The Associated Press revealed this month that Amazon — owned by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos — forced Seattle to repeal a newly enacted tax on corporations designed to help the city’s homeless population. To make matters worse, the widely respected monitoring organization China Labor Watch also blasted the company recently for horrendous working conditions in its supplier factories building Kindles and Echo speakers.
These revelations, however, are not an aberration when it comes to Amazon — especially on the issue of labor conditions.
Recent reports that the median pay for Amazon employees is only $28,446 a year demonstrate beyond any doubt that the company is more of a low-wage retailer than a high-wage tech disruptor. These disclosures on poverty pay, including shocking details about huge numbers of Amazon workers who depend on food stamps to survive, add to existing revelations about the company’s brutal and often dangerous working environment and culture.
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Although it faces intense competition from other large multinational corporations like Walmart and Home Depot, there seems little doubt that the e-commerce giant deserves the dubious distinction of being labelled the US’s most anti-worker company.
Amazon warehouses not only push workers to their physical and psychological limits, they can also be deadly places. According to a report by the Council for Occupation Safety and Health (COSH), seven workers have been killed at Amazon warehouses since 2013, including three workers within five weeks at three separate locations last year. COSH reports that Amazon workers have suffered serious and unnecessary injuries — and have sometimes lost their lives — because of a work environment characterized by a relentless demand to meet punishing production targets and disturbing surveillance of workers’ activities.
Amazon’s Union Suppression Tactics
Amazon has been virulently hostile to unions since its inception. Unilateral control of the workplace appears imprinted in the company’s DNA. Amazon believes that unions would hamper the innovation that has propelled its phenomenal growth.
In reality, unionization would provide its warehouse employees their best chance to gain decent wages and improve brutal and dangerous working conditions. But when its employees have attempted to gain a voice at work, Amazon has engaged in sophisticated and aggressive anti-union campaigns.
After the company went all out to defeat an organizing campaign involving a few dozen technicians at a Delaware warehouse in 2014, Time magazine reported that Amazon had “crushed” the labor movement. The lead union officer reported that workers faced “intense pressure from anti-union consultants hired to suppress their organizing drive.”
Amazon often hires internal “union avoidance” experts and advertises for staff with a knowledge of anti-union tactics. One recent job ad stated that an employee relations manager must have “at least seven years direct experience in … union avoidance work, or labor law with an emphasis on union avoidance.” Another senior employee relations ad stated that “significant experience in handling union organizing is required.” A third position required experience “responding to potential union activity.”
Amazon’s brutal work environment and intense opposition to unions is not restricted to its warehouse workers. After Amazon purchased food retailer Whole Foods last year, it imposed its bruising culture, with reports that employees crying at work has become the new normal. The Amazon-owned grocery chain has also started to recruit union avoidance experts. One Whole Foods ad sought legal assistance for the “employment law team on advising on strategies for avoidance of and defense against union activity.”
Amazon’s entry into groceries has also resulted in unionized chains demanding health and pension benefit concessions from workers. Kroger, which employs tens of thousands of union members, recently warned workers that its stores were facing “unprecedented business challenges from new, more nimble competition like online game changer Amazon.”
The reason behind Amazon’s obsession with recruiting union avoidance experts is straightforward. Given the brutal conditions and poverty wages in the company’s large fulfillment centers, which now employ hundreds of thousands of pickers and packers, its workers would likely flock into unions if they were given a free and uncoerced choice. Amazon is determined that these workers will never get such a choice.
Union Suppression in Europe
The company has also displayed an intense opposition to unions in Europe. When the Graphical Print and Media Union tried to organize Amazon workers in 2004 in the UK, management responded by hiring the notorious US-based anti-union consultants, the Burke Group. After its defeat, the union reported that it “had never faced this level of serious professional resistance before.” Amazon was one of the first firms operating in Britain to hire US-based union avoidance experts.
Amazon has also opposed workers’ efforts to organize in Germany, Italy, France and Spain, facing down strikes and protests in all four countries since November 2017. German workers have gone on strike against the company’s practices since 2013, winning limited workplace concessions, but Amazon increasingly views Poland and the Czech Republic as low-wage, non-union alternatives to Germany. The company’s EU logistics director explained that, “In terms of unions, we don’t see a need for that…. We don’t see that as being good at all.”
Nevertheless, according to trade unionists this author spoke to at the UNI Global Union World Congress this month, workers are continuing to organize in Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Poland, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. Given that the US labor movement now recognizes the enormity of what is at stake, it’s also likely that Amazon will face further organizing activity in the United States in the not-too-distant future. Organizing Amazon workers is a priority for the global union federations UNI Global Union and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, as well as for the International Trade Union Confederation.
The struggle for decent work at Amazon is arguably the biggest challenge facing the labor movement today, both in the US and abroad. Unions must organize the e-commerce giant and civilize its brutish workplace. It’s a gargantuan task but if they fail, workers will pay an enormous price.