- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Although Amazon is based in the United States, its workforce now extends around the world. This has been used by the company to suppress wages and increase productivity through greater competition. But there are efforts to counter that strategy, with some workers across Europe building connections and the capacity to organize together. It is still an uphill battle as Amazon creates individual contracts for its locations, doing its best to pit workers against one another not only from country to country, but from warehouse to warehouse. Yet the efforts remain, pointing toward possibilities for the future of international organizing.
In a recent episode of Jacobin’s new podcast, Primer, Alex N. Press spoke with two workers from Poland who organize with Amazon Workers International (AWI): Magda Malinovska and Agnieszka Mroz. Unlike established, formal unions or union federations, AWI is a shop-floor organization, which is less formalized. Malinovska has worked at the fulfillment center in Poznań, Poland for five years, first as a picker and then alongside Agnieszka as a packer; Agnieszka started at Poznań, which was the first Amazon warehouse in Poland, when it opened in 2014. Amazon’s operations in the country have only expanded in the intervening years.
In our warehouse, there are ten thousand workers, more or less. Amazon, of course, will not admit that; they will say there are three thousand workers with the blue badge [meaning permanent workers]. But there’s an additional amount of temp workers double that size, plus cleaners, who don’t have permanent contracts, plus workers in security. So that makes the workforce ten thousand workers — it’s a big warehouse.
How did Poland become such an important place for Amazon?
The simple answer is: cheap labor. Workers in Poland make three times less than in other Western European countries. But it’s not only about cost. Amazon has expanded — they didn’t simply relocate warehouses from Germany into Poland, the opening of the sites in Poland played a political role, which was blackmailing the workers who organized strikes in Germany, because workers in Poland deliver to the German market. We serve Amazon.de.
2014 was one of the heated moments with the strikes in Germany. Amazon used us as an additional card against workers organizing. Of course, that created pressure for us because workers in Poland don’t want to be strikebreakers. But because of different regulations, national laws, and so on, there are differences between organizing in Poland and Germany. So, that is all part of the objective reasons for its expansion here: the low labor costs and the precarity of employment in Poland. Here, Amazon has more ways to put pressure on workers regarding meeting quotas.
Many workers in both Germany and Poland are well aware that they’re being pitted against each other to keep costs down. But they also know that they don’t have to just go along with that. It was workers who had been trained abroad and saw what kind of conditions and benefits Amazonians in countries like England and Germany were experiencing, who started the union at Poznań. It wasn’t long after that when communication channels opened between the Poznań warehouse and the workers in Germany.
In 2016, we got information that German workers were on strike. Polish workers didn’t want to play the role of strikebreakers. So, we organized slow-down actions. We paid heavily for that: a few workers were fired, and some workers still remember that, so they are more scared of organizing such actions. But we are still organizing and we are still together with German workers. For example, we recently wrote a common leaflet, stating that we demand more or less the same wages.
The issue of wages is very important for us because Polish people work overtime because they get such low wages. Working overtime is popular among Polish workers and according to statistics, we are one of the nations in Europe that works the largest number of hours. It’s mainly because of our wages, which are very low, and people are forced to work overtime. So we demand higher wages, and our colleagues in Germany support us because they know that when they are on strike, Polish people — because of the economic situation — are forced to work overtime, and because of that, their strikes have less power.
AWI has also been in communication with workers from France, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Talk about the tactics Amazon is employing, including saddling some countries with more degrading work.
The company cannot utilize products that customers return, so they send them from other countries to Poland. Workers don’t really like it, because basically, they sort garbage right now. They say among each other that we’ve become a place for trash from all over Europe.
So, we exchange that information, we try to create common demands, and we also try to organize common actions and support each other during strikes. We have different laws, so we have to use different means of struggle. But we try to do things together: in some countries, people organized blockades, and we got some support from the “Make Amazon Pay” campaign last year. So, they organized blockages in front of our warehouse. In other countries, workers are allowed to go on strike, so they go on strike. This way, we try to put pressure on Amazon.
It was very effective, especially during the pandemic, when we had common demands. Amazon couldn’t ignore us. When we demanded hazard pay for working in very insecure conditions, they couldn’t say no. Also, when we had demands about safety measures, they couldn’t ignore them. At that time, we saw how powerful we are when we act together. That’s why we try to continue that — without bureaucracy, on the shop-floor level, discussing our situation as workers. We have to develop it, otherwise Amazon will always be much, much stronger than we are.
So what is Amazon Workers International? The workers involved are all part of individual local unions, but the group itself is more fluid. It’s the means of communication and support, but the muscle — as well as the strategy — is based on the shop floors of the different warehouses.
Amazon Workers International is not a formal organization, and we try to keep it like that. We started as a network of exchange and support and solidarity, and we know that Amazon is very flexible, it’s very just-in-time, and it has the ability to go around choke points — so you really have to be on the shop-floor level to know when it’s a good moment to do something. But also, as an outsider, you cannot really grasp the moment when workers get organized, because often there is spontaneous resistance.
As an example, last November, during the morning shift in one of the big warehouses in the south of Poland, where our members were working — a warehouse for big items — there was a spread of information that temp workers, who are very in need, before the peak time, got an additional bonus, which permanent workers, or workers on shorter contracts but employed by Amazon, didn’t receive.
So it was a question of only a few hours, from when this information started circulating and people started to exchange information about it. And they said: Why should the temp workers get the bonus? We should all get bonuses. It’s not that they’re worse; we should all be treated equally. Forklift drivers got organized, and dozens of them refused to work on the morning shift for some minutes and were gathered in the dock department using signals, such as shouting slogans.
On the night shift, their work was stopped for one hour. Amazon got really nervous. The general manager came in the middle of the night, which never happens — they’re never there. They started talking to our shop stewards because they knew that this was before the peak [season], and in a big warehouse for big items, when there are a thousand forklift drivers getting together and organizing, that they could paralyze the warehouse.
It happened in a very short period of time. This showed us that you really have to be on the shop floor; you have to know when you can get together with others, when there are moments in the circulation of goods when the organizing of workers can economically hurt the company, because this is the moment when they will listen to us. That doesn’t happen through bigger campaigns, or politicians speaking up in the European Parliament — we saw it recently, with politicians complaining about how Amazon is, but that hasn’t improved our situation as workers.
So, Amazon Workers International came out of this idea that workers on the shop floor need to exchange information internationally. We cannot let the company divide us into Germans, Polish, French, and compete against each other. We refuse that.
But the company is of course playing on this division; they play on a lot of divisions between temp workers, permanent workers, Polish, German, workers coming from the countryside, from the town, from the bigger cities. With recent organizing, we’ve also published our leaflet in Russian; it’s important to add that there are more and more workers coming from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, while in Western Europe, there are Polish migrants working for Amazon. In Poland, Amazon relies on even cheaper labor coming from the little villages. They provide free company buses for workers to commute to the warehouses, but they also employ more and more workers from Ukraine.
The demands you’ve put forward would be very recognizable to organizers in the United States.
First is higher wages. Second is more stability of work: we demand, first of all, they get rid of the temp agencies, because there is no business argument for why the company should rely on temp labor. In the past, in Polish law, this solution was introduced to help companies which are in trouble, so they can have more temp workers. But Amazon is expanding; they’re not in trouble. After 2020 especially, we want to get rid of the temp agencies and employ everyone under a permanent contract. And the third issue is about speed of work. It is about quotas.
These three issues have different expressions in different countries: in Germany, workers talk about permanent contracts because they have two-year contracts from Amazon — they don’t work through agencies — while we mostly talk about temp work. They are different legal forms, but the core of the demand is really the same.
Amazon has the resources to employ workers on permanent contracts, to pay more, and also to not put as much pressure on the speed of work as it has been doing. But we are aware — thanks also to AWI — that these three problems are the global problems of the working class, and working for that company.
But Amazon is really special in how ignorant they are, especially in terms of health and safety — also in terms of wages, but especially in terms of health and safety. We know, more or less, what should be changed to improve working conditions in the warehouse, and they pretend they are blind and they are deaf.
They don’t want to listen to us. We have to really push them constantly. There’s no dialogue — we have to push them and put pressure on them to make changes. Our shifts are ten hours a day in the warehouse. So, we spend a lot of our time there, and because of that, we should have a say in how our work is organized, how our schedules are organized. Amazon doesn’t allow us to have that. So, we will continue this conflict, and we will continue putting pressure on them, not only locally, but globally.
Europe has a reputation for being significantly more pro-worker than the United States. But when you zoom in a little, you see that many of the issues that have held back the US labor movement are present there as well. One of those issues is what Magda called “bureaucracy.”
It’s the codependent political relationships among the major unions. In an article about organizing in Poland’s Amazon warehouses published in Jacobin in 2016, the author writes that many workers there view Solidarity, Poland’s largest union, as “largely passive and more interested in nationalist and conservative religious issues than workers’ struggles,” and that they “opposed seeking its assistance.” As the author writes, “younger members of Amazon’s workforce, some with higher education and work experience in Western Europe, considered Solidarity out of touch, a bunch of ‘old union men with mustaches.’”
Yes, I’d like to make an observation about the so-called “social dialogue” in Europe by Amazon, because often I hear from US workers that unions are strong in Europe, and that’s why conditions are better. Traditionally, in the past, the so-called “social dialogue” model was based on this idea that the big boss, the corporations, would pick the big business union, they would dialogue with them, and that union would work as a manager, controlling workers’ unrest, and often representing their own interests as union bureaucrats.
The more traditional German companies that operate in Poland use this kind of model. Amazon is not playing that game; they do not pick a big union and do so-called “social dialogue” with them, marginalizing everyone else who has a different strategy, different opinions, or are more critical of the company. They just ignore the unions; they only do what they have to do, what is enforced by the local law. But they do as little as possible.
I can give an example. In Poland, law says that the union is allowed to negotiate over wages, because a wage is not an individual right, especially if there are workers on different levels having the same wage, so it should be the subject of negotiations. What Amazon is doing in Poland is they sign an individual appendix to the contract and that’s how they avoid negotiations: by saying that they are not covered by this collective bargaining process.
The law allows them to do that. So, coming back to unions: we come from a more grassroots tradition, which, first of all, is about the self-organizing of workers on the shop-floor level, but we also see that more conservative unions are pushed into this position. They really have to get active on that level, because there are no big negotiations, meaning the big union leader cannot talk to the company bosses and make deals behind the backs of other workers.
Our union, which is a grassroots union, is the biggest union in Poland. There’s a second union — Solidarity, Solidarność; maybe some people know about that from the ’80s — which traditionally played the role of “social dialogue.” But at Amazon, we really work together because Amazon has also pushed them to the defensive position.
We are both forced to organize on the shop floor and express the anger of our colleagues; to organize campaigns and be critical without rotten deals with the company. We should be happy about this, because we believe that the company is going to be changed through the workers who organize on the shop-floor level, not through negotiations behind the door.
What do you make of organizing efforts among Amazon workers in the United States?
Last year, we were in touch with workers from the United States. When they organized walkouts — in New York, in Chicago, for example — they managed to do a lot and they didn’t really need a union to do that. Even here in Poland, we achieved certain things thanks to workers in the United States who organized walkouts, because they demanded temperature checks, and some safety measures.
They introduced these things, such as temperature checks, in warehouses in Germany, in Poland, and so on, after those walkouts. We had unions here that demanded a temperature check, and we didn’t manage to achieve it. But then those US workers organized protests — which were more important for Amazon because they put real pressure on them — and then we got it. So, we also have to learn where our strong points are and how to use them. They did it in a good way in Chicago, and they didn’t need a formal structure to put pressure on Amazon.
The poor working conditions in Amazon warehouses get a lot of media coverage and attention these days. For example, people constantly bring up stories about workers peeing in bottles because they don’t have time to use the restroom. There was also reporting about the company employing Pinkerton spies in warehouses in Poland. What do you make of these narratives about what’s taking place in Amazon facilities?
We don’t like this approach of victimizing workers, of seeing workers as the victims of spying or bad management practices. I mean, that is the reality we see in our warehouses, but if we are victims, we have no power to change it. So, all this news about workers peeing in bottles — it’s good news for the big media, but this is not the news that would make our colleagues determined to walk out or to join the union.
But other things would, like management threatening them when they take a longer break, so they’re punished with time off task. This everyday experience of exploitation would make workers angry, but only to the point when they don’t see that they are victims. Workers don’t want to be seen as slaves, because slaves cannot easily resist; they cannot be a subject of the movement, of the organizing. So, I would say this information about workers as victims is not very helpful.
It also doesn’t mean that we, as workers, are not able to speak — we are able to speak. We’re able to write our leaflets, our newspapers, and we are able to make theories and think about how Amazon should change. So the message would be if you want to support workers, maybe it’s not best to focus only on the big media, which portrays us as poor victims of the digital-capitalism algorithm where you can’t do anything. This is not true.
Most of the work at Amazon is physical work; it’s about turning your body, using your muscles, and walking a lot. We are not under the tyranny of the algorithm where we can do nothing. This is not our experience. It is of course true that Amazon has an army of lawyers and sociologists who watch what we are doing on a daily basis in the warehouse. But we believe we are still much more than them in the warehouse, where there are thousands of workers who, if we get together, can change this balance of power.
What do you say to people who feel conflicted about their use of Amazon as consumers?
I was asked this a lot recently, around Prime Day, by people who still want to shop at Amazon. They say that for whatever reason, it’s comfortable for them, or it’s fast, or they cannot buy any other product, and how do I feel as a worker about this?
I don’t believe in the consumer boycott. If you want to buy at Amazon, donate to a strike fund; be aware that there are workers there who can speak and are able to make their own demands, and support them, because nothing will be changed except by them. There are different unions, different groups, different initiatives in different countries. So if you buy at Amazon and you don’t agree with the exploitation, then find a way to support workers who are self-organizing in the warehouse where you’re buying.