July 15, 2021
From Angry Workers Of The World
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We translated this introduction from the latest issue of the Wildcat magazine. It raises significant wider questions about the political context of struggles in the logistics sector. More reports to follow…

Everyone’s talking about Amazon. The media and politicians get goose bumps at the wealth and power of Jeff Bezos. But the left also starts quivering at the idea of the ‘total control’ over the poorly paid and ‘inhumanly exploited’ workers in the Amazon warehouses. Once again, the myth of all-dominating capitalist technology clogs up brains and distorts political intervention! Portraying workers only as heavily surveilled, atomized and powerless individuals is the typical paternalistic approach of many on the left and most unions too (‘the workers are weak without us’). In the following articles, we take a closer look at the labor process in an Amazon warehouse and in the warehouse of a drugstore. The workers there are by no means mindless appendages of the big machine.

Starting in the 1970s, the bosses fought against workers who had become too strong by downsizing large companies, by outsourcing parts of them and building up a supplier system. The ‘just in time’ transport required for this led to an extreme growth of the transport sector and of traffic in general. And many new jobs were created in goods logistics. Despite truck drivers’ strikes, wages in this sector have since fallen. Retail groups like Walmart and Amazon, whose core competence is the control of logistics, expanded and displaced old distribution structures. Over the last ten years, new concentrations of workers have emerged in this logistics bubble [1]. While employers in western Europe and the USA hardly ever build factories with more than 3,000 workers, Amazon USA, for example, set up a warehouse with twice as many employees within a few months (Bessemer/Alabama). In the USA, there are more than 100 large logistics centers with an average of 5,000 workers and in Europe there are more than 60 with an average of 2000 workers. In addition, there are company-own development centers, etc. [2]

The pandemic profiteer

Amazon was founded in 1994, initially as a book mail order company; it launched in Germany in 1998. Bezos survived the ‘dot.com crash’ of 2000/01 and the 2008 crisis relatively unscathed. In January 2001, he laid off 1,300 people, but there have been no job cuts since then. Today, Amazon is one of the largest corporations in the world by revenue and employees. Founder Jeff Bezos could become the first trillionaire. In the pandemic year of 2020, sales increased 38%, profits doubled, and 427,000 new people were hired. Amazon now employs 1.3 million people, plus 500,000 drivers who are employed by subcontractors that work more or less exclusively for Amazon. In 2010, Amazon employed only 33,700 people and reported an annual profit of $1.1 billion. By 2020, profit was $21.3 billion – 19 times more profit, but 39 times more employees!

Amazon has acquired immense power and took over companies in other industries, such as the Whole Foods organic supermarket chain in 2017, and the MGM movie studio more recently… and Bezos owns one of the most influential daily newspapers, the Washington Post. Amazon Web Services (AWS) provides IT for major companies and even governments, such as the US’s intelligence agency, the CIA. AWS is by far the largest cloud provider in the world and has contributed disproportionately to overall profits for years. Amazon sees the future here and also wants to continue getting government contracts from the Pentagon. Andy Jassy, the head of AWS, will replace Jeff Bezos at the top of the group in the third quarter of 2021.

The labor-intensive core of the company is the transport of goods to consumers; in Germany, this is Amazon Logistik GmbH, based in Bad Hersfeld. Over the last 20 years in this part of Germany, Amazon has expanded via credit expansion and tax evasion. Governments in Europe have changed their tax laws to allow Amazon to shift profits to Luxembourg and therefore save taxes. 75% of all Amazon business outside the United States is conducted through subsidiaries in Luxembourg. Some were set up simply to take a loss and transfer it there. Those losses can be converted into tax credits in the US. The bottom line is that Amazon has never paid taxes in the US and picked up credit worth $13.4 billion. Amazon also transferred most of its profits to Luxembourg – where it has $17.2 billion that never went on its’ balance sheet. Amazon used these tax-free profits to finance its expansion – leading to steep sales growth in the noughties, even during the 2008 crisis. [3] In 2020, the group reported taxable income in online retailing for the first time – in the midst of the debate over the resolution of a global minimum tax.

Bezos also paid hardly any income tax himself because he used every trick in the book (as a multi-billionaire, he even got a $4,000 tax credit for reporting losses). For the past nine years, Amazon has refused to pay the higher wage of the retail collective contract in Germany – by saying instead that they’re a transport company. On June 12, 2021, the day the Green Party included a demand for twelve euros minimum wage in its election platform, Amazon announced that it would pay all employees at least twelve euros gross per hour from day one, starting in July. In addition, Amazon Germany joined the ‘Hauptverband des deutschen Einzelhandels’ [Employers’ association for retail]. The service union ver.di is demanding 12.50 euros minimum.

Amazon observes social trends very closely and tries to anticipate them. If Bezos sees a development that is disadvantageous for Amazon as no longer avoidable, he creates facts and tries to get across that there is no need for regulating institutions such as trade unions, tax offices, collective wage agreements, etc.

Why did workers have such a hard time enforcing their interests against Amazon during the expansion phase?

Amazon operates fulfillment centers (FCs which are warehouses) and delivery stations (DSs – basically distribution centers). Workers in FC warehouses, pick, pack and ship to DSs. From there, the parcels go to the customer’s address. [4] The steps are meticulously organized, decomposed, and standardized based on the division of labor. Compared to others in the industry, Amazon uses digital monitoring much more extensively. The work is easier to train, and workers are more quickly replaceable.

In recent years, Amazon drove an aggressive expansion strategy. Credit on growing sales have been invested in buying up companies, in new IT infrastructure, in its own product ranges and in new warehouse infrastructure. For example, Amazon has been delivering to German addresses from Poland since 2014. Amazon now employs almost 20,000 people there, just a few thousand fewer than in Germany. Since the end of May 2021, there has also been a Polish Amazon website. With the warehouses in Poland, Amazon was able to compensate for shortfalls caused by strike actions by ver.di in Germany, despite the fast that the ‘grassroots union’ ‘Workers’ Initiative’ (IP) have been organizing solidarity actions in Poland. [5] This is because the workers in Poland do the same work as in Germany, they are not two interdependent processes.

It is easier to build and operate a second or parallel Amazon warehouse, than, for example, a second car factory. A warehouse costs much less and does not require long training periods for workers. In this expansion phase, it was first objectively more difficult for Amazon workers to do the necessary economic damage with local strikes. Amazon wants to make it clear to its workers that they can’t achieve anything with strikes. Of course, Amazon does not ‘communicate’ it that way, but ‘communicates to its workers’ that they do not need to strike (see Bessemer).

Robots

A recent study points out that there are more workplace accidents at Amazon than at other warehouses, and especially where robots are used. [6] Management wants autonomous driving robots: they move shelves, packages, and pallets – no faster than humans or conveyor belts, but they save space. For workers, the trend towards more robots has the disadvantage of more stationary, and thus more monotonous jobs that are further apart in location.

There are jobs that are much faster to perform with machines, such as sorting specific parts and palletizing. In these processes, machines can be used to cover the basic workload. You can see this quite well in the following workplace report: Amazon uses the sorting machines for the usual, average turnover of parcels. Everything beyond that volume is done by people, and at peak times hundreds of additional workers are brought in to do this. There is always a parallel structure in which people do the same activities purely manually. The main stress for the workers occurs where they are needed most: during capacity bottlenecks.

Human labor is not ‘replaced,’ but is visibly at the center in an Amazon warehouse; it is dynamic – while machinery functions only statically. The big ‘automation’ announcements by the employers have gone quiet. “Complete automation of warehouses would be very complicated and expensive. Highly complex and cost-intensive solutions such as picking robots are still rarely found,” says a study on warehouse logistics by the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training [Bundesinstituts für Berufsbildung über Lagerlogistik].

(Workers’) Mobilizations

Trade union organizing efforts have so far taken the classic form: building as large a membership base as possible, partly by ‘salting’ (the union sends people into a workplace to organize from within) and ‘organizing’ (the union sends paid organizers to the gate) in order to be recognized as a bargaining representative. In Germany, ver.di has been mobilizing for almost ten years, but has not yet been able to push through its main demand for the integration of Amazon workers into the better paid retail collective agreement (instead of logistics).

Ver.di’s attempts to force Amazon to be recognized as a ‘collective bargaining partner’ by using trade union means (membership recruitment and strikes announced long in advance, strictly in accordance with legal requirements) is naïve. For unions to emerge, non-union, ‘illegal’ means have to be used. However, we are not saying anything new there, trade unionists know this themselves. For ver.di, preventing the emergence of a somewhat more militant rank-and-file structure is more important than the ‘quick success’ of being recognised by Amazon.

Parallel to the ver.di campaign, media pressure on Amazon grew from 2012/13. Also in 2012, Amazon sent workers from Graben (Bavaria) to Leipzig for training. As a result, workers in Leipzig found out that the guys in Graben earned significantly more per hour – when they found out, workers stopped working for that day! Amazon management was so shocked that they decided not to issue anyone with warnings or suspension letters, but rather to initiate an immediate wage increase: in Leipzig and in Hersfeld, where there were also workers from Graben employed. During these years, a broader (union) movement began at several sites. The first result was a series of works council elections. As early as February 2013, the Amazon Germany boss himself called for works councils to be formed in response, but continued to reject negotiations with ver.di. Today, there are works councils at all sites.

At the beginning of April 2013, a strike ballot was held with 92% participation of the 520 ver.di members at the Leipzig warehouse (a total of 1,200 permanent employees and 800 temporary workers are employed there). 97% voted in favor of strike action, and the first actions were held in Leipzig and Bad Hersfeld at the end of April. In 2015, the resistance began to become international. People from Poznan who had organized in the IP union made contact with workers in Germany. This resulted in regular meetings of workers from Poland, France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Almost all of those involved are active in union shop-floor groups, but the meetings are not organized by the unions. They call themselves Amazon Workers International. (In addition, since 2014 there has been an Amazon working group at UNI Global, a large union international umbrella organization but one that is made up of union officials – they are quite successful in capturing activists.)

In Winter 2017, a Europe-wide day of action on ‘Black Friday’ was held for the first time. In Italy, where previously only left-wing grassroots unions had been active in goods logistics, [7] the major CGIL-CISL-UIL union federations had now called a strike in Castel San Giovanni near Piacenza, Italy. Half of Amazon’s direct employees took part; temporary workers were excluded from the strike, as were those who had recently been hired on a temporary basis. Thus, the strike had little impact on the delivery of goods. In 2018, the unions reached an agreement on working conditions for the first time. Italian and German trade unions celebrated this as a unique success worldwide, but shortly thereafter more sober assessments followed – they had to admit: “Trend reversal failed to materialize”, “Amazon appears largely immune” [8].

So far, there have been no strikes that have led to a complete halt in deliveries.

Meanwhile, protests from outside took place: Make Amazon Pay in 2017 against tax avoidance, against relocating headquarters to New York in 2019, against data collection, against the energy-intensive server farms, etc. In 2019, 3,000 developers (‘tech workers’) in the US organized a demo as part of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice campaign. They criticize the close ties with the military. They are beginning to question their work and are organizing. In the meantime, Google employees have also founded a union.

… and improvements

In 2018, after a long ‘Fight for 15’ campaign (which continues to this day), Amazon in the US raised the wage in the lowest wage bracket to at least $15, affecting more than 250,000 permanent employees and 100,000 seasonal workers. Amazon has always sought to pay 10-20% above the local prevailing wage for comparable work in a non-bargaining plant. Now, depending on the location, the wage is often twice the legal minimum wage, for example $15 instead of $7.25 in Bessemer.

Wages in Germany have also risen by more than 30% in recent years. Since each warehouse is a separate limited company, they still vary. They are currently 11.30 to 12.70 euros at entry level, rising in two stages to 13.20 to 15 euros after two years. From July 2021, the entry-level wage will be 12 euros (see above).

Initially, workers in Amazon warehouses with an active ver.di representative body won (low) Christmas and vacation bonuses, air conditioning and almost everywhere the abolition of temporary agency work – later this became the standard for all. Other concessions are only made at individual sites, usually by company agreement with the works council: reduction of the proportion of temporary contracts, minute-by-minute billing of overtime, more favorable shift models… The works council functions as a buffer: Amazon uses it to co-manage both improvements and deteriorations of working conditions. ‘The pretty high Corona bonus for all? – Thank the works council! The new six-day week? – Signed by the works council!’

Amazon reacts to conflicts with concessions almost immediately. This allows workers to win small victories quickly – and prevents conflicts from spreading to other sites.

Distribution logistics is not industrial logistics [9]

Amazon is expanding, hiring more and more people, building more and more warehouses, and bringing thousands of workers together under one roof. Why haven’t these impressive new concentrations of workers managed a powerful strike yet?

Amazon is not a strategic or major supplier of raw materials or semi-finished goods, it delivers finished goods to individual end consumers. No worker depends on the part to be used in a capitalist production process. Instead, a private individual receives the delivery of the goods. Amazon thrives on its promise of fast delivery, but it does not matter to surplus value production whether the goods are delivered on Monday or Tuesday. No machine stands still if this doesn’t happen on time, no capitalist incurs costs.

The workers in the warehouses and the parcel drivers do a job just as necessary for the realization of surplus value as the factory and transport workers in the previous steps, but the complexity of the labor process continuously decreases the closer you get to the final consumer. A small example: a locomotive driver is part of a multi-shift organized transport system. She has to cooperate with several people (wagon master, dispatcher, signalman, shunting attendant, etc.) – the transport system itself requires this. A parcel delivery driver does not have to do this. [10] The capitalist will think twice in the first moments of a strike about letting someone else drive the locomotive. Sending someone on the road in a van is much easier.

On April 7, 2021, dozens of workers went on wildcat strike at a new Amazon distribution center in Chicago (see below). One comrade reports that during the strike, people from management had to – and could – do the work. In the 2017 struggle at VW in Bratislava, the few cars that were finished without the striking workers could not be sold because of defects.

Logistics is not a ‘factory without walls’… [11]

… and the cooperation and interdependence in a warehouse is not the same as in a factory, even if productive work is performed during some of the work-steps. The organic composition [12] of a warehouse is lower. A single large central European car manufacturing site employs more people than Amazon employs in the whole of Germany – and yet a worker in a state-of-the-art parcel distribution center faces half as much constant capital (equipment) as in a car factory. Workers employed in a higher organic composition are often in a stronger position vis-à-vis the capitalist.

Work processes in a warehouse are organized differently from a manufacturing plant. Aggregating [13] (assembling) many individual parts into more complex parts in parallel and interlocking processing steps requires a high level of productive cooperation [14]. This produces collective skills and knowledge – or presupposes this collective knowledge: how is the work done so that a use value is produced as a result? How do we have to operate machines, perform manual operations, solve problems, etc.?

When on strike, workers withhold knowledge and skills – the capitalists can’t find anyone to replace them. In such aggregative processes, workers learned quite quickly how to hit the bosses (US auto industry in the 30s, then in Italy in the 60s). In the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969, workers shut down entire factories with ‘checkerboard strikes’ (a few, selected departments stop work for a while, which stops production in other departments; the wage sacrifice is much smaller that way); they had recognized the strategic points of the labor process. In contrast, Amazon can draw on a large reservoir of the same, largely independent warehouses and delivery workers – and in the event of a ‘glitch’ can even hire other logistics companies/competitors to deliver.

… how can workers develop their own power then?

In the midst of the ‘labor supply shock’ of globalization, when the vast majority of the left thought that the workers’ struggle was now over, Beverly Silver in Forces of Labor (2003) tried to explain the weakness of workers in certain countries structurally and historically. Historically, she was able to show: where capital goes, workers’ struggles also arise (at the turn of the century, for example, in China). To the question of which industries workers in the metropolises can still fight today, she answered largely with: where outsourcing is not possible, for example teachers and nurses.

Structurally, she tried to decipher what workers’ power is based on, distinguishing between ‘structural power’ (workers who cannot be replaced in the first place and can cause great economic damage by withholding their labor power) and ‘associational power’ (for workers who have little structural power, it is all the more important to organize). But this ’associational power’ does not come flying in from outside! It has to be produced.

The ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 did not spring like a chick from an egg; unified strikes had to be enforced over the years through all kinds of forms of struggle: Making foremen and small bosses compliant, protecting internal factory marches, direct coercion against individuals who did not want to participate, ridiculing scabs… ‘Unity’ is not the precondition, but the result of workers’ struggle through processes of persuasion/threat/coercion. At its core, it is about workers coming to common beliefs and rules of conduct. ‘Never cross a picket line’ was one of them.

On Beverly Silver’s basis, Labor Revitalization Studies emerged in subsequent years, further differentiating their concepts in the ‘power resources approach.’ ‘Market power’ arises from the skills and work experience of individual skilled workers, who are in short supply in the labor market and can therefore command high wages. This categorization is quite wonderful for academic research projects. But it is politically indifferent, because it can be read in all kind of ways, from the necessity for self-organisation to ‘Workers are treated lousy? So they need a union!’. Most importantly, this approach does not analyse the labor process and ultimately has a technical notion of workers’ power (‘production power’ = ‘skilled workers’ on expensive machines).

Fortunately, not only ‘Marxists’ at their desks ask such questions, but workers in the real struggles over the last few years! And in view of their experiences during these struggles, they have also come to other answers. In the following, we will first look at two ‘historical’ attempts by traditional trade unions, which have been named as being of ‘historical’ importance, and then at an example of how workers’ collectives can actually prevail against the bosses through informal organizing at the workplace.

Two union actions in Italy and the USA in the first quarter of 2021

In Bessemer, in the anti-union US state of Alabama, (a Republican dominated state, where right-to-work laws prevail [15]), workers recently enforced the first ballot on whether a union should represent people in the workplace. Voting ended on March 29. Out of 5,800 workers, only 55% participated in the postal vote (!), of which only 738 voted for the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), 1,798 against.

Afterwards, explanations for this defeat were immediately at hand: the struggle now continues in court, anti-union propaganda and mobilization on the part of Amazon were the reason for the defeat (according to the RWDSU); no, the wrong tactics of the RWDSU, which relied on its structures and functionaries, were to blame (Jane McAlevey). More detailed analyses criticize that the organizing efforts ignored the reality of workers: Amazon pays a relatively high entry-level hourly wage of $15 and provides health insurance; the work is okay compared to other jobs; and an 85% majority of black workers cannot be equated with positive attitudes toward the RWDSU. [16] This ignorance might also have something to do with the fact that top RWDSU officials earn more than many business owners.

The $15 hourly wage is two dollars above what unskilled workers in Alabama warehouses earn on average – Amazon’s usual strategy to be able to recruit just about enough workers. Night shift workers earn $17.50 an hour. Some Amazon workers in Bessemer previously worked in lower-wage jobs. Others came from factories that paid more, but had closed; some wanted a change despite previously making higher wages. [17]

In Italy, ‘grassroots unions’ like SI Cobas began organizing protests in the logistics sector ten years ago. For workers, this brought collective agreements, higher wages, etc. The grassroots unions were able to grow. The established ‘confederate’ unions are therefore under pressure to regain leadership in the industry. To that end, FILT-CGIL, FIT-CISL and UIL called all Amazon workers in Italy to strike on March 22, 2021. 9,500 people are employed directly by Amazon in Italy, but if we include workers on subcontracts and those who are hired through agencies this number increases to 40,000, at least according to union estimates.

The organizers spoke of 75-90% strike participation. In comparison: in Leipzig and Bad Hersfeld in Germany, the participation was 30- 40% according to ver.di. Amazon Germany spoke of 10% participation in the warehouses, 20% among the delivery staff. The union figures from Italy are certainly greatly exaggerated – people who were there report significantly less participation, although more than Amazon states. There are no definitive numbers to date. The crucial point, however, is how much of the daily target was not delivered – there is no information on this. Even the much quoted sociologist Francesco Massimo speaks of a ‘historic strike’, but admits that it is ‘difficult to say’ whether it caused economic damage. [18]

Bessemer has shown once again how far workers’ realities and trade unionism diverge. The criticism of business unionism or ‘deep organizing’ is correct – but it does not go deep enough.

Footnotes:

[1] On average, more and more kilometers are driven for each good transported even though lean production training courses preach the “avoidance of unnecessary unnecessary journeys” – and the volume of goods transported continues to increase.

[2] If you want to count Amazon’s worldwide locations on wikipedia

[3] Peter Kapern: Amazon saves taxes with this method, www.dlf.de, May 14, 2021

[4] More specifically, there are six different types of Amazon warehouses: Sortable FC, Non-Sortable FC, Sortation Centers, Receive Centers, Speciality, and Delivery Stations. The first five can be roughly grouped under Fulfilment Centers.

[5] Wildcat 99: Working at Amazon in Poland – Interview, Winter 2016.

[6] Strategic Organizing Center: Primed for Pain – Amazon’s Epidemic of Workplace Injuries, www.thesoc.org, May 2021

[7] Wildcat 101: Struggles in Italian Logistics, Winter 2017/18.

[8] Jörn Boewe, Johannes Schulten: The Long Struggle of Amazon workers, www.rosalux.de, September 2019.

[9] Sergio Bologna: Inside Logistics: Organization, Work, Distinctions, www.viewpointmag.com, 29.

[10] A parcel driver sometimes consults with two or three colleagues, if he can’t find an address, can’t do his daily workload, gets sick, has an accident… The ideal route in your delivery area you develop over time: where is the best place to park? Where are the hidden mailboxes? Who is never at home, where can I park?Where do I have to watch the dog? Early in the morning you do the loading of your van alone and the packages that are left over at the end of your shift, you usually unload them alone or leave them inside the van for the next day. If sufficiently stressed a parcel driver might sometimes leave his van parked up somewhere and bugger off. If, in comparison, you leave a locomotive behind, nothing works on the track anymore.

[11] Brian Ashton: The Factory without Walls, www.metamute.org, 14. September 2006

[12] “The composition of capital is to be conceived in two senses. On the side of value, it is determined by the ratio in which it is divided into constant capital or value of the means of production and variable capital, or the value of labor power, the total sum of wages. According to the side of the material, as it functions in the production process, each capital is divided into means of production and living labor power. This composition is determined by the ratio between the mass of the means of production used, on the one hand, and the quantity of labor required for their application, on the other. I call the former the value composition, the latter the technical composition of capital. Between the two there is a close interrelation. To express this, I call the value composition of capital, in so far as it is determined by its technical composition and reflects its changes: the organic composition of capital.” (Marx)

[13] Romano Alquati: Capital and the Working Class at FIAT: A Center Point in the international cycle[PDF/German], April/May 1967, www.wildcat-www.de, esp. Pg. 3 in the PDF: “Characteristics of the ‘Aggregation Industry’”

[14] See Marx, Capital Volume 1, eleventh chapter: cooperation; and Romano Alquati: Organic Composition of Capital and Labor Power in OLIVETTI, 1962/1963, German Translation at www.wildcat-www.de

[15] Right-to-work laws prohibit unions from charging membership fees to workers who are not members. In addition union membership may not be a condition of a labor contract. (Closed Shop or Union Shop)

[16] Felice Mometti & Connessioni Precarie: Why workers at Amazon’s Bessemer (Alabama) warehouse don’t want a union[German], www.wildcat-www.de, April 11, 2021

[17] Lauren Kaori Gurley: ‘The unionizing workers who became Amazon’s biggest threat’, www.vice.com, March 18, 2021
Noam Schreiber: ‘Amazon says it pays Alabama workers well; other local employers pay more’, www.nytimes.com, March 18, 2021.




Source: Angryworkers.org