In Germany, a country with a long and productive tradition that favors social dialogue and collective bargaining, this strike could have been avoided, but the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that Amazon only takes workers’ demands seriously when forced by regulators, courts or workers united in action.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, conditions at many Amazon warehouses have not met basic health and safety standards prescribed by the WHO, national authorities, or worker advocates. As the company strained to meet a growing demand for deliveries, it increased the speed and pace of work, making hand washing and social distancing all but impossible.
Responding to Amazon’s insufficient worker protections during the outbreak in the United States, non-union Amazon workers in over 40 Amazon facilities in California, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and New York resorted to strikes and other types of protected worker activity to protest Amazon’s working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company retaliated by firing at least three Amazon warehouse employees for “violating internal company policies.” The firings prompted increased regulatory and political scrutiny, with elected leaders like New York State Attorney General Letitia James opening an investigation into the tech giant.
Stronger labour protections allowed workers in Italy, France, and Spain to use union representation to advance and protect their rights at work. In Italy, workers concerned about crowding, availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), and enhanced safety measures went on strike in at least five separate Amazon facilities and forced the company to abide by strict health and safety protocol.
In France, unions, including UNI affiliate, Federation des Services, CFDT, called for strikes and participated in a civil case against Amazon for not taking adequate steps to protect workers from the risk of coronavirus, and of trying to sidestep unions. The court ultimately sided with workers and unions who negotiated a settlement that included mandatory consultation over safety measures, hiring of external experts by union representatives to assess effectiveness of measures, and an increase in the hourly rate for salaried workers returning to work.
In Spain, Amazon was ordered to correct deficiencies in its health and safety plan to prevent COVID-19, after the union Comisiones Obreras (FSC-CCOO) called in labour inspectors due to the company’s failure to adhere to COVID protocols. After that, it was required to enforce social distancing between workers, disinfect facilities where workers had been diagnosed with COVID-19, provide personal protective equipment, and relax productivity quotas.
But even in countries with powerful unions like ver.di in Germany, workers have to resort to the kind of collective tactics that built our movement when companies refuse to negotiate in good faith.
Today, all eyes are on Germany, as the brave German Amazon workers take a stand to win good and safe work, a collective agreement and to end brutal conditions.
Amazon’s incredible wealth and power is growing during the pandemic, but the conditions on the job have been falling far short. That’s why we have seen worker unrest in warehouses around the world, and why ver.di strikers are standing up for their rights today and saying to Amazon: Good and Healthy Jobs, Health Before Profit.
Christy Hoffman is the General-Secretary of UNI Global Union. 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 its 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.