This text is a part of a particular report, The Important Tech Employee.
LILLE, France — When Amazon staff put in a mock guillotine in entrance of Jeff Bezos’ dwelling in Washington D.C. final summer time, they gave the world’s richest man a chilling present of anger.
However the true problem to Amazon administration is not from publicity stunts. It is coming from a brand new, digitized, worldwide labor motion that’s borrowing from the e-commerce large’s personal playbook to press for greater pay and higher working situations all over the world.
Often called the Amazon Staff Worldwide, the casual community of principally warehouse staff brings collectively dozens of employee teams from america and 6 EU nations. With lots of of contributors, it’s rising quick. As an alternative of gathering in particular person or becoming a member of picket strains, the AWI’s key organizers do most of their work in videoconference periods the place “comrades” from a number of nations Zoom in to plot technique on the best way to press their calls for to Amazon administration.
“Are you able to hear me?” Polish warehouse employee Agnieszka Mróz mentioned late final month as she related from her hometown of Poznań with French and Italian colleagues gathered a thousand kilometers away, on the workplace of French union Sud Solidaires in an previous railway manufacturing facility in Lille, northern France. Different staff from Poland, Germany and america had additionally joined the decision, AWI’s annual gathering, to debate Amazon’s response to the pandemic and upcoming actions.
The community’s online-first strategy — and the emphasis on worldwide coordination — underscores a lesson that these staff have absorbed over the past decade: They’ve little likelihood of successful concessions from administration in the event that they pitch calls for domestically, through conventional union strategies.
Amazon is simply too massive, too agile and too highly effective. With greater than 175 warehouses, or “success facilities,” dotted all over the world, hyper-optimized administration strategies and a market capitalization near $1 trillion, the corporate epitomizes the would possibly of the U.S. expertise sector and has, as a rule, declined to acknowledge or actively have interaction with commerce unions.
Even throughout a pandemic that pressured hundreds of warehouse staff to courageous the danger of an infection, inflaming tensions with administration at a number of websites, Amazon hasn’t modified its primary stance towards labor teams, arguing that its hourly charges are on the prime finish of what the business provides. When staff went on strike in France in Might, the corporate briefly shut down its warehouses in the entire nation, re-routing orders through Italy.
In the meantime, the corporate doubled its year-on-year earnings within the second quarter to $5.2 billion and went on a hiring spree to maintain up with demand for purchasing extravaganzas reminiscent of Prime Day (an opportunity to seize merchandise at decrease costs), Black Friday and Christmas. Bezos personally remodeled $87 billion this 12 months, in response to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
That is the place AWI goals to make a distinction. By coordinating calls for for wage will increase, extra breaks or new security measures internationally, it needs to power the corporate into adjustments for the warehouse staff on whom it relies upon to ship the products.
“Amazon and most massive corporations that management our lives are worldwide,” mentioned a employee at a supply station in New York Metropolis who requested to remain nameless out of concern the agency would possibly retaliate in opposition to him. “If we wish to have a sustainable future with a liveable earth, then it’s going to take a world motion.”
There are indicators AWI’s work is having an impact. Whereas it is troublesome to match causes and results, Amazon has, below elevated stress from labor teams, launched 150 so-called “course of adjustments,” like staggered breaks and shifts, since March to scale back COVID-19 dangers in its warehouses. On the peak of the pandemic, the corporate additionally launched a short lived €2-an-hour hazard pay bonus, in addition to one-off bonuses.
“We’ve already spent greater than $800 million on COVID-19 security measures, with investments in private protecting tools, enhanced cleansing of our amenities and, in fact, social distancing,” an Amazon spokesperson mentioned.
However the staff are in search of extra. “The pandemic confirmed who’re the necessary individuals in society. Staff have the vanity to make calls for. Earlier than no one would have demanded €2 extra,” mentioned Christian Krähling, a German employee from the city of Dangerous Hersfeld.
Do not name it a union
AWI obtained began in 2015, when staff within the German metropolis of Dangerous Hersfeld went on strike. Amazon staff in neighboring Poland — the place the corporate has arrange success facilities to serve the German market, however not the Polish one — took discover as a result of a strike at a German warehouse meant extra work for them.
“The primary concept that we have to do one thing got here from the sensation that the situations had been a lot worse in Poland than in Germany or England,” mentioned Mróz, one of many founding members of Amazon Staff Worldwide.
The Polish group determined that the one method to answer the state of affairs could be to start out coordinating with colleagues in Germany. A bunch drove for seven hours from Poland to fulfill them in Dangerous Hersfeld, marking the beginning of what they known as the Amazon Staff Worldwide — a reputation that they insist has nothing to do with a conventional commerce union.
Whereas many staff belong to native unions, they stress that AWI will not be a union neither is it affiliated with one.
“The unions are previous, and they aren’t used to grassroots stuff. Our purpose will not be to do that for unions. We do it to get energy to the employees. We see the union as an instrument to get that,” mentioned Krähling.
Above all, AWI needs to empower warehouse staff by demonstrating that calls for in a single place are supported way more broadly.
In america, for instance, a petition from staff demanding higher well being and security measures and hazard pay was bolstered by over a thousand signatures from Poland.
When staff in Germany had been profitable in blocking software program that’s meant to maintain watch over how workers are following social distancing guidelines, they shared their expertise with different teams so they may borrow their strategies.
When Amazon’s France-based staff went on strike, prompting a court docket case that led to the corporate closing its warehouses within the nation, Polish staff paid shut consideration. In the end, they tried to make use of the identical EU directive that was invoked within the French case to argue for stronger employee illustration in Poland.
Polish staff produced leaflets to spotlight that staff have the correct to go away the warehouse each time they don’t really feel protected.
“It’s a direct instance of how we obtained a brand new device from the French expertise,” Mróz mentioned.
Judith Krivine, a lawyer representing the French union Sud Solidaire, mentioned worldwide cooperation was essential to profitable operations. “It’s actually necessary that they speak collectively and provides concepts to one another and struggle collectively for higher situations. If not, there’ll all the time be social dumping,” Krivine mentioned.
Regardless of the early momentum, AWI has loads of rising to do. The community lately elected a committee with central coordinating figures, and now plans to succeed in out to staff in Asia, Latin America and new areas in Europe to broaden its attain.
It helps that staff all share a typical language: Amazonspeak. “All Amazon staff know the identical company slang,” Mróz mentioned. “It’s simple to seek out the widespread language, to construct solidarity and belief and begin working collectively.”
Though there’s energy in numbers, the motion nonetheless has to persuade its employer it’s a power to be reckoned with. “Amazon gained’t speak to us as a result of they don’t wish to give us legitimacy,” Krähling mentioned. “They by no means use the phrase ‘Amazon Staff Worldwide’. They are saying we’re an exterior group making an attempt to make a revenue off of Amazon’s success.”
Krähling mentioned AWI operates on a voluntary foundation, and activists pay for his or her annual conferences themselves. It’s laborious to pinpoint what number of staff are a part of the community, as workers turnover is excessive and participation in campaigns will be unpredictable, however the community’s conferences earlier than the pandemic attracted some 50 organizers from all over the world.
“We wish to be seen as organized as a collective power which isn’t exterior the group,” mentioned Mróz.
When requested concerning the group and whether or not the corporate would think about speaking with such a community, a spokesperson for the corporate mentioned it already has works councils and worker our bodies.
“We encourage anybody to match our general pay, advantages and office atmosphere to different retailers and main employers within the communities we function in. For us, it can all the time be about offering an incredible employment expertise via a direct reference to our workers and dealing collectively as a staff to supply a world-class buyer expertise,” the spokesperson mentioned.
However staff say situations might be higher. And so they really feel like the corporate’s coronavirus security measures — significantly round social distancing — give Amazon a handy excuse to maintain staff removed from one another in case they get any concepts about organizing.
Krähling describes the canteen in his warehouse as a plexiglass jail. “All these measures that had been taken throughout the corona disaster — it is like a dream come true,” he mentioned.
Regardless of the rising tensions, the employees within the community say they’re solely getting began.
“If we didn’t have this battle, I in all probability would have left the corporate,” Krähling mentioned.
“Sure, OK, it’s anxious, you may have loads of issues, it’s loads of struggling,” he added. “However however, I by no means had a office the place I met so many buddies. It’s loads of enjoyable.”