By Jerry Goldberg
Recent labor struggles against Amazon raise the question of whether retail workers, based on changes in the mode of production, are ripe for union organizing struggles similar to the dynamic period of the 1930s.
In November 2018, a group of Somali workers at the Amazon warehouse near Minneapolis forced Amazon to the negotiating table over their complaints of abusive and discriminatory labor practices. These workers had complained of speed-up, failure to accommodate their religious practices, constant pressure and threats of being fired.
They organized protests for one year, led by the Awood Center, an East African community group whose executive director, Abdirahman Muse, was a seasoned union organizer. As a result of their demonstrations, Amazon agreed to several concessions, including designating a special management team, which would include a Somali-speaking manager, specifically to address productivity rates, firings and other complaints. A number of workers dissatisfied with the settlement voted to stage a large protest and walkout on December 14, during the holiday season.
Amazon workers stage protests and strikes across Europe
On the huge day-after-Thanksgiving shopping day, November 23, Amazon workers organized demonstrations and strikes in several European countries. Workers struck the largest Amazon facility in Spain – the warehouse in San Fernando de Henares near Madrid. They protested the bad safety record, low wages and bad safety conditions at the warehouse.
There were job actions at five locations in Britain, led by the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union (GMB). The demonstrations targeted the poor safety conditions at Amazon warehouses, claiming that ambulances were called out 600 times. The British protest theme was, “Amazon, we’re not robots.”
In Germany, workers struck at Amazon facilities in Rheinberg and Bad Hersfeld, led by the ver.di union (United Services Trade Union). They demanded higher pay and a collective bargaining agreement for Amazon employees.
Growth of warehouse jobs due to ecommerce
The shift to ecommerce to replace much of “brick and mortar” retail trade based on department stores is producing a change in the mode of production for retail workers that potentially lays the basis for a revival in the union movement. Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist for the Progressive Policy Institute, described this change stating: “Ecommerce has created the new factory town.”
An article published by Brookings on September 12, 2017, noted that two industries, general warehousing and storage as well as electronic mail-order houses, employed 1.2 million workers in Amazon-like warehouses and other establishments as of 2016. Employment in this area increased by 372,000 workers from 2010 to 2016, compared to a decrease of 309,000 workers in clothing stores, book stores and news dealers, department stores and office supply stores. Additionally, these statistics don’t factor in the additional 100,000 jobs that Amazon was scheduled to add in 2018.
Ecommerce warehouses concentrate large number of workers in one location, with 1,000 or more workers in each center. They tend to be concentrated in urban centers where the largest populations are located. For example, Amazon has fulfillment centers (large warehouses) in Mobile, Alabama; Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona; all through California; Middletown, Delaware; Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida; Indianapolis, Indiana; Kansas City, Kansas; Louisville, Kentucky; Baltimore, Maryland; three locations in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan; North Las Vegas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Fort Worth, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; Seattle and Spokane, Washington; and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Amazon just announced massive new projects near New York City and Boston, Massachusetts.
Walmart now largest U.S. employer
What remains of more traditional “brick and mortar” retail establishments are also concentrated in fewer and fewer corporations. Walmart, with its superstores employing hundreds of workers in each location, dominates the market. The company now has more workers than any other employer in the U.S. with 1.5 million employees, and is the largest employer in 21 states.
The other largest employers per state are health care systems in 16 states, universities in eight states, industrial enterprises in two states, and airport, food markets and casinos in one state each.
Amazon and Walmart make billions off their exploitation of workers
Amazon posted profits of $2.8 billion for the third quarter of 2018, with the fourth straight quarter amassing profits of over $1 billion. Its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, has a net worth of $143 billion, making him the richest person on earth by $50 billion.
Walmart posted profits of $13.64 billion in 2017. The Walton family, which owns Walmart, is worth $163 billion, making it the richest family on the planet.
In contrast, Walmart “generously” raised its starting wage for hourly workers to $11 an hour this year effective November 1. Amazon raised its base wage to $15 an hour, but eliminated incentive pay and stock rewards, effectively cutting pay for many workers.
Communists must spur rebirth of radical union movement
In the first half of the 20th century, it was the concentration of workers in large industrial establishments that helped fuel the union drives which led to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It took many years for the workers to overcome the backwardness of the American Federation of Labor craft-union mindset for the workers to succeed in forming great industrial unions. It was communists and socialists who introduced militant tactics like the sit-downs that proved decisive in the workers’ ultimate victories.
The concentration of large number of blue-collar workers in retail warehouses and superstores, and especially the growth of these enterprises in metropolitan urban areas, is reminiscent of the transformation of the mode of production in the first decades of the 1900s that produced the industrial unions of the 1930s. It potentially contains the seeds for a similar rebirth of radical unionism in the current period. Revolutionaries can and must direct their attention to this phenomenon to advance the class struggle, and as the Somali workers showed in Minneapolis, these union struggles will gain strength by linking them with the fight against national oppression and special oppression in a workforce that increasingly reflects these changes.
Report from an Amazon worker
This report from Reece Evans, who was an Amazon worker at the Indianapolis fulfillment center for six months, gives a first hand picture of conditions for Amazon workers, and the difficulties as well as prospects for unionization:
Amazon serves as a clear example of the increasing division between the workers and the bosses. Jeff Bezos, the ultra-billionaire CEO of Amazon, has a net worth that continues to grow by unprecedented levels while the severely exploited workers are pushed further past their breaking point. Amazon proudly boasted about the increase of their workers’ wages, however was silent after workers then lost benefits and had an increase of required productivity and expanded labor tracking along with it. In the end the workers will end up making less without the bonuses and will still have their workloads increased, all while Amazon is able to use this publicity to silence workers who are speaking out against this super exploitation.
I have personal experience of working under these conditions as a former employee who first started working during the peak season last year at a warehouse in Indiana of 2,000+ employees. The unsafe working conditions of the warehouse that I was working at became even more dangerous due to the lack of proper safety training for the employees at that facility, including many who didn’t have previous experience working in warehouse conditions. This lack of safety training led to an unnecessary death at a nearby Amazon facility in Plainfield, Indiana. On many occasions we were left understaffed and forced to pick up the workload that was meant for several other employees. They would often send employees home when work was slow and then expected workers who were left behind to fill those positions when the work picked back up. The few breaks that we got would get cut short in order to push the productivity to its maximum amount possible. This contributed to increasing workplace injuries, including many that went unreported.
From the day I was hired it was made clear that organizing in the workplace was not tolerated by the company. They openly attacked workers unionizing, claiming it was unnecessary because workers would be allowed to address any grievances that they had with the management. However, when issues with the conditions of the workplace were raised the employees would only be met with hostility, excuses or laughter. Workers who were discussing these issues would be kept away from working near each other during their shift.
I learned during my experience working at Amazon, from the intense labor-productivity tracking to the long overtime hours, that it is absolutely necessary at this time to forge an alliance between the workers seeking to organize themselves and all those who stand against exploitation and oppression. Amazon workers throughout the world, unite to fight!