December 18, 2013 6:06 pm

Amazon faces strike stand-off in Germany

In a packed hall in the small town of Bad Hersfeld, just outside Frankfurt, a union representative for Amazon workers asks: “Do we want to strike tomorrow?”

The crowd roars back: “Yes we do!”

Thursday will mark the fourth consecutive day that German workers have gone on strike in a country that has become the US online retailer’s biggest labour relations problem.

Germany is Amazon’s second-largest market by sales outside the US and the strikers are seeking to disrupt its business at its busiest time of the year.

Union members at Amazon complain that their pay is too low and does not compare favourably with that of other German warehouse workers.

Ver.di, the union organising the strikes, wants Amazon to allow collective bargaining on pay by the workers – an established arrangement between employees and employers at many other German companies. Being classed as higher-paid “retail” employees rather than just logistics employees would help their cause, the union says.

Amazon sees the matter differently. “Our people stow, pick and pack,” says a spokesperson for Amazon in Germany. “It is not like Harrods 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 insists that the number of workers on strike is too low to affect its trade over the busy holiday season.

The company estimates that 1,115 people were on strike on Monday out of more than 9,000 full-time employees. It has also hired an additional 14,000 temporary workers to help with the spike in demand at the end of the year.

“Customers can continue to rely on receiving their shipments in time for Christmas Eve,” the spokesperson added.

December is a crucial period for retailers. About 35 per cent of Amazon’s 2012 global sales came in the fourth quarter of the year, while December 16 2012, exactly one year before these strikes began, was the busiest day of the year in Germany.

Germany made up 14 per cent of Amazon’s $61bn in sales last year, making it the second-largest market by sales for the company outside the US. Wall Street analysts expect Amazon’s sales to rise 22 per cent from a year ago to $26bn this quarter alone.

Yet Amazon has faced a stream of negative publicity in Germany from a local press that is often sympathetic to the workers. This year, the online retailer was forced to sever ties with a security firm after a documentary that showed temporary workers from abroad being mistreated caused outrage in the local media.

Amazon says that it learned its lesson from this, and has this year employed workers only from the local regions around its nine facilities in Germany.

Observers of the tussle believe the media coverage may have helped Ver.di to mobilise workers to strike in a profession that does not have high levels of union membership. Anke Hassel, a professor at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance, puts the proportion at under a fifth in both Germany’s retail and logistics sectors.

By contrast, union activists in the US have found it hard to put pressure on Amazon. Dating back to at least 2000, unions have tried to organise Amazon warehouse and call-centre workers to push for higher wages and better working conditions, but with little success.

“Amazon is a very aggressive US corporation that has a very aggressive union avoidance policy,” argues David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, a group of unions in Amazon’s home town of Seattle that has been supporting the German workers’ strike this week.

“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 organisation.”

German workers now face a stand-off with Amazon. Next week, with the run-up to Christmas, will be crucial. If the strikes fail to disrupt Amazon’s trade, this could severely limit their efficacy for the union. If they do, Amazon may have to rethink.

But some workers are determined to continue. Matthias, 30, an Amazon worker striking in Bad Hersfeld on Wednesday, says: “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.”

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