Andreas Gangl joined Amazon in 2009 aged 36, to work at one of the company’s cavernous fulfilment centres in Bad Hersfeld, a small spa town in central Germany. At first the job was pretty good: pay was comparable to other manual roles, and a day’s workload, printed out on paper, consisted mostly of packaging books and CDs.
In 2013 Bad Hersfeld became the first Amazon fulfilment centre in Germany to unionise. Two years later, led by Gangl’s coworker Christian Krähling, it was the founding place of Amazon Workers International (AWI), an organisation that has members in 175 fulfilment centres worldwide.
Gangl and his cohort have won small victories since then. Nonetheless, he says his job now is “incomparable”. Pay has stagnated and the relationship with management is sour. The products Gangl and his 2,700 colleagues haul round the centre, which is the size of 15 football pitches, now range from clothing to fitness equipment – and everything in between. A handheld scanner now delivers orders, and monitors their every movement.
Unlike Amazon employees in the US, nobody at Bad Hersfeld has yet, so far as local unions are aware, resorted to urinating in plastic bottles to meet targets. But bottles are an issue nonetheless — beer, spirit and wine, to be precise — and fulfilment workers must pack them in huge quantities. It’s a lot more strenuous than shifting paperbacks.
The pandemic has created more work under tougher conditions. Workers are subject to temperature checks, day-round mask wearing, and social distancing, and they have had enough. “It’s really not good,” says Gangl. Amazon’s global profits have increased almost 200 per cent from 2019, and CEO Jeff Bezos added £51 billion to his personal wealth during the pandemic. A fulfilment centre employee at Bad Hersfeld, earning €10.40 per hour (£8.95), would have to have worked since around the beginning of the last ice age, approximately 2.5 million years ago, to make as much.
Gangl was one of around 500 Amazon employees in Germany who went on a four-day strike over the Easter weekend. Their demands haven’t changed since 2013, says André Scheer, secretary of Verdi, the Berlin-based trade union that coordinates actions. The social distancing, the disinfecting, the masks and other measures have combined to increase stress and pressure. As a result, he says, the strikes have become “quite urgent”.
Last month Verdi called for a 4.5 per cent pay rise in the retail and mail-order industries, and better working conditions. It wants Amazon to be considered a retail outfit. The company currently classes itself as a logistics firm, using benchmarks in that industry which stipulate lower payment.
Amazon, meanwhile, stresses that the strikes only affected six of its 15 German fulfilment centres. “In the remaining six sites the vast majority of employees worked as usual,” a company spokesperson says. The company claims its starting wage— which increases to €12.41 (£10.67) after two years — is above Germany’s €9.35 (£8.03) minimum. “We already offer excellent pay, excellent benefits and excellent opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment,” the spokesman adds. “The union knows this.”
Germany is Amazon’s second-largest market outside the US, where the firm generates over a quarter of all e-commerce. But with fewer than ten per cent of workers striking, Verdi has very little bargaining clout. And Amazon’s international presence means that it can play whack-a-mole with strikes: if output is down in Germany, it can be dialled up in Poland or Czechia.
“If people strike in Germany, no problem: products still arrive,” says John Malamatinas, an activist with Make Amazon Pay, a group that has mobilised workers and politicians worldwide. “So it’s really difficult to make these strikes effective.”
Politicians are “always a step behind” Amazon, he adds. And the German public is still relatively unaware of tech company employees compared to those working in legacy industries like vehicles and chemicals, which have strong and generations-old union representation.
Amazon won’t come to the bargaining table with Verdi, adds Malamatinas. “And our thesis is that this will continue even if the strikes happen all the time. It’s one of the most powerful strike movements of the past years, but if there’s no support from society nothing will change. “If we want as a society every Christmas to have packages arriving, then we need to discuss under which conditions this is happening,” he adds.
Last Friday Amazon announced it would add 5,000 employees in Germany this year, increasing its local workforce to 28,000.
In 2024 it plans to move up to 3,400 software engineers into 28 floors of the Edge Tower, a 36-storey skyscraper on the site of the former Berlin Wall. Anti-gentrification protests have gripped the Friedrichshain neighbourhood in which the “Amazon Tower” is being built, echoing protests in 2018 which forced Google to abandon plans to open a campus in nearby Kreuzberg.
That gives Malamatinas, who has also organised protests against the tower, “hope for the future.” More important is growing cooperation between Amazon workers in Germany and elsewhere. Staff in France, Italy, Spain and Poland have already launched union action, while delivery-staff strikes are planned in the Indian cities of Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Pune and Delhi.
A count of votes is underway in Alabama, to determine whether workers at its Bessemer centre form the first labour union in Amazon’s 27-year history. If they do, it will have huge repercussions for the company’s global business. Despite falling union membership, a recent poll by think tank Data for Progress found that 69 percent of American voters support the workers in Alabama.
“If there’s a union in the USA, this will multiply,” says Malamatinas. “If one fulfilment centre falls, everything will go. What we need are strikes in Poland, Czechia etcetera,” he adds. International cooperation between unions is Amazon’s “biggest fear,” says Malamatinas. Back in 2013, German workers had minimal contact with comrades outside the country. “Now it’s exploding,” he says. If the trend continues, Malamatinas is clear on what it will mean: “Amazon will be fucked, because they cannot play this game again.”
Amazon is an international mega-corporation that is building more and more locations, says Özlem Demirel, a member of the European Parliament for far-left German party The Left. “These sites are also readily used to leverage struggling workforces and the effects of strikes. In this respect, it is exactly right that this struggle is also being waged internationally and that unions and workforces are also networking with each other.”
It will not be simple. Since 2013 Amazon has organised counter-movements against strikers, printing “pro-Amazon” and “anti-Verdi” t-shirts. Last October Recode published an 11-page internal memo, which outlined plans to develop technology to monitor unionisation.
In December 2020 Krähling, who founded AWI, died aged 43. “He was our leader, our champion,” says Gangl. “And a friend to me. He drove organisation at the site, and he promoted networking.”
Gangl hopes that AWI can continue spreading Krähling’s influence far beyond Bad Hersfeld. “We’re watching what’s going on in Alabama very closely,” he says. “Now there’s a movement for unions in Jeff Bezos’ motherland. And people want better working conditions across Europe.”
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