Originally published in Exberliner
Jeff Bezos has been the biggest profiteer of this pandemic. While billions of people have suffered, his wealth has shot up to almost $200 billion. As Oxfam put it, Bezos could pay each of his employees a one-off $105,000 bonus, and still be as wealthy as he was at the beginning of the pandemic.
Right now, all eyes are on the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The 5,800 workers there have just voted on whether to join a union. The balloting ended on Monday and results are expected soon.
It’s no wonder the unionisation campaign is getting so much attention. Amazon stands for a dystopian future where humans are monitored every second by computers and reprimanded if they spend an extra second talking to a colleague or going to the bathroom.
A union seems like a first step to reclaim some human dignity. Amazon seems to agree that a union would be extremely disruptive to their business model: they are harassing workers with constant anti-union texts and obligatory meetings with high-paid consultants specialised in union busting.
But the action isn’t limited to Alabama. Last Tuesday saw the first nationwide strike at Amazon in Italy, which included both warehouse employees and drivers working for subcontractors.
In the early hours of Monday, Amazon workers across Germany went on strike as well. They will stay off the job for four straight days, until the early hours of Friday. Their goal is to disrupt the Easter rush, the second-busiest time Amazon’s calendar.
The strike is taking place at six fulfilment centres across Germany: Rheinberg, Werne, Koblenz, Leipzig and two in Bad Hersfeld. Thousands of workers are taking part, demanding to be part of the collective bargaining agreement for the retail sector. For Amazon workers, this would mean higher wages and countless other benefits.
The strike is being called by the “united service sector union,” better known as ver.di. Germany’s second-biggest union has almost two million members. It is also my union, as it represents everyone from nurses to bus drivers to sex workers, and even journalists.
While many retail stores are closed because of Covid, Amazon’s business is booming. Part of its success is that it can pay its workers less than competitors. Amazon has literally tens of billions of dollars just lying around. Tens of thousands of Amazon workers around the world have gotten Covid on the job. Don’t they deserve some hazard pay?
These strikes deserve our full support. But as fellow members of the working class, we need a sober assessment of the struggle at Amazon in Germany. This is no criticism of the striking workers, who have shown an incredible determination and spirit of solidarity since their first actions in 2013 — eight years ago! We should, however, ask hard questions about the role of union leaders.
For years, ver.di has been organising strikes every year at Easter and Christmas — it’s become a ritual. They do not surprise managers or disrupt business. Amazon hires thousands of extra workers to cushion the strikes. This costs an unimaginable amount of money, but it’s not like Amazon is short.
Ver.di’s leadership started the Amazon campaign in 2013, and slowly expanded the strikes over the next few years. But soon they noticed that Amazon was not like other big corporations in Germany, who are often happy to play ball with union leaders. The last 100 years of German capitalism have shown that union bosses can be reliable helpers when it comes to holding back workers’ militancy — Germany, after all, has fewer strike days than almost anywhere in Europe. But Amazon, in all these years, has not agreed to sit down for even one official meeting.
So ver.di leaders, enthralled with the idea of Sozialpartnerschaft (social partnership), have been “biting their teeth out” with Amazon, as the German idiom puts it. If they want to bring Bezos’s minions to the negotiating table, they will need to escalate the struggle. They would need pickets, blockades and huge demonstrations. They would need to mobilise Germany’s two million retail workers alongside their colleagues at Amazon. To use a technical term from the workers movement, they would need to fuck shit up.
It has been decades since the bureaucratic apparatuses running the German workers’ movement have had to carry out a struggle against a recalcitrant and well-heeled opponent like this. Union leaders with their fancy offices and their millionaire lifestyles seem to have completely forgotten how to organise workers, or to be unions.
They keep organising these limited strikes, year after year, even though Amazon has made quite clear that they are not impressed. In ver.di’s latest press release, instead of threatening bigger strikes, they instead make rather pathetic appeals to governments and even the retailers’ association. These are the same governments that passed the labor market reforms allowing Amazon’s precarious working conditions and the same retailers who are trying to learn from Amazon’s cutthroat techniques.
No, appeals like these won’t get us anywhere. The only path forward is struggle. And while bureaucrats drag their feet, workers need to organise themselves and link up across borders. To stop a huge corporation like Amazon, we will need coordinated strikes around the world, and good luck waiting for the bureaucracies to do that themselves.
A few months ago, the Amazon worker Christian Krähling passed away. Christian was a rank-and-file worker from Bad Hersfeld who was known to colleagues from Spain to Poland. He had been on the front lines of the struggle from the beginning. To beat Jeff Bezos, we will need many workers like Christian. Ramping up the strikes is the best way to honour his memory.