Strikes at Amazon's German warehouses
It was reported in the New York Times on 4th August 2013 that Amazon was facing strikes at warehouses in Germany, its second-biggest market. Unions there say the company has imported American-style business practices — in particular, an antipathy to organised labour — that stand at odds with European norms.
“In Germany, the idea that warehouse workers are going to be getting opposition from an employer when it comes to the right to organize, that’s virtually unheard-of,” said Marcus Courtney, a technology and communications department head at Uni Global Union, a federation of trade unions based in Nyon, Switzerland. “It puts Amazon out in left field.”
Amazon has been criticized for its working conditions in the United States — but not nearly to the same extent as in Europe. On the surface, Amazon’s labour problems in Germany revolve around wages.
The union says workers in warehouses in two small German cities are properly classified as retail employees, and should be paid at the higher rate required for people who work in department stores and other retail outlets. Amazon says they are more properly classified as warehouse workers, and paid at a lower rate.
The subtext, though, is Amazon’s opposition to unions in its warehouses as a general principle, because the company fears unions will slow down the kind of behind-the-scenes innovation that has propelled its growth.
Workers in Bad Hersfeld and Leipzig began recent strikes organised by the powerful service workers union ver.di, which has about 2.3 million members across Germany, and a sizable war chest to pay striking workers.
Amazon says it has complied with German labour laws by allowing worker councils at its warehouses. But these councils are legally forbidden from getting involved in wage deals, which is why the union wants to get involved.
The union credits the strikes for recent improvements to overtime scheduling, an increase in the number of break rooms and a pledge by Amazon to pay Christmas bonuses, a standard practice in German industry.
At a strike in June with hundreds of workers who gathered outside the gates of the Leipzig plant, the head of ver.di, Frank Bsirske, played on Amazon’s motto of “Work hard. Have fun. Make history,” telling the strikers they should take it to heart.
“You are making history by striking,” Mr. Bsirske told the crowd to cheers and whistles. “You are making history by demanding higher wages. We are not going to let a big American company come here and play Wild West. This is a clash of cultures.”
In the United States, Amazon successfully thwarted efforts to unionise. Over a decade ago, Mr. Courtney of Uni Global led an unsuccessful effort in the company’s home state of Washington to organise Amazon’s customer service representatives.
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