German union takes on Internet giant

Starting last March and again during the December holiday rush, the German service workers’ union Ver.di, which is organizing the workers at Amazon’s German operation, has conducted a series of short strikes in the company’s warehouses demanding higher pay and union recognition.

Ver.di is the second largest German union, with 2.3 million workers.

As Amazon’s crunch time during the holiday season grew near, the strikes intensified and workers stayed out longer, up to four days in some locations.

Amazon has 9,000 permanent employees in Germany — its largest market after the U.S. — and hired 14,000 more for the holidays. Amazon reported nearly $9 billion in sales in Germany in 2012, 14 percent of its total sales.

There’s a lot of anger among the workers. In a packed hall in Bad Hersfeld, about 90 miles northeast of Frankfurt, a Ver.di representative for Amazon workers asked: “Do we want to strike tomorrow?”

The crowd roared back: “Yes, we do!” (Financial Times, Dec. 18)

In a Dec. 24 press release, Ver.di reported that Amazon had laid off a large number of seasonal employees on Dec. 23, even though their employment contract ran until Dec. 31.

Under German law, every workplace has to have a works council, which bargains with the company over working conditions — overtime, breaks, rest areas and the like. In addition, the workers’ unions bargain over wages and benefits.

Amazon management times its workers to the second to squeeze every last second out of the workers’ labor. Any effective union would resist this relentless speedup. Thus Amazon is doing everything it can to prevent unionization.

Amazon’s contempt for its workers can be seen in a statement made by one of its spokespeople to the Financial Times to justify its substandard wages: “Our people stow, pick and pack. It is not like Harrod’s where you have customers in front of you and need a special level of education to do that. Many [workers] had no proper education. Some have not even properly finished school.”

Amazon’s public statements try to minimize the effect of the strikes, claiming that it can move nonstriking workers in where it is short of labor and that other sites can fill in. But management has announced it will open two warehouses in the Czech Republic and three in Poland as soon as possible — all five designed to serve the German market but not fall under German labor law.

U.S. labor unions and the Seattle Central Labor Council — Amazon’s headquarters is in Seattle — have worked with Ver.di to expose how Amazon treats its workers. “Amazon is a very aggressive U.S. corporation that has a very aggressive union avoidance policy,” David Freiboth, executive secretary of the Seattle Central Labor Council, told the Financial Times.

“We’ve been pretty frustrated dealing with Amazon,” he says, comparing the online retailer’s anti-union stance to that of Walmart. “They’ve been very successful in ensuring we don’t have anything to do with their organization.”

Ver.di has announced that the strikes will continue in 2014.

An Amazon worker striking in Bad Hersfeld told the Financial Times: “I will continue to strike until Amazon gives in to our demands. Until they’re prepared to do this, it could take another five years.”