Photo: Ben Birchall, PA/Reuters. Design: Bronte Dow.
by Craig Gent
On a cool morning in April 2013 over a thousand workers outside the small town of Bad Hersfeld in central Germany took an action of global significance. Armed with whistles and high-visibility vests, members of the general union Ver.di set up a picket line outside an Amazon fulfilment centre – company nomenclature for its massive processing and distribution hubs – marking the first strike in Amazon’s history.
Today, that most confected and bemusing of late capitalism’s holidays – “Black Friday” – yet again draws attention to Amazon and its labour practices. Whilst US workers in Alabama make a bold attempt to unionise, Progressive International has launched a global campaign to #MakeAmazonPay. Yet for two decades numerous unions and campaigns across the globe have scratched their heads wondering how to curb the ever-expanding might of what has become one of the world’s most valuable companies.
At Bad Hersfeld and (eventually) internationally, Amazon has become far more accustomed to strikes, yet the company’s power shows no signs of being tempered. Indeed in Germany, despite more than 300 days lost to strike action, Amazon has consistently been able to resist workers’ demand for a collective agreement. In the UK, initial attempts to organise workers by the Graphical, Paper and Media Union (ultimately merged into Unite) were effectively seen off by Amazon back in 2001, and while recent attempts by the GMB general union, revolving around the call “Amazon Workers Are Not Robots”, have proved to have more sticking power, the union admits it has a long way to go.
“We won some incremental changes as well for a short time on payments. We have also saved people’s jobs, who may have been unfairly treated,” says Mick Rix, a national officer at GMB. “So yes we have made some slight differences, but there is more to do, especially reducing the amount of accidents and injuries.” Rix also points to the union’s role in challenging Amazon’s “lacklustre approach” to Covid-19, yet the goal of a recognition agreement – a key priority for enabling negotiation over pay and conditions – remains a long way off.
Indeed, it seems that everywhere, Amazon marches on largely unencumbered. Consider the sheer scale of the multi-billion dollar company; its world-beating service, which was drafted in to assist Covid-19 test deliveries; its worker-beating patents; its AI operation, assisted by over 100 million Alexa devices quietly listening in people’s actual homes; its unparalleled market dominance over cloud computing – is it any wonder even the company’s name has now all but supplanted a two million square mile rainforest in the popular imagination?
However you cut it, Amazon presents a challenge to the entire project of the left – from those who merely want a say on workers’ pay to those who would like to see Amazon’s immense infrastructure repurposed to serve the public good, and indeed those who would like to see the back of the company altogether. Both Amazon’s scale and its significance to the very infrastructure of modern web and retail industries mean its influence has the potential to be era-defining, which makes it a crucial political problem for us to navigate collectively.
A culture of control.
There aren’t many unions that don’t have concerns about Amazon. But while its attitude towards workers, their livelihoods and their safety is notoriously poor, a less-discussed cause for concern is that Amazon just seems so damn impenetrable. Whatever unions seem to throw at it, they seem resigned to organising largely from the outside whilst Amazon develops its own organising strategies at a far greater pace and scale, leading the way in both algorithmic management techniques and, certainly for its delivery drivers, flexible working practices which leave workers disempowered and disposable.