The online conglomerate is finally facing union drives in the U.S., but it has decades of experience quashing them in Europe.
Instead of clocking in at the warehouse, workers in the German city of Leipzig assembled in a field downtown and self-sorted based on job duties. Packers and shippers to the north. Stowers to the west. Pickers to the south.
It was May 2—the day after International Workers’ Day—and the gathering was part revolutionary, part perfunctory. Since 2013, workers at Amazon’s Leipzig Fulfillment Center had engaged in strikes through their local trade union, Verdi. While the news cycle was buzzing over the first successful U.S. union vote for Amazon on Staten Island a month earlier, in Germany the agenda felt less high-energy and more business as usual.
“We want to gather information on what is hurting the individual worker,” said Alexander Schreiber, a bespectacled 46-year-old who has worked at the warehouse since 2011. The first activity: asking colleagues to place dots in and around a sketch of the human body where they felt pain. “We will analyze answers and then create detailed demands.”
Within 30 minutes, the outlined figures had transformed into Seurat paintings. There were physical ailments: knee pain, migraines, tinnitus, deteriorating eyesight, aches from the forced posture. And then less quantifiable emotional ailments: feeling helpless, speechless, blunted, dulled, worthless, not human.
While better national labor regulations and nine years of strikes meant Leipzig workers don’t have tales of peeing in water bottles, the outlines still felt heavy and familiar to anyone who has followed news of Amazon work sites in the United States. There was a through line of people feeling overworked and underpaid, whether they were “officially” unionized or not. “I cannot imagine that anyone can say this is a job that I can do well until retirement,” said Ronny Streich, a former “picker” who left the warehouse in 2015 to work for Verdi.
As the stateside battle between Amazon and its workers has revved up, Amazon Leipzig and the greater network of European Union warehouses serve as a reminder of just how much Americans lack in basic labor rights and protections. But it also underscores the ways in which Amazon has undermined those very norms and eroded labor expectations abroad.
Despite striking for the first time nearly a decade ago, Leipzig workers have yet to hammer out a collective agreement with the company. “Amazon’s playbook is: We don’t want a union, and if we have one, we’re going to try to weaken it and avoid any kind of meaningful discussions,” said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of the UNI Global Union, a union federation with affiliates in 150 countries. “And of course, they’re bringing that American-style anti-unionism with them to Europe.”
Nonorganized labor is a fundamental part of Amazon’s trillion-dollar business. The quarterly report that the company filed in April with the Securities and Exchange Commission said organizing posed a threat to “successfully optimizing and operating” its fulfillment centers. “[I]f successful, those organizational efforts may decrease our operational flexibility,” the report explained in a section listing risks.
In areas of the world where unions are built into the fabric of business, Amazon has still found ways to circumvent—and therefore weaken—norms. In Germany, businesses traditionally join an employers’ association within their sector. These then have unified collective agreements with the corresponding trade union. Amazon Germany has simply refused to accept a collective bargaining agreement. So, while employees can be members of the trade union Verdi, their only mode of negotiation is going on strike, which has resulted in piecemeal wins. Wages have jumped from €7.33 to €13.55 per hour. Christmas bonuses are now available—though not guaranteed. And there is a more advanced notice on work schedules.
Streich, who is the Verdi point person for Amazon Leipzig, sees the wins but also noted the downsides of a lack of a bargaining agreement. “They can put pressure on people,” he said, noting that while German law protects against indefinite short-term contracts, many people—especially new employees—are often afraid to join the union or strike, even though it’s a national right for members of trade unions.
He knows this from experience. Streich, who has buzzed blond hair and an east German accent, joined the Amazon warehouse as a contract worker during the 2012 Christmas season. Out of fear, he didn’t participate in that first 2013 strike. “I needed the money,” he said. “It’s a real risk there.”
The nervous energy around being associated with a union—which is largely seen as an American trait—permeated the Leipzig plant, even at the strike gathering, where multiple people were eager to speak but declined to give their names. One worker, who initially volunteered his name, later—fearing retaliation—asked via Streich that I not use it.
It’s this behavior—a changing of social norms—that has activists and scholars concerned, not only for Amazon workers, but also about what lessons other companies will adopt. “This isn’t just in the United States,” said John Logan, a San Francisco State labor professor who specializes in the treatment of workers by multinational companies in the United States versus the EU. “Amazon is forced to deal with unions in parts of Europe and other parts of the world, but even in those places you see constant complaints that Amazon is challenging and attempting to weaken the labor protections for health and safety.”
Hoffman pointed out that, while Walmart eventually decided to stop doing business in Germany in 2006, the company did enter into an agreement with its workers, a departure from its staunchly anti-union stance in the United States. This was done, said Hoffman, not because it was required, but because that’s what companies did as part of standard operations in the country. “Amazon is really maybe the first, especially of this size, to say: No, we’re doing it our way,” she said.
The “Amazon Way” manifests differently country to country. In Sweden, the company uses third-party workers; in France and Italy, collective bargaining is predominantly sectoral, and Amazon chooses to identify itself with the sector that pays the least. In France, for example, it tried to designate itself as a small business, or, as Hoffman put it, a “mom-and-pop” company.
While the fate of the U.S. organizing campaigns hangs in the balance, Hoffman points out that so much of the tension comes from a construct: What is a union? In the United States, the definition is seemingly simple: A majority, 51 percent, of workers vote in favor. But if the employer won’t sit down and bargain, are the workers still a union?
At that Leipzig warehouse, it’s estimated that 40 to 45 percent of the staff of 2,000 are part of Verdi. “They don’t have a majority, and they don’t have collective bargaining, but they still have power within that work site and still have power to win improvements through their strikes and works councils,” Hoffman said, alluding to the organizing bodies that represent employees at most German workplaces; until recently, Verdi members made up the majority of the works council seats for the Leipzig warehouse. Leipzig would not count as “unionized” in the United States. “There is something very broken,” she said, “about our labor model in the U.S., which is like black and white. And that’s really not the model elsewhere.”
In 2014, the year after the first strike in Germany, Amazon opened three Polish fulfillment centers. The company didn’t have any sort of market in the country (Amazon didn’t open a Polish site until 2021). But the warehouses could serve the German market with cheaper, less represented labor. “Eastern European countries in the last decade have really functioned as Amazon’s low-wage nonunion alternative to Germany,” said Logan. Poland’s current minimum wage is the equivalent of $4.45 an hour, whereas it’s roughly $12 in Germany.
“The Amazon model is essentially borderless, and so must we be, because it’s in all our interests—the interests of employees in the new global world of work—that we challenge this model, which threatens to become the norm,” Philip Jennings, a former UNI general secretary, wrote in a 2017 report.
Back in Leipzig on May 2, the sun had come out. While the topic at hand was weighty, there was still a lightness to the day, as co-workers sipped coffee and made small talk from lawn chairs in the grass. “One of the effects of the strikes is many workers got strong self-confidence,” said Streich. “That’s one of the biggest results. People are not scared of Amazon.”
While operating as a borderless multinational headquartered in a country with dwindling worker power was once to Amazon’s advantage, workers abroad are now finding new motivation as the online giant faces labor pressure in the United States. “The vote in Staten Island was a big message here,” said Streich in the Verdi offices in April, as he made phone calls and texts to coordinate the May 2 action.
“It made the point: We can get Amazon!” he continued, before half-jokingly—but also proudly—pointing out the solidarity and crossover between the global network of Amazon fulfillment centers. “It all started with Germany.”