This article is part of a special report, The Essential Tech Worker.
LILLE, France — When Amazon workers installed a mock guillotine in front of Jeff Bezos’ home in Washington D.C. last summer, they gave the world’s richest man a chilling show of anger.
But the real challenge to Amazon management isn’t from publicity stunts. It’s coming from a new, digitized, international labor movement that is borrowing from the e-commerce giant’s own playbook to press for higher pay and better working conditions around the world.
Known as the Amazon Workers International, the informal network of mostly warehouse workers brings together dozens of worker groups from the United States and six EU countries. With hundreds of participants, it is growing fast. Instead of gathering in person or joining picket lines, the AWI’s key organizers do most of their work in videoconference sessions where “comrades” from multiple countries Zoom in to plot strategy on how to press their demands to Amazon management.
“Can you hear me?” Polish warehouse worker Agnieszka Mróz said late last month as she connected from her hometown of Poznań with French and Italian colleagues gathered a thousand kilometers away, at the office of French union Sud Solidaires in an old railway factory in Lille, northern France. Other workers from Poland, Germany and the United States had also joined the call, AWI’s annual gathering, to discuss Amazon’s response to the pandemic and upcoming actions.
The network’s online-first approach — and the emphasis on international coordination — underscores a lesson that these workers have absorbed over the last decade: They have little chance of winning concessions from management if they pitch demands locally, via traditional union methods.
Amazon is just too big, too agile and too powerful. With more than 175 warehouses, or “fulfillment centers,” dotted around the world, hyper-optimized management methods and a market capitalization close to $1 trillion, the company epitomizes the might of the U.S. technology sector and has, as a rule, declined to recognize or actively engage with trade unions.
Even during a pandemic that forced thousands of warehouse workers to brave the risk of infection, inflaming tensions with management at several sites, Amazon hasn’t changed its basic stance toward labor groups, arguing that its hourly rates are at the top end of what the industry offers. When workers went on strike in France in May, the company temporarily shut down its warehouses in the whole country, re-routing orders via Italy.
Meanwhile, the company doubled its year-on-year profits in the second quarter to $5.2 billion and went on a hiring spree to keep up with demand for shopping extravaganzas such as Prime Day (a chance to grab products at lower prices), Black Friday and Christmas. Bezos personally made over $87 billion this year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
That’s where AWI aims to make a difference. By coordinating demands for wage increases, additional breaks or new safety measures internationally, it wants to force the company into changes for the warehouse workers on whom it depends to deliver the goods.
“Amazon and most big companies that control our lives are international,” said a worker at a delivery station in New York City who asked to stay anonymous out of concern the firm might retaliate against him. “If we want to have a sustainable future with a habitable earth, then it’s going to take an international movement.”
There are signs AWI’s work is having an effect. While it’s difficult to match causes and effects, Amazon has, under increased pressure from labor groups, introduced 150 so-called “process changes,” like staggered breaks and shifts, since March to reduce COVID-19 risks in its warehouses. At the height of the pandemic, the company also introduced a temporary €2-an-hour hazard pay bonus, as well as one-off bonuses.
“We’ve already spent more than $800 million on COVID-19 safety measures, with investments in personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning of our facilities and, of course, social distancing,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
But the workers are looking for more. “The pandemic showed who are the important people in society. Workers have the self-esteem to make demands. Before nobody would have demanded €2 more,” said Christian Krähling, a German worker from the town of Bad Hersfeld.
Don’t call it a union
AWI got started in 2015, when workers in the German city of Bad Hersfeld went on strike. Amazon workers in neighboring Poland — where the company has set up fulfillment centers to serve the German market, but not the Polish one — took notice because a strike at a German warehouse meant more work for them.
“The first idea that we need to do something came from the feeling that the conditions were much worse in Poland than in Germany or England,” said Mróz, one of the founding members of Amazon Workers International.
The Polish group decided that the only way to respond to the situation would be to start coordinating with colleagues in Germany. A group drove for seven hours from Poland to meet them in Bad Hersfeld, marking the start of what they called the Amazon Workers International — a name that they insist has nothing to do with a traditional trade union.
While many workers belong to local unions, they stress that AWI is not a union nor is it affiliated with one.
“The unions are old, and they are not used to grassroots stuff. Our goal is not to do this for unions. We do it to get power to the workers. We see the union as an instrument to get that,” said Krähling.
Above all, AWI wants to empower warehouse workers by demonstrating that demands in one place are supported much more broadly.
In the United States, for example, a petition from workers demanding better health and safety measures and hazard pay was bolstered by over a thousand signatures from Poland.
When workers in Germany were successful in blocking software that is meant to keep watch over how employees are following social distancing rules, they shared their experience with other groups so they could borrow their methods.
When Amazon’s France-based workers went on strike, prompting a court case that led to the company closing its warehouses in the country, Polish workers paid close attention. Ultimately, they tried to use the same EU directive that was invoked in the French case to argue for stronger worker representation in Poland.
Polish workers produced leaflets to highlight that workers have the right to leave the warehouse whenever they don’t feel safe.
“It’s a direct example of how we got a new tool from the French experience,” Mróz said.
Judith Krivine, a lawyer representing the French union Sud Solidaire, said international cooperation was crucial to successful operations. “It’s really important that they talk together and give ideas to each other and fight together for better conditions. If not, there will always be social dumping,” Krivine said.
Despite the early momentum, AWI has a lot of growing to do. The network recently elected a committee with central coordinating figures, and now plans to reach out to workers in Asia, Latin America and new locations in Europe to broaden its reach.
It helps that workers all share a common language: Amazonspeak. “All Amazon workers know the same corporate slang,” Mróz said. “It’s easy to find the common language, to build solidarity and trust and start working together.”
Although there is power in numbers, the movement still has to convince its employer it is a force to be reckoned with. “Amazon won’t talk to us because they don’t want to give us legitimacy,” Krähling said. “They never use the word ‘Amazon Workers International’. They say we are an external organization trying to make a profit off of Amazon’s success.”
Krähling said AWI operates on a voluntary basis, and activists pay for their annual meetings themselves. It is hard to pinpoint how many workers are part of the network, as staff turnover is high and participation in campaigns can be unpredictable, but the network’s meetings before the pandemic attracted some 50 organizers from around the world.
“We want to be seen as organized as a collective force which is not outside the organization,” said Mróz.
When asked about the group and whether the company would consider talking with such a network, a spokesperson for the company said it already has works councils and employee bodies.
“We encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits and workplace environment to other retailers and major employers in the communities we operate in. For us, it will always be about providing a great employment experience through a direct connection with our employees and working together as a team to provide a world-class customer experience,” the spokesperson said.
But workers say conditions could be better. And they feel like the company’s coronavirus safety measures — particularly around social distancing — give Amazon a convenient excuse to keep workers far from each other in case they get any ideas about organizing.
Krähling describes the canteen in his warehouse as a plexiglass prison. “All these measures that were taken during the corona crisis — it’s like a dream come true,” he said.
Despite the rising tensions, the workers in the network say they’re only getting started.
“If we didn’t have this struggle, I probably would have left the company,” Krähling said.
“Yes, OK, it’s stressful, you have a lot of problems, it’s a lot of struggling,” he added. “But on the other hand, I never had a workplace where I met so many friends. It’s a lot of fun.”