Amazon, union-busting and the need “to do better for workers”

Amazon has long been infamous for its poor working conditions and denial of union rights. Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union and Sharon Graham Unite Executive Officer, explain Amazon’s aggressive union-busting tactics and the campaign in the UK to give workers their right to a seat at the table.

"We need to do a better job for Amazon employees,” Jeff Bezos acknowledged in his final letter to shareholders, just days after the entire world witnessed a shameful union-busting campaign to prevent workers from forming a labour union in Bessemer, Alabama.  

Of course, Amazon used its bottomless resources to beat the workers. But this wasn't a clean fight. Bezos sent an army of anti-union consultants to Bessemer simply to avoid having to sit across the bargaining table with workers who want to negotiate over pay, health and safety, production targets, and a better future for their families. The tech giant paid some of the most infamous, ruthless union-busters to force workers into intimidating and mandatory meetings, spread anti-union propaganda, and even change the schedule of traffic lights.   

There is widespread suggestion that Amazon cheated, and the US government is reviewing the situation. In a fair fight, we believe workers would have overwhelmingly voted to form a union.   

We know this because the workers who kept Amazon’s operations moving full speed during the pandemic are now demanding payback and respect everywhere. We have seen a union election in Bessemer but also strikes in Germany, Italy, and France, and a new campaign launched in the UK. These are all signs that Amazon workers won’t stop demanding justice.  

Global anti-union tactics

It is not a secret that Amazon’s ruthless management regime has disastrous impacts on workers’ bodies and lives: with industry-leading injury rates, degradation of working conditions and pay in the logistics sector and reports from workers around the world of emotional pressure and anxiety to “make rate.” And yes Mr. Bezos, many are forced to pee in bottles.    

But there’s more. Over the past year, a series of leaks about Amazon's security operations have shown that Amazon is engaging in a global surveillance campaign against workers, their unions, and other civil society organizations. Spying on workers and firing activists for speaking up for safety in the warehouses during the pandemic are all practices that have no place in a democracy. Amazon needs to explain what it’s been doing, and it needs to cease these practices immediately.  

Now the European Parliament is asking Jeff Bezos to testify,  because he has a lot of explaining to do. The hearing, which will take place on 27th May, will focus on violations of workers’ rights and union activity at Amazon. 

What’s clear is that with or without anti-union consultants, for the past 25 years, Amazon has been virulently anti-union everywhere it operates. Threats, lies, coercion, and divisive tactics based on individual profiling are routine as we have seen in Bessemer and across other areas of the USA at the height of the pandemic.

Image: Amazon Warehouse
Amazon warehouse

Campaign in the UK and Ireland

In the UK and Ireland, even though there are many union members in Amazon, workers are not currently free to join a union without fear and without obstruction and propaganda being deployed against them. Unite's helpline for Amazon workers has revealed serious concerns about issues such as bullying, mandatory overtime, intense surveillance, break-neck production targets and much more besides. 

For this reason, Unite launched its Action on Amazon campaign. The union has written to Jeff Bezos to call on him to sign a declaration which guarantees that Amazon workers in the UK and Ireland have the freedom to talk with and form a union without fear. 

Unsurprisingly Amazon isn’t prepared to agree to these reasonable demands. But Unite is upping the ante and launching a cross party-political campaign: it’s calling on MPs in the UK to back new rules that prevent Amazon’s Web Services division from bidding for and renewing government contracts worth hundreds of millions unless it guarantees its workers have the right to join a union without fear or reprisals.  

Unite is serious and is prepared to use all the resources at its disposal to give Amazon workers an independent voice to stand up to injustices.  

Amazon needs to learn that in a polarizing world, where economic inequality and a high concentration of power are threatening the very fabrics of our societies, unions can be the counterbalance that we need to give people hope—and a voice.  

Collective bargaining is a tried-and-true model, which has delivered progress for working people over many decades around the world. If Amazon really believes that they need “to do better for workers”, there’s a simple and time-tested solution: let the workers have a voice at work to improve their jobs and defend their interests without interference. Is Amazon ready to put it in writing?

About the authors' organisations

UNI Global Union represents more than 20 million workers from over 150 different countries in the fastest growing service sectors in the world. UNI and our affiliates in all regions are driven by the responsibility to ensure these jobs are decent and workers’ rights are protected, including the right to join a union and collective bargaining. 

Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.