What is Amazon Workers International and how did it come about?
I’ll start at the very beginning just to give you the big tour.
The Poznań warehouse was Amazon’s first warehouse in Poland, and it opened in 2014. I’ve been working in that warehouse since then. When it opened, we thought that it was going to be part of a larger shift, where Amazon was going to move warehouses from Germany to Poland. There were a lot of strikes in Germany at that time, and we’ve also seen that shift before with other factories and warehouses because we are much cheaper labor than Germans. We earn about four dollars per hour, so three to four times less than they do.
At the same time, German workers were also afraid that the warehouses were going to close and that they would lose work. We connected with some of them through social movement organizing and met in person for the first time in 2015. We quickly realized that Amazon was building power by exploiting the differences between countries. Over time, it’s become clear that the company is not closing German warehouses; they just want to use us as a cheaper, more flexible workforce to limit the bargaining power of workers in Germany. We decided back then that we needed to stay in touch with each other. The Polish-German connection was very important to the beginning of Amazon Workers International.
We’ve met every year since then, twice a year, and we’ve also expanded to become a larger network that includes French and Spanish warehouse workers. Workers from a few US warehouses have also joined. The Amazon Workers International name and logo are new, but it’s not a new organization. We met in Madrid in March this year and decided to go more public.
The network relies on the organic connection between the warehouse workers from different countries—we don’t have union officials talking in the name of workers—and the fact that we share many of the same problems. Our warehouses look exactly the same inside, and Amazon uses the same disciplinary tools against all of us. We update each other about the struggles in our warehouses and think about how they’re connected. We share an understanding that because Amazon is a global company, we need to have a global movement.
To give you an example, we have very different labor laws in Poland than they do in other parts of Europe. It’s much easier to strike in France and Spain and Germany. So part of what we do together is look for ways of struggling beyond those legal differences. In Polish warehouses it is nearly impossible to organize a legal strike, but we are connected with other workers who can. That gives us power; we don’t have to sit down and cry. We can support strikes in Germany with petitions, rallies, stickers, leaflets, press conferences, actions that share their slogans—and then the German workers strike for the common cause. That’s how we fight together against something like rate increases.
What does it look like for you all to organize in an environment where you can’t legally strike?
There was an action in 2015, a year after the warehouse opened, that gave us momentum early on in our organizing.
I was there on the night shift that night. As I mentioned earlier, we’d connected with German warehouse workers at the beginning of 2015, and we knew when they were going on strike. We’d been distributing leaflets in the warehouse and on the company buses saying the Germans would be going on strike and what their demands were.
Around the same time, Amazon had announced that we’d be required to work obligatory overtime. Eleven-hour shifts instead of ten. People understood what was happening: that the Germans were going on strike and Amazon wanted us to work longer to make up for them not working. That made us really angry.
The night of the action, everyone on the shift was talking on the company buses on the way to work. The idea was to do something in the last hour, during our obligatory overtime, but it ended up starting much earlier. The slowdown took place mostly in the Pick department. The pickers picked one item from the shelves for each tote instead of the usual twelve or fifteen. Sending the boxes to the Pack department like that made a mess of the conveyor belts; thousands of these mostly empty Amazon totes were falling from the belt, which then brought the Pack and the Ship departments to a standstill.
It didn’t take hundreds of people. It was really clever to recognize that the Pick department is a choke point. Some people say that the Dock or Ship departments are the choke points in the warehouse since, when you do a labor action in the Ship department, you block trucks from leaving. But this was in Pick.
Pick is where they send people who join Amazon on short-term contracts from temp agencies because they can train a picker in a few hours. That’s what was unique in this action, that these workers who don’t have special training—they weren’t, you know, forklift drivers—understood how to shut down a warehouse. So it was amazing, this popular wisdom. It showed us that we don’t need a labor sociologist to tell us “do it this way” and that we don’t have to limit ourselves to the restrictive legal frames of labor and union law.
What happened after that?
Retaliation. Amazon interviewed about ten workers and some of them, under pressure, signed a statement saying they took part in the action and regretted it. Amazon only stopped when we made their interrogations public. We defended a woman in court who was fired afterwards—or, she was not technically fired, but her contract was not renewed. One permanent worker was also fired and we’ve been fighting that in court for the last four years.
After the action, our union entered into a formal “labor dispute” procedure where we brought our demands to negotiations with Amazon management. It was not very useful. Our union believes that actions, not negotiations, are the best way of talking to Amazon.
In the years of organizing since then, we’ve had ups and downs. There have been other important actions, and one of them happened last summer. Five thousand workers took part in a strike vote. That’s still not enough to win the right to a legal strike because you need 50 percent of the whole company. To give you a sense, there are about 8,000 workers including temps in our warehouse, and there are nine warehouses in Poland. So while we didn’t get enough votes this time, there’s an army of people in Poland who did vote to strike. That’s what we think about work conditions in the warehouses.
Still, it’s difficult because of the permanent turnover—people joining the warehouse and then leaving, and more people on short-term contracts who don’t have labor protections, so their contracts are not prolonged if they’re going on sick leave, not meeting rate, or are open union members.
That seems like difficult terrain on which to build long-term organizing relationships. How does your union adapt to Amazon strategies like short-term contracts or their “employee forum,” which sounds kind of like an internal company union?
You have these employee forums all over Europe. Amazon uses theirs to advertise that they have “very good contact with the workforce” and “eight ways of communicating with employees.” One is the employee forum, another is a board at the company that any worker can send questions to and the board will answer. They have opinion polls every day! They’re really proud of this.
We call it a yellow union, which is a union that was started by the boss to use against a proper worker’s union at the negotiating table. They do this so they can always bring their own union and say, “We listen to the workers, but you all are just troublemakers who promote your own interests.”
Amazon is, of course, quite clever, so they advertise this body as a form of worker representation, and there are some people who are interested in representing workers. But the critical point is that it’s not covered by labor law in any way, while the union is. If you’re not meeting rate, or if you get any form of punishment or write-up, it doesn’t matter that you’re part of that body; the employee forum doesn’t protect you. It’s fully controlled by Amazon, and they can kick you out and fire you. It’s a clever management trick.
There is a general election for that body every four years. We vote on who is going to be a rep. Amazon organizes the whole process of elections, and they use the employee forum in certain formal situations. For example, by law, if there is a work accident involving a union member, the union member has the right to ask that a union representative be present. Amazon always tries to say that employee forum members should be there instead. This is a site of constant struggle for us.
It sounds like the HR department within companies, where theoretically you can report harassment to HR and they’ll help you. But that’s often not what happens because part of the HR department’s job is to protect the company from lawsuits.
Is there a general consensus among you and your coworkers that that’s what the employee forum is for? Or are there some people who see it more positively?
Some workers find that the employee forum can be useful for solving individual problems, like if someone has an issue with their manager. But this body is legally not allowed to participate in negotiations over our essential issues: wage and rate, how much we get paid and how fast we work. They mostly just talk with Amazon about, like, where to position the fan in the canteen.
Wildcat Since Way Back
You talked about the importance of the fact that your union is worker-to-worker. Can you talk more about that and the organizing tradition you are coming out of?
In Europe, you have many different union traditions, from business unions to more grassroots unions. And there are a lot of different union networks and organizations working on Amazon labor issues. In Amazon Workers International, we are convinced that the way we build power is in the workplace, in our local warehouses, and with warehouse workers in other countries. Our only criteria for joining is that you have to be a worker who’s organizing with others in your warehouse. That one rule reflects how we think labor movements should grow. We do not think that consumer boycotts or politicians making a spectacle of our situation will help us. That is not how we build power.
We are also different from many big unions in that we don’t have professional organizers with full-time union jobs; we all work in the warehouse. We meet directly with other workers and don’t have union bosses above us who tell us what to do. Despite language differences—because sometimes we speak seven languages in our meetings, it’s really crazy—it has been easy to find a common language with Amazon workers from different countries. If you’ve ever worked a full shift scanning items or packing boxes, you just understand how it is, how they exploit you. There is a desire to talk to each other and hear how others are fighting against things like quotas and disciplinary actions.
We are invited to demonstrations and debates with groups and networks that come from other traditions. And we do attend and cooperate. But in Amazon Workers International, we have a shared recognition of where our power comes from.
On the organizing tradition question, I have to ask: have you read the Wikipedia article on Poznań?
I was reading it ahead of our conversation and it links to an article about these protests in 1956.
The government raised the work quota so that it wouldn’t have to pay workers at the Cegielski metal factory their full compensation. Workers responded by walking out one morning in what turned into a march of 100,000 people. Raising an arbitrary quota in order to lower pay sounds like something Amazon would do, so I was curious if that history impacts organizing in your city today.
It’s interesting that you mention this. Our union is just one section of a larger union called Workers’ Initiative. Workers’ Initiative was started in the early 2000s by workers at the Cegielski factory. What happened in that factory in 1956 was a massive moment in the history of organizing against the Communist state, and it was also connected to the Hungarian Uprising later that year. Those workers faced harsh retaliation and eighty protesters were killed. What we’ve done doesn’t compare, but we are inspired by that history.
To give you a bit more of the historical context, there was a transformation in Poland when the old regime collapsed. The new regime that came into power in the 1990s was basically shock therapy for working-class people, and all the unions supported it, including Solidarność leaders who used that period to get into politics. In the 2000s, young workers at the Cegielski factory had had enough and decided that they wanted a new form of labor organizing. Workers’ Initiative came out of that. We are inspired by that tradition and the rejection of the big unions that supported company “restructuring,” which always meant dismissals.
So we are connected to that factory emotionally, but there’s another connection as well. The factory had 20,000 workers in 1956. Now it has something like 800. The old working class that made up the heavy industry sector—that factory makes engines—was destroyed in Poland in the 1990s and 2000s. Our union had a lot of discussions about what the new field of working-class formation would be. As Poland has become a big warehouse for Western Europe, we’ve come to think that logistics will be the crucial sector for the future of the labor movement.
So yes, we know the story of 1956 and we’ve tried to learn from it.
Shifting gears, I want to ask you about the role of tech workers. Amazon recently fired two tech workers in Seattle for organizing. Shortly after that, a VP “quit in dismay” after watching the event that you spoke at, partly because he was so moved by hearing from warehouse workers. How do you see the role of tech workers in your struggle against Amazon?
In Poland, we don’t really have... Well, we do have a tech arm of Amazon in Poland. We know there are a few hundred tech workers in Gdańsk working on Alexa, but we’ve never been in touch with them. Amazon doesn’t have many of these upper-level workers in our country. For the most part, Amazon in Poland is just warehousing for the West. So we don’t have an organic connection.
We do appreciate our discussions over the last few months with tech workers from Seattle. I think what they did was brave, and we need their support. We don’t have the symbolic position they have, so it’s powerful when they can give us access to the space they get. But the challenge for our work together will be whether tech workers are able to see themselves as workers who are dependent on their wages. If they are able to organize on those grounds, then we’ll have a foundation to build on together. What we would rather avoid is a situation where they only see us as pitiful, helpless people. If the only thing they do is talk about how scandalous our conditions are, that’s not useful. We need to recognize our power, and increase it together so we can make real change. The balance of power is so unequal now. We’re past the point of calling on Amazon management to make a little change here and there.
Another challenge is that as warehouse workers we build our movement on our own anger; we know exactly why we’re angry with Amazon. But if you are a tech worker and you design all these tools to discipline us, your experience is very different. You have to be aware of what you’re doing. The tools they’re creating are not neutral. They’re designed to spy on us every second of our ten-hour shift, constantly increase our productivity, and literally work us to death. Last week, a worker in our warehouse died on the shop floor. The tech workers don’t see that.