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The Global Fight to Organise Amazon

Taj Ali

Today, workers in over 30 countries are taking industrial action against Amazon. Jeff Bezos’ exploitative practices are global — but so is the struggle against them.

Panic, fear, uncertainty. Everything changed after March 2020. A deadly disease was spreading fast, brick and mortar businesses went bust, and long-term employees lost their livelihoods. But for billionaire Jeff Bezos, business was booming. His trillion-dollar company was opening a new warehouse in the US roughly every twenty-four hours and cementing its position as an e-commerce empire.

This was a tale of two Covids. The best of times for Bezos and the worst of times for warehouse workers. While champagne corks were popped in million-dollar mansions, thousands of Amazon workers feared for their health, their jobs, and their livelihoods.

Chris Smalls began working at the JKF8 Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, in 2015. Every day he would commute over two hours each way from his home in New Jersey. At work, he would be on his feet for twelve hours, handling 400 items an hour. The job was long, repetitive, and physically demanding. Even at the age of 31, Smalls suffered from aches and pains. But it was a daily toil that put food in the fridge for his three children.

As Covid-19 wreaked havoc, Smalls worried what it might mean. ‘This was a life-or-death situation. We were watching people [being] put in body bags on the news,’ he recalls. ‘My mum worked at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I would talk to her on the phone at night and she would tell me they had eighteen-wheeler trucks full of bodies outside the hospital.’ Smalls was terrified. ‘I didn’t want to be put in a body bag. I didn’t want to pass on this disease to my kids and my loved ones.’

A supervisor at the time, for weeks Smalls raised concerns with Amazon about a lack of safety precautions in his warehouse . But he was ignored. ‘What we saw on the ground, especially in our department, were people with physical symptoms, dizziness, fatigue. People weren’t able to finish their shifts. Some weren’t even showing up.’ Smalls went on to organise a walkout over the lack of protection and was fired by Amazon on the same day.

Early Efforts

In France, Amazon workers were far more militant. They held strikes across eight warehouses to demand action on overcrowding and the lack of sanitiser. It wasn’t long before national labour inspectors were ordering Amazon to address safety hazards. Later, a French court ruled that the company hadn’t done enough to protect workers. Amazon was forced to carry out a full-risk assessment and develop additional health and safety measures: non-compliance would result in a penalty of €1 million per violation.

France has one of the lowest union memberships in Western Europe, with private sector union density at 5 percent. Yet, unlike in the US and the UK, workers were able to confront their employer and win. How did they succeed?

Protester in Bretigny-sur-Orge, France (Photo by Benjamin Girette / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

For one, the legal landscape in France is far more advantageous.

Workers in France have far fewer hurdles when it comes to organising. Amazon workers, like the overwhelming majority of workers, are covered by sectoral collective bargaining agreements. This means that unions don’t just negotiate on behalf of their own members: they negotiate for everyone in the workplace. There are also elections every five years, determining which union will represent the workforce, and workers will often follow their line in the event of a grievance.

In the US, union recognition requires a majority of the workforce to join. Going up against billion-dollar companies, with million-dollar campaigns, is hardly an easy feat. On the back of events in France, Amazon workers at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, launched a union recognition campaign. However, despite a high-profile effort backed by celebrities and politicians alike, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union lost the recognition campaign by a two to one margin.

Throughout the campaign, Amazon held mandatory meetings with workers and deployed aggressive anti-union messaging to discourage recognition. Fighting against a deep-pocketed foe was never going to be easy, particularly when the company could spend $14 million a year on anti-union consultants. But Smalls and his co-workers, who’d gone down to Bessemer to support the campaign, felt a very different approach was needed.

Independent Road

In April 2021, Smalls sought to forge a different path: alongside his colleagues Jordan Flowers and Gerald Bryson, he set up the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), designed specifically to represent Amazon workers. They then set about their own recognition drive.

Flowers was a robotics technician who was fired and re-hired three times at Amazon. ‘That’s honestly never been heard of,’ he tells Tribune. ‘The third time I got fired, they said I voluntarily resigned in the midst of being on a kidney transplant list.’ Flowers suffers from a kidney disease called lupus nephritis, his kidneys having failed when he was just 12 years old.

A rally before the Amazon Union’s next vote in Staten Island, New York, USA (Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Like Flowers, Gerald Bryson joined Amazon in the hope of working in robotics, only to be told he would have to work on the assembly line lifting boxes. ‘They said to me, “If you keep your stats high, you can do robotics two times a week.” So you’re busting your ass doing one job to try to [do] another job, and it’s seen as a privilege,’ he says. ‘It’s a bunch of bullshit.’

Statistics and surveillance are the modus operandi of the assembly line. Workers are tracked from the moment they pick up a scanner. Breaks and idle time are monitored — and a culture of fear is inevitable. The work is physically demanding, and the rate of serious injuries is double the national industry average. Corporate doublespeak is a prominent feature: warehouses are fulfillment centers, workers are associates, and disciplinaries are adapts.

‘In most of the warehouse, there are no windows,’ says Flowers. ‘The only time you can see the outside is when you work in the docks, unloading the truck.’ The work is dull, grey, and boring. ‘It’s the way a penitentiary runs,’ adds Bryson. ‘You can’t look out and say, “My, it’s a beautiful day.” You’re stuck in the dark.’

The 855,000-square-foot JKF8 warehouse that they worked in and chose to organise is one of the largest Amazon warehouses in the world. ‘You’re talking a dozen soccer fields,’ explains Bryson. ‘You’ve got to run down to the break room in seven minutes, sit and eat for four minutes, then run back before the machine counts your time lost.’

When the ALU began its recognition campaign in April 2021, improving pay and conditions were, of course, a priority — but more than anything else, it was a battle for dignity and respect.

Breakthrough Campaign

The ALU set up shop near a bus stop outside the warehouse. On their first day of campaigning, they were told they couldn’t have a tent near the bus stop, despite it being a public space. ‘They had guys come out and try to remove us,’ says Bryson.

During the recognition campaign in Bessemer, union density in Alabama stood at 8 percent. By contrast, New York had the second highest union membership in the US, at 22.2 percent. This made a significant difference, with plenty of support coming in from across New York’s unionised sectors. ‘The MTA bus drivers are union,’ says Bryson. ‘They are for us. We’d be out there all day and they’d give us the combination so we could use the bathroom.’

Over the next few months, the campaign would feature music, barbeques, and bonfires. While there was plenty of joy, there was plenty of anger and frustration too. The group would often venture into the Amazon car park, handing out leaflets to workers before getting into confrontations with managers who accused them of trespass. Smalls himself was arrested and charged in February last year after the ALU sought to deliver lunch to workers during their break.

‘The police near our facility have a specific squad just for us,’ Flowers claims. ‘Some of us got arrested. It was the same cops over and over again. Honestly, they know who we are.’ In the warehouse, too, the ALU encountered difficulties. Anti-union consultants were organising with the kind of financial backing that the ALU could only dream of. ‘You’ll see them in the warehouse. They have management vests on. They’ll ask workers, “Have you heard about the Amazon Labor Union?” and give them misinformation,’ explains Flowers. ‘It’s an industry, ’ adds Bryson. ‘These guys are getting big money. They can pay a union buster $17,000 to $19,000 per week now.’

Throughout the campaign, Smalls was subjected to smears, with a leaked memo from an internal meeting attended by company executives, including CEO Jeff Bezos, dismissing Smalls as ‘not smart or articulate’. But, on 1 April 2022, it was the Amazon leadership that turned out to be the fools. Amazon Labor Union had won by a margin of over 500 votes. They had gained union recognition for a workforce of over 7,000 people. It was a historic achievement — and it was reported around the world.

Only the Beginning

Celebration of the unionisation vote in Staten Island, New York, USA (Photo by Andrew Renault / AFP via Getty Images)

Union recognition, as difficult as it can be, is just the first step. As railway workers and doctors in Britain can attest, gaining concessions from employers can be a long and bitter battle even with unionised workforces and leverage in the workplace.

More than a year on from the breakthrough in Staten Island, contract negotiations are yet to begin. Union recognition campaigns elsewhere have failed to mirror New York’s success, and disagreements persist over strategies and tactics. Smalls has received significant public support, travelled the world, testified at a Senate budget committee hearing, and even met President Biden. So, why has progress been slow?

He puts it down to the legislative landscape. Labour law is stacked against workers; and the National Labor Relations Board, even though it has improved under Biden, remains in need of major reform. He feels that the president, in particular, has failed to match his rhetoric with action.

If you want to be the most pro-union president, sure, that’s cool, but put your money where your mouth is. Don’t just talk about it. Put some laws in place that protect workers. Get rid of these laws from the 1930s and the 1940s that don’t have any relevancy anymore. And actually fund the National Labor Relations Board which has been underfunded by $20 million. He just needs to use his executive pen.

At present, the ALU is beset with tensions, with internal critics opposing Smalls’ travelling and calling on him to direct his energy towards securing a contract. Smalls has a different view. For him, travelling is a vital part of building a global movement. ‘It’s the same struggle. No matter where you are in the world, Amazon workers have the same types of grievances.’ Most recently, this perspective brought him to another place seeking union breakthroughs in Amazon: Britain.

Britain’s Amazon Campaign

Earlier this year, Smalls visited Coventry, where Amazon workers have taken more than twenty-four days of strike action since January. ‘I was surprised at how low the pay was. [Just] £10 — £10 for the same work we do in America for $20.’

The organising campaign in the UK differs from its comparator in the US in many ways. For one, it is being led by an established general trade union, the GMB. The union has been organising at Amazon for over ten years, but it was only after wildcat strikes in August last year that it saw a significant breakthrough. Workers took to Telegram groups to coordinate canteen walkouts across a number of sites after a measly 35 pence pay offer during a cost-of-living crisis.

In most warehouses, these actions didn’t last beyond a few weeks; but in Coventry, where GMB had an established membership of around twenty, the campaign was only getting started. A demonstration was held in the city centre to raise awareness of the issues, and new recruits joined WhatsApp groups, with organisers and workers getting together to map the site.

A team of organisers, usually between four to six people, gathered at the gates during shift changes, sharing leaflets and encouraging workers to join the union. ‘We’d occasionally do a big gate job of up to ten people covering both entrances,’ recalls Stuart Richards, senior organiser at the GMB. ‘We were doing this up to three times a week.’ To cater for this diverse workforce, literature was translated by university and college union members from nearby Coventry and Warwick University, an act of solidarity similar to that of the unionised bus drivers in the US.

It wasn’t until six months later that the union could muster the numbers to call a formal strike. The most effective recruitment took place on picket lines as workers stopped cars and asked their colleagues to join. In subsequent strikes, numbers grew and workers were far more assertive. Natural workplace leaders from a range of backgrounds have successfully built a presence in the warehouse, standing up for their colleagues and getting disciplinaries quashed.

But union recognition remains a challenge. The union thought they had a majority in the workplace to gain statutory recognition, but Amazon set about recruiting hundreds of new workers, primarily from India, on short-term contracts in a bid to dilute the unionised workforce. If the GMB made an application for statutory recognition and was not successful, it would have been barred from applying again for three years.

Progress in Britain

Despite this setback, the union remains undeterred and membership continues to grow. Within the space of a year, union membership at the Coventry site has increased to over 1,000 — an increase of more than 5,000 percent. More recently, the union has made a breakthrough at the Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, Staffordshire, which had its first strike in August 2022.

Five years ago, in the first issue of the relaunched Tribune, a union organiser working at that site reported that staff had been urinating in bottles to avoid facing disciplinaries for taking out time, and that workers had developed skeletal problems as a result of the repetitive, straining nature of their work.

The site — one of the oldest and biggest Amazon warehouses in the UK, covering an area the size of eleven football pitches — is notorious. The building has four floors with the only toilets located on the first floor. If a worker needs to use the bathroom, they drop their crate, leave their cart somewhere, and often find themselves sprinting down four flights of stairs. When they return, it’s unlikely they’ll have a cart as there are more workers than carts.

‘As soon as you get to the toilets, you’ll get a message demanding you come to the desk and explain the situation. Then you go back to spending another ten minutes finding a cart; then you’re getting another message asking you what you’re doing,’ explains Emma, who worked at the site for four years. Today, Emma suffers from a bad back, arthritis, and wrist pain. ‘You’re on your feet the whole shift, lifting heavy boxes and totes with anything up to 50 kilos,’ she recalls.

Amazon’s warehouse in Coventry sits on the site of a former vehicle plant. Its Rugeley warehouse sits on the site of a former coal pit. This is the future of work. Where there was once strongly unionised, well-paid, and stable employment, there are now low-paid, insecure jobs. And this phenomenon is international.

Amazon in India

Inside Amazon’s biggest fulfillment center in India (Photo by Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Another site of recent Amazon organising efforts has been India, where the company has had a presence for over ten years. Today, it has more than seventy warehouses across nineteen states. Its fulfillment centers collectively cover 43 million cubic feet — the equivalent of around 400 Olympic-size swimming pools.

The minimum wage in each warehouse is determined by state governments, and Amazon has adjusted its operations accordingly. In the state of Haryana, the minimum wage is about half of that in New Delhi and, unsurprisingly, Amazon often builds its warehouses on the border of Haryana to take advantage of this fact. On a single highway between Delhi and Haryana, the company operates six warehouses. Amazon workers here are getting paid as little as £25 a week.

Like warehouses in the West, the work is physically exhausting, with the added difficulty of working in the Indian heat. Workers frequently complain about high temperatures and allege that cooler fans are facing supervisors rather than themselves. For the past year, union organiser Dharmendra Kumar has been assisting workers with organising in these warehouses under the banner of the Amazon India Workers Association (AIWA).

‘They’re paid peanuts,’ he exclaims. ‘The average salary comes to around 11,000 rupees per month [£104]. And the work is hard. They get no time to rest their bodies.’ Kumar says he has frequently come across cases of injuries. ‘We know of workers who have had their fingers cut. Workers fainting. The medical centre is hardly of use because all they have there [are] paracetamol tablets to reduce body temperature. Workers are often given that tablet and told to go back to work.’

The workforce is young, mostly between the ages of 18 and 25. ‘You won’t find a single old person in the warehouse,’ says Kumar. ‘Amazon sets targets for these workers that are unachievable and impractical. Workers skip the loo to try to meet the targets. Your productivity is constantly monitored. If you can’t do it, you are scolded and eventually fired.’

In December 2022, unemployment in the state of Haryana, where many Amazon warehouses are based, stood at 37.4 percent. ‘Most workers are doing it out of compulsion,’ explains Kumar. ‘They come from very poor backgrounds. From a young age they are responsible for sustaining themselves and their families.’

With these financial pressures to contend with, the prevalence of short-term contracts leaves workers anxious about their future. Many Amazon workers are employed through third parties — a process that parallels the use of agencies and outsourcing in the UK. In India, workers in continuous employment for at least five years are entitled to gratuity pay, a bonus calculated at the rate of fifteen days’ wages for every six months. But few workers manage to stay on for more than five years due to the gruelling nature of the work.

Many see these insecure contractual arrangements as a tool of control. ‘We have cases where workers get an adapt and then their passes are blocked. They are essentially blacklisted. There’s no question of transferring to another warehouse. You’re out for good,’ says Kumar. ‘Maybe they give you a chance in the UK because they don’t find as many people desperate for the job, but in India, unfortunately, people are desperate. That’s what they are exploiting.’

The Future of Capitalism

Under Indian law, workers are entitled to a half-hour break after four hours of work, but the actual rest time, like in the West, is significantly less. ‘They’re counting the time it takes to log in and out of the system; the time it takes to get to the actual break room. It’s very rushed,’ explains Kumar.

I’ve seen pictures and videos of workers using the loo to take rest. Young women and young men sleeping on the floor of the toilets as there’s no provision for that outside. The washroom has become the place of refuge from the gruelling nature of work.

And workers aren’t just monitored in the warehouse — surveillance begins as soon as they leave their homes. Most workers will travel to the warehouses in CCTV-fitted buses provided by Amazon. ‘It means workers can be subject to surveillance for up to fourteen hours a day,’ Kumar tells Tribune.

Most of the established trade unions in India have been concentrated in the public sector, where union recognition has been relatively straightforward. But things are changing. The public sector has shrunk, the private sector has ballooned, and the gig economy has expanded. The AIWA is seeking to turn the tide and make inroads in the ever-expanding e-commerce sector.

Last year, during ‘Prime Week’, workers organised a protest in front of the Indian parliament, calling for an increase in wages and a reduction in the working week. This was part of a global effort alongside workers and union organisers in other countries. ‘We are preparing for that again this year with our global allies,’ says Kumar. ‘This is a global issue and a global campaign.’

In late April, 800 workers in the city of Sonipat arrived for work at the DEL3 Amazon warehouse with their packed lunches, only to be told that the warehouse would be closing down, and sent home without any compensation. Workers began a protest that would eventually culminate in an eight-day sit-in, blocking the entry gates of the Amazon warehouse. ‘I’m happy to say workers forced Amazon to accept all their demands. They won five months’ pay, and Amazon agreed to provide vehicles to transport workers to other sites.’

Another recent victory took place in the state of Rajasthan. Following pressure from the AIWA, the state legislated to provide for a tripartite board including Amazon and other companies, unions, and gig workers. The board collects a levy from companies such as Amazon, which is then used to fund social security for gig workers. ‘We’ve been part of that process. Amazon management has been forced to sit together with Amazon workers.’

The AIWA seeks to build on these successes. Union recognition is a priority, but so too is building a rainbow coalition across India and around the world to unite warehouse workers, delivery drivers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and environmental groups in the global fight against Amazon.

Amazon is a tech behemoth — but it has major vulnerabilities and chokepoints across its supply chain. It invests significantly in PR and, in the internet age, is far more vulnerable to reputational damage. But more than anything else, Amazon’s biggest asset is paradoxically its biggest adversary: an exploited workforce. E-commerce is only set to grow, and will in all likelihood become a defining feature of capitalism for decades to come. How unions respond to companies like Amazon will determine whether they are a force to reckon with or if they will gradually slide into decline.