a Parisian judging order that Amazon develop improved health and safety measures with the unions. Noncompliance would come with a penalty of over $1-million per day and per violation. The corporation announced in fury that it would suspend all of its French operations, but workers continue to receive full pay and the company says that it plans to follow the judge’s decision.

Piotr Krzyżaniak, a former warehouse worker and a lawyer representing the Polish workers’ union, referenced the French example to stress the importance of permitting workers to strike. In Poland, workers have had to engage in wildcat work stoppages, because formal strike procedures are prohibitively complex. “We need the freedom to strike regulated on a European level,” he told me, “If Amazon workers go on strike in Germany, for example, we need to be able to join them.”

Following revelations in September that Amazon had engaged in widespread surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of workers in the US, UK, and elsewhere who had attempted to organize, Amnesty International released a report calling on Amazon to “let workers unionize.” The report also cited how French labour unions and regulations had served to protect Amazon workers during the pandemic. The corporate leviathan should have to reckon with such constraints on its power and its abuses in every country it operates.

A Joe Biden presidency, especially if a Republican-led Senate remains, with a far-right judiciary, does not offer great promise for radical legislative shifts away from the neoliberal norms. Labour-friendly politicians like Tlaib and other members of the Squad are in the minority. The belief that Amazon needs to be reined in, however, is a popular one: Polling agency Survation found that 70 per cent of people believe that the company is too powerful.

Amazon, of course, is not capitalism gone wrong, but capitalism doing as it’s supposed to. We don’t need every lawmaker to appreciate this to want to curb the company’s monopolistic control. “Even if you believe in free markets, it’s not healthy,” Gelderblom, of Progressive International, told me.

In October, the House Judiciary Committee antitrust subcommittee – hardly a left-wing body – released a far-reaching report on how Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon (GAFA) capitalize on and abuse their market power to benefit themselves.

The Make Amazon Pay coalition is clear that it wants to shift Amazon’s power structure too: among its demands is a plan to give workers robust voting rights in Amazon management. This is not a far cry from the proposal made by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a believer in so-called “accountable capitalism,” to give workers representation on company boards. This management model, known as “co-determination” is already common in the European bastion of capital, Germany; the coalition argues the Europe’s co-determination models need further strengthening.

Radical and necessary change to the great empire of Amazon is a tall order, but the global plan to Make Amazon Pay should be considered common sense. •

This article first published on The Intercept website.

Natasha Lennard is a columnist for The Intercept. She teaches critical journalism at the New School for Social Research in New York. She is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life.