Globalization has also brought about the regular consumerist  Black Friday, which fall on the day following the all-American holiday of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. Initially characterized by queues in front of shops which reduced prices due to sales, today it focuses above all on online purchases. And here the personnel management policies of the sales giant Amazon comes into play, generally characterized by low salaries and heavy controls on employee activity.

The workers of the huge Amazon warehouse in Coventry, England, have been on strike for about ten months and this has favoured the creation of the grouping of unions from various countries called Amazon Global Union Alliance, which collaborates with dozens of associations in the global campaign ” Make Amazon Pay”. This brings together over 80 trade unions, environmental and civil society organisations, including UNI Global Union, Progressive International and Greenpeace, who are calling on Amazon to pay workers fairly, respect their right to join trade unions, pay their fair share of taxes and commit to true environmental sustainability.

The way one is forced to work at Amazon is questioned. Independent investigations reveal that more than 50% of Amazon employees report physical and psychological health problems due to the way they work and invasive monitoring. A report from the National Employment Law Project, a US labour legal aid association, finds that Amazon warehouse workers often receive much lower wages than other workers in the sector and below the average of those in the areas where the plant is located. The US Federal Trade Commission and 17 state Attorneys General have launched a lawsuit against Amazon, accusing it of a monopolistic position on the market, implemented with a series of illegal practices that undermine competition.

Returning to the Black Friday strike, on November 24, 2023 and until Monday 27, for the fourth consecutive year, labour unrest and protests were declared at Amazon offices in 30 countries, including in Italy, where that day the fourth strike took place at the Castel San Giovanni plant (Piacenza). Even in the United States, where Amazon was born, has its headquarters and employs over a million people, some workplaces have been involved in the global protest.

Already in 2021, in Gage Park, on the South Side of Chicago, around thirty workers had gone on strike with the slogan “Stop megacycle!”. “Megacycle” is the 10.5-hour shift, from 1:20 to 11:50, that the company practices in the United States, ruining the lives of Amazon workers and drivers in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina and confronting them with the choice between quitting their job or working in the middle of the night.

“Workers who participated in the November 24 strike have unsuccessfully asked management to maintain a reasonable workload,” said Ted Miin, an Amazon warehouse worker from DIL3 who participated in the strike and is part of Amazonians United Chicagoland. This is a spontaneous group which, instead of resorting to the cumbersome procedure to introduce a union into the workplaces, constantly opposed by the company, organizes collective petitions from below and walkouts (job abandonments) to push the bosses into an informal negotiation in order to improve working conditions. However, any successes of the workers in these informal negotiations are not ratified in a contract.

In recent years, there have also been full-blown unionization attempts in Amazon workplaces in the United States, driven by the phase of notable struggles to improve wages and working conditions that is going through the entire nation.

The current dispute, organized by the large Teamsters (truck drivers) union, once again shows Amazon’s anti-union policies in the USA. Van drivers were the ones who picketed an Amazon warehouse in Chicago on November 20 against the company’s unfair labour practices. That picket line is just the latest in a four-month strike by 84 drivers at the company’s delivery station in Palmdale, California, which has since spread to 25 warehouses across the country. Declared by the Teamsters, the strikes began in June and continued in nine States of the Union. When Amazon drivers in California tried to unionize, Amazon refused to recognize the signed union contract (the first obtained by Amazon drivers in the country), negotiated last April with its delivery partner Battle-Tested Strategies, to which deliveries had been outsourced. Amazon, given the poor performance of the contract, tried again by prohibiting the application of the collective bargaining agreement obtained and implementing dozens of unfair labour practices in violation of federal labour law, up to and including dismissal.

“These workers are directly challenging Amazon’s exploitative business model and its violations of the law, which are lowering standards across our industry,” said Victor Mineros, secretary of Teamsters Local 396 in Los Angeles.

Concerning the unionization of Amazon’s direct employees in the customer order sorting workplaces, the defeat in Bessemer (Alabama) seemed to once again close the door to the union’s entry into Amazon, which is characterized as a stronghold of US anti-unionism. The vote in Bessemer in spring 2021 had been invalidated by the federal body National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) which supervises union rights, due to the illegal obstacles that the company had put in place. The second vote in April 2022, however, also saw the union defeat. The matter has once again ended up in appeals and a judge will have to further verify the mutual complaints of the Parties and the hundreds of disputed votes.

Even the union victory of Amazon Labour Union (a union independent of the large associations) in a warehouse on Staten Island, New York, which took place last year, is blocked by Amazon’s refusal to negotiate a contract, despite injunctions from the NLRB.

However, Amazon is moving forward, perhaps to a point where, in the future, it will be able to do without those who ask for collective rights negotiations and cannot work at the pace of a machine: in recent weeks it has announced that its warehouses are starting to adopt new robotic arms and AI-powered sorters, starting with a distribution centre in Houston.

In the United States, where Amazon’s immense goods distribution chain was born, not many workers were involved in the Black Friday strike, but initiatives continue to force it to accept democracy and workers’ rights in its work places.

Main sources:

L.K. Gurley, USA: Amazon workers in Chicago strike over ruthless ‘Megacycle’ shifts, Business & Human Rights Resource Center, 8.4.2021

National Employment Law Project, Report a good living: Amazon can and must make a middle-income livelihood possible for the people who work in its warehouses, 26.9

T.Feurer, Amazon drivers strike in Chicago, accusing company of unfair labor practices, CBS News Chicago, 24.11

New wave of “Make Amazon Pay” strikes and protests on Black Friday in over 30 countries, UNI Global Union, 24.11

Translation from Italian by Evelyn Tischer