How European Workers Coordinated This Month’s Massive Amazon Strike—And What Comes Next

Rebecca Burns

Strikers protest on July 16 at one of the warehouse truck entrances during the Amazon strike. (Photo by Lito Lizana/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As Ama­zon CEO Jeff Bezos’ net worth topped $150 bil­lion last week, mak­ing him the rich­est man in mod­ern his­to­ry, thou­sands of Ama­zon work­ers across Europe went on strike.

The work stop­page, which last­ed three days at some facil­i­ties, was one of the largest labor actions against Ama­zon to date, and the first to receive wide­spread cov­er­age in the U.S. media. But the strikes and protests in Spain, Ger­many and Poland were just the lat­est in an esca­lat­ing series of actions against Ama­zon in Europe, where work­ers belong­ing to both con­ven­tion­al unions and mil­i­tant work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tions are forg­ing a transna­tion­al move­ment against the inter­net juggernaut. 

In Ger­many, which is Ama­zon’s sec­ond-biggest mar­ket after the Unit­ed States, work­ers at the company’s ful­fill­ment cen­ters waged the first-ever strike against Ama­zon in 2013. In the begin­ning, it was pure­ly about wages, about being able to pay for the cost of liv­ing,” says Lena Wid­mann, a fed­er­al sec­re­tary and spokesper­son for the Ger­man ser­vices union Ver­di. Now it’s also about respect, and about being heard.” 

After the first strikes, Ama­zon began to give Ger­man work­ers reg­u­lar rais­es. It also made improve­ments to ven­ti­la­tion and light­ing in some of its ware­hous­es, and, in response to work­er com­plaints about the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal toll of on-the-job require­ments, added a fruit day” with com­pa­ny-fur­nished fruit baskets. 

But Ama­zon has refused to cod­i­fy even these mod­est changes through a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment. The union esti­mates that approx­i­mate­ly 2,400 work­ers at six of the company’s ful­fill­ment cen­ters in Ger­many par­tic­i­pat­ed in last week’s three-day strike, out of about 16,000 that Ama­zon employs in Ger­many. Orga­niz­ers will con­tin­ue push­ing to incor­po­rate more work­ers in shop-floor orga­ni­za­tion, to con­tact new facil­i­ties that Ama­zon has opened in the past year, and, ulti­mate­ly, to win a union contract. 

We’re talk­ing about a long fight ahead — it’s not going to be solved by Christ­mas, and our mem­bers are very aware of this,” says Wid­mann. But more and more peo­ple are join­ing the movement.” 

In a state­ment respond­ing to the strikes, an Ama­zon spokesper­son said, Ama­zon is a fair and respon­si­ble employ­er and as such we are com­mit­ted to dia­logue, which is an insep­a­ra­ble part of our cul­ture. We are com­mit­ted to ensur­ing a fair coop­er­a­tion with all our employ­ees, includ­ing pos­i­tive work­ing con­di­tions and a car­ing and inclu­sive environment.”

In 2014, Ama­zon began to open ware­hous­es in Poland, where wages are low­er and labor laws are lax­er. A chap­ter in the 2018 book Choke Points: Logis­tics Work­ers Dis­rupt the Glob­al Sup­ply Chain describes work­ing con­di­tions in the Pol­ish warehouses:

Most employ­ees have to work stand­ing or walk­ing (some for sev­er­al miles dur­ing one shift), and many jobs involve high­ly repet­i­tive move­ments, lift­ing heavy goods and box­es, or push­ing heavy carts. Ama­zon wants the ware­hous­es run­ning day and night. There­fore, work­ers in Poland have to work four 10-hour shifts per week, with an addi­tion­al unpaid 30 min­utes break. The shifts sched­ule changes every month from day shift. Such a shift sys­tem and shift rota­tion dis­turbs work­ers’ sleep­ing rhythm and leads to seri­ous health prob­lems. In addi­tion, it makes it dif­fi­cult to organ­ise a pri­vate life.

To bring down the sick­ness rate, Ama­zon Poland hired a com­pa­ny in spring 2017 which checks whether work­ers are at home dur­ing sick leave. A work­er who was dis­missed because of a sick leave wrote: At Ama­zon we hear about safe­ty every day, about health, but the real­i­ty is dif­fer­ent. Not every­one can keep up the race at Ama­zon. Peo­ple are treat­ed like machines. But even machines fail and stand still. We are not allowed to do that.”

More­over, Amazon’s expan­sion into East­ern Europe threat­ened to under­cut the effec­tive­ness of strikes being waged by Ger­man work­ers. So in 2015, rank-and-file activists Ger­many and Poland held the first of what became a series of cross-bor­der meet­ings of Ama­zon work­ers. Pol­ish work­ers have orga­nized with­in Inic­jaty­wa Pra­cown­icza (Work­ers’ Ini­tia­tive), a rad­i­cal trade union that uses the black sabo-tab­by as its logo. 

The birth of Work­ers’ Ini­tia­tive in 2004 was a reac­tion to the cri­sis of the Pol­ish offi­cial union move­ment – to its bureau­cra­cy, pas­siv­i­ty and links with the anti-work­er gov­ern­ment,” Mag­da Mali­nows­ka, a mem­ber of the group, tells In These Times over e‑mail. Since then, Work­ers’ Ini­tia­tive has orga­nized in the logis­tics indus­try as well as the health­care, edu­ca­tion and cul­ture sectors. 

Pol­ish labor law impos­es a restric­tive bar on strike actions — more than half of an entire work­force must par­tic­i­pate in a strike vote — but Pol­ish Ama­zon work­ers have car­ried out a series of slow­downs to coin­cide with ongo­ing strikes in Germany.

We [did not want to be] used as scabs, with health and safe­ty laws and our rights neglect­ed, so that Ama­zon could ignore the strikes in oth­er ful­fill­ment cen­ters,” says Malinowska. 
Through its safe pack­age” actions, Work­ers’ Ini­tia­tive has car­ried out what are effec­tive­ly work-to-rule strikes, leaflet­ting employ­ees to remind them of the risk of injury from Ama­zon’s speed-ups.
We want to draw the atten­tion of all employ­ees to work above all safe­ty, in accor­dance with health and safe­ty reg­u­la­tions, and not under pres­sure from the employ­er to beat ship­ping records,’ because they will not get any rewards for their ded­i­ca­tion,” says Mali­nows­ka. She adds that since ware­hous­es opened in Poland, ship­ping tar­gets have increased sev­er­al times. 

Coor­di­na­tion between Ama­zon work­ers in dif­fer­ent coun­tries — tak­ing place through cross-bor­der meet­ings of rank-and-file work­ers, as well as the labor fed­er­a­tion UNI—has played an impor­tant role in ramp­ing up strike action else­where in Europe. When Ital­ian Ama­zon work­ers first went on strike in Novem­ber 2017, they were joined by Ver­di mem­bers for a two-day work stop­page dur­ing Black Fri­day. Soon after, Ama­zon signed its first-ever col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment with Ital­ian unions, which intro­duced new sched­ul­ing pro­tec­tions and wage increas­es for overnight shifts. 

The call for a Europe-wide strike dur­ing Prime Day was issued by Span­ish Ama­zon work­ers, who first struck in March at the country’s logis­tics cen­ter in Madrid. The Span­ish labor union­Con­fed­eración Sindi­cal de Comi­siones Obr­eras (CCOO), which is the major­i­ty union for Ama­zon work­ers at a nation­al lev­el, declared the strike a com­plete suc­cess,” with a report­ed 98 per­cent of the 2,000-person work­force tak­ing part. 

How­ev­er, the strike also report­ed­ly led to reprisals and fir­ings of tem­po­rary work­ers, and in May a group of Madrid work­ers issued a call for a Europe-wide strike under the name Ama­zon en Lucha.”

We know that Ama­zon is using its logis­tic net­work in Europe to counter the effect of our respec­tive strikes,” wrote its authors. We in Madrid believe that only if we strug­gle togeth­er will we gain recog­ni­tion for our demands. Sim­i­lar­ly, only with a joint action at a Euro­pean lev­el will work­ers orga­nize in those places where there is no union rep­re­sen­ta­tion yet.”

In addi­tion to strikes and slow­downs in Spain, Ger­many and Poland, Ama­zon work­ers in Great Britain marched over the week­end in a fes­ti­val cel­e­brat­ing the birth of trade union­ism, hold­ing signs read­ing We Are Humans, Not Robots.” An esti­mat­ed 87 per­cent of U.K. Ama­zon work­ers have back or neck prob­lems, accord­ing to a sur­vey by the trade union GMB. 

Ama­zon is a glob­al com­pa­ny and uses glob­al tac­tics,” GMB offi­cial Mick Rix told El Pais. We have to do the same.”

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue