The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amazon is fighting a union drive in Alabama. In Europe, its workers are already unionized.

Workers across Amazon's logistics division held a single-day strike Monday. (Giuliano Berti/Bloomberg News)

Amazon and warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., are locked in the final week of a contentious effort to form a union, drawing national attention. Some analysts have cast the battle as a possible inflection point for the company and the U.S. labor movement.

But while an Amazon union in Alabama would represent a major victory for U.S. labor, the e-commerce titan would not be on uncharted ground. Amazon already has a large unionized workforce — just not in the United States. In countries including France, Italy, Spain and Germany, where union membership is far more widespread and barriers to entry are substantially lower, Amazon works have long been unionized.

(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

While the leaders of the Bessemer drive to win their election have to convince more than half of their colleagues who vote in the election to support the union, that wouldn’t be necessary in many European countries. There, unions can gain a toehold even if only a fraction of employees at a given company are members. One major exception is Britain, where Amazon workers are not represented by a union, and labor laws are more comparable to those in the United States.

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The presence of robust unions in Amazon’s international workforce hasn’t stopped the company from expanding into countries that it sees as lucrative new markets. But that doesn’t mean the company’s relationship with unions hasn’t been fraught.

Amazon has been unwilling to sit down with workers and negotiate pay and conditions, which makes it an “outlier” for Europe, said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of the UNI Global Union, which represents roughly 20 million service sector workers worldwide.

“Their attitude is, ‘We’re not going to do anything unless we’re forced to,’” Hoffman said.

In many European countries, Amazon workers are covered by collective-bargaining agreements that apply to whole sectors of the economy — meaning Amazon has to meet certain minimum standards that apply to all e-commerce companies or all retailers.

Major corporations have typically been willing to negotiate with unions and form company-specific agreements that go above and beyond those minimum requirements. That’s not the case with Amazon, Hoffman said. Legally, the e-commerce giant isn’t obligated to do so: Countries such as Germany and Italy don’t require companies to enter companywide collective bargaining agreements because “that’s just what employers do.”

Instead, Amazon workers across Europe have resorted to going on strike to demand changes — especially during the past year, as the coronavirus pandemic has pushed safety concerns to the forefront.

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One of the most dramatic showdowns took place in France last spring as online purchases surged during lockdown. After workers expressed concerns about the lack of social distancing inside the company’s warehouses and staged a walkout, unions successfully sued, and Amazon was banned from shipping nonessential products.

Amazon took issue with the French court’s ruling, which stated the company had “failed to recognize its obligations regarding the security and health of its workers.” But it ultimately agreed to negotiate with the unions and reached a deal that allowed warehouses to reopen after a month.

Single-day strikes have also called attention to the grueling pace of work for Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers. On Monday, Italy witnessed its first nationwide strike involving Amazon’s entire logistics division, including third-party contractors. While union officials estimated that as many as three-quarters of all workers hadn’t reported to their jobs, Amazon said the total was closer to 10 percent of the company’s 9,500 employee in the country and 20 percent of third-party contractors.

Amazon has disputed the notion that it adheres to only the minimum requirements set out in sector collective-bargaining agreements, noting its starting wage in Italy is roughly 7 percent higher than what’s required. The company argues that its large workforce is proof that many people are eager to work for Amazon and take advantage of benefits such as tuition reimbursement.

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While Amazon respects employees’ decisions to be part of a union, spokesman Stuart Jackson wrote in a statement, “the fact is, we already offer excellent pay, excellent benefits and excellent opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment. The unions know this.”

But union advocates say Amazon demands a dehumanizing pace of work, putting employees under intense mental and physical stress. Given that the company has reaped enormous profits during the pandemic, many want to see that translate to higher pay for workers who have continued to fill orders throughout the crisis.

Amazon executives have long resisted unions over fears that the company might find itself hamstrung by workplace rules that could limit technical innovations such as the use of robots, former company managers have said. Amazon brass also worry that unionization could slow their expansion plans, forcing the company to negotiate the terms of hiring and laying off staff, as well as the number of temporary workers it could take on, a former executive told The Post.

Even with widespread unionization in Europe, though, Amazon has expanded dramatically, building out operations in countries such as German, Spain, Italy and France, where organized labor remains embedded in the culture.

But the public health crisis and Amazon’s rapid hiring of warehouse staff to handle pandemic-fueled online shopping, have led workers to challenge the company. Even before the Bessemer union drive, groups of workers protested outside Amazon warehouse and shipping facilities in New York, Michigan and Illinois last year to demand safer working conditions. Those protests followed similar actions from Amazon workers in Italy and Spain.

Amazon’s opposition to the Bessemer union has further galvanized workers in Europe, who have been disturbed by some of the anti-union tactics the company is employing in Alabama, Hoffman said.

“Let’s hope that this marks the end of that kind of conduct,” she said. “It’s been shocking that it goes on in the United States.”

Jay Greene contributed to this report.