Last month during Prime Day, the busiest retail date in Amazon's year, workers at fulfilment centres in Spain went on strike, joined by other Amazon workers across Europe.

Over the last decade the way in which many of us work has been transformed, most visibly by the 'gig economy', piecework that counts on the precarity of its employees.

Image: Fulfilment centre at the Raunheim-Mönchhof industrial park. Credit: iStock
Image: Fulfilment centre at the Raunheim-Mönchhof industrial park. Credit: iStock

Zero-hours contracts, Uber, Deliveroo, and especially Amazon have created a feedback loop of service users and service workers, the former depending on the worsening conditions of the latter to provide quicker and more convenient access to products and services, generally accessed immediately over the internet.

The managerial layer at these companies is often invisible or even automated. Uber drivers interface with an app to find work, while Amazon workers are monitored and under pressure to fulfil quotas via a set of screens.

However, with new forms of work and control come new forms of resistance. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has had some success in bringing the struggles of Deliveroo couriers and Uber drivers into the public eye, connecting them with other zero-hours employees such as university porters, cleaners and outsourced workers.

Make Amazon Pay, meanwhile, is a group of activists working to unite people across borders to combat the tech giant.

Amazon en Lucha

In May this year Spanish Amazon workers issued a call-out for a day of strike action in the second half of July, during Prime Day, published on Amazon en Lucha and reprinted by Make Amazon Pay.

In it, they called for unity against the "abuses of the multinational company Amazon" and for the "distribution of its benefits".

The letter reads: "In spite of the company's strategy to open new centres in countries that are "quieter" from the point of view of trade unionism, the tough working conditions it enforces are driving more and more workers to rebel against them."

Successful strikes in Spain of more than 2,000 employees led by the UGT and CCOO unions, with support from the syndicalist CGT, were met with police violence, with videos shared to Twitter that show charges against workers. Some strikers were injured, including broken teeth. Amazon responded to the incident by saying it supports the police

In addition to industrial action the striking workers called on consumers to boycott Amazon Prime day, which ran for two days instead of just the one this year.

Thousands of workers across Europe joined the Spanish workers, with walkouts at six Amazon warehouses in Germany

Stefanie Nutzenberger of Germany's Verdi services union said: "While the online giant gets rich, it is saving money on the health of its workers."

Fulfilment centres

Make Amazon Pay's John Malamatinas explained to Techworld by phone that workers at Amazon fulfilment centres have been in contact with each other for solidarity and joint actions for some years now.  

"Mainly it started with people in Germany, in Cologne, and in Poznan, where there are people organised in an anarcho-syndacalist union," says Malamatinas. "Then they made contact with people in France, and are building bridges to Italy, and to Spain - the European-wide strike attempt - and to the US also. People taking care of logistics struggles, and also to Amazon workers in the US.

"We are in contact with all these movements and things happening against Amazon, not only on the working side but also in the US, the struggle against the headquarter question in different cities."

Pay and conditions at Amazon 'fulfilment centres' are notoriously demanding, where employees are strictly monitored and must keep up to speed with high-pressure electronically issued quotas.

Exposé after exposé after exposé have detailed the dire working conditions internationally that staff feel they must tolerate to keep their jobs, including skipping toilet breaks and in some cases working despite the advice of their doctors.

The experience working at these fulfilment centres appears to be universal. Amazon boasts that it brings jobs to under-served areas, but at the same time it is opening facilities that are subsided, or tax-exempt. It operates across Europe in countries where strict anti-strike laws have been introduced (such as Poland) or labour 'reforms' are undermining and eroding workers' basic rights, let alone their rights to organise, where Amazon is a well-documented union-buster

Last year Amazon paid £15 million in tax on European revenues of £19.5 billion

In Germany, Malamatinas explains that the Verdi union has organised a strike fund and helped to arrange many of the strikes in recent years, but Amazon repeatedly refuses to talk to the union or the workers acting independently.

Refusal to talk aside, another trick up Amazon's sleeve is one that has been tried and tested in America - in spite of, or perhaps because of America's historic legacy with grassroots militant organising - and evident in the corporate anti-union videos you can watch for yourself on YouTube.

"They praise the philosophy of Amazon workers as one team," says Malamatinas. "So they are doing different activities to disturb the strikes in a direct way, but also in an indirect way, through creating this team philosophy that is well-known in the USA."

The current situation is that some fulfilment centres are well-organised and militant (with a "big minority"), but there are also workers who, due to their precarity, or through buying the team philosophy, do not want to stir the pot - turning to the old axiom that the only thing worse than a bad job is no job at all.

Amazon has responded to this militancy by establishing a network of fulfilment centres, so if logistics suffer at one warehouse through a strike or a slow-down, others can at least partly absorb the hit. More recently, it has been relying on warehouses in Poland and the Czech Republic too.

The near-universality of the experience at these fulfilment centres means that, although common demands between warehouses in different countries have not yet all been joined together, their individual demands are similar. Workers are protesting not only poor pay and conditions, but also the "regime of control", says Malamatinas - how Amazon automates micromanaging its workers throughout every aspect of their day, including bathroom breaks, while ramping up quotas.

"There are already some common statements between some countries like Poland, Germany and France, but it has not taken the form of concrete campaigning until now," says Malamatinas. "But we hope in the next five years, because Amazon will play, a major, I think, role in the next years also the resistance against it will develop."

The Tech Transnational

Do these new cross-border alliances fit in to the early signs of a strike wave ready to erupt - from the Virginia teacher walkouts to the UPS drivers in America, car manufacturers across Europe, the Ryanair pilots and the resistance to Macron's 'reforms' in France?

And could this worker-led international cooperation provide a model for a new means of organisation?

In the globalised world that calcified itself in the 90s, which demands endless 'efficiency', where the productive forces are impermanent, can workers successfully take on the flexible operations of the faceless transnational?

Most Amazon consumers will be familiar with the company through the apps and images, websites, flash deals and abstractions, maybe the streaming video service and possibly the dotcom billionaire behind it all, Jeff Bezos (estimated personal wealth: $150 billion). But that could be set to change. Not content with the networks of consumer convenience it has established worldwide, there are signs that Amazon plans to further integrate itself into the everyday.

There are pilot plans for checkout-free stores. The company won an unprecedented public sector procurement contract in Yorkshire, England, potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds more than the total tax paid on its European revenues last year. There has been speculation of Amazon-branded drones winding their way through our cities to drop off packages quickly and more efficiently.

Amazon is making a play in the pharmaceuticals market. And it is even burrowing into the machinery of the state - providing facial recognition technology to police forces and cloud services to the CIA. Amazon Web Services has the lion's share of the 'big three' in the public cloud computing market, silently propping up much of the web with its own data centre infrastructure.

One in two purchases in America are with Amazon. But it would seem that this is just the beginning.

Amazon is "affecting every part of our lives," says Malamatinas.

"What we see is if you take only Amazon, with its platform Mechanical Turk, with its fulfilment centres, it has millions of people under a new labor regime which is transnationally connected," he adds. "There is a big concert going on with national politics - politics at a national level - and the transnational economic layers like Amazon and the big five, Google, Facebook, etc. I think we will see conflicts going on, even between countries and companies, and the people in the countries."

"In Germany the big bet is to mount on the political pressure to make some serious discussion - not only publishing grievances of strikes for one day - but really something has to happen so that Amazon falls on its knees and comes to the bargaining table," he adds.

There are theories companies like Amazon and Uber do not treat their workers well because they view them as wholly replaceable: not just in that there is a large pool of unemployed workers to exploit in the run-down locations and former industrial centres where it moves in to build its fulfilment centres, but by the fact they are human - a stepping-stone to true automation.

That is speculation, but it's not exactly far-fetched - and in fact it's far less far-fetched than many of the patents that Amazon has filed, for instance a future where warehouses float underwater - or its space programme -  or even Bezos' 10,000-year atomic clock pet project.

"We have to trust ourselves that new alliances are possible between different struggles against the world of Silicon Valley, Jeff Bezos, Zuckerberg, and their friends, and connect them to bigger struggles of logistics against ports, against common choke points, to mount pressure."


 

For a deep dive on how the Amazon workers organised, the Inicjatywa Pracownicza radical union, logistical chokepoints and the workers movement - and what might come next - head to InTheseTimes here. 

A spokesperson for Amazon said: Amazon has invested over 15 billion EUR across Europe and have created over 65 000 permanent jobs since 2010 and provides a safe and positive workplace with competitive pay and benefits from day one. We don’t recognize these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings. We encourage anyone to come see for themselves by taking a tour at one of our fulfillment centers — learn more at http://amazonfctours.com.