‘We Are Not Robots’: Amazon Workers Walk out on Black Friday over Low Wages and ‘Inhuman Conditions’

By Jessica Corbett, a staff writer for Common Dreams. Reposted from Alternet.

Amazon workers across Europe staged a walkout on Black Friday—when retailers offer major deals to holiday season shoppers the day after Thanksgiving—to protest low wages as well as “inhuman conditions” at company warehouses.

“It is one of the days that Amazon has most sales, and these are days when we can hurt more and make ourselves be heard because the company has not listened to us and does not want to reach any agreement.”
—Eduardo Hernandez, Amazon worker in Spain

Eduardo Hernandez, a 38-year-old employee at an Amazon logistics depot in Madrid, Spain—where about 90 percent of staff walked off the job—toldthe Associated Press that the action was intentionally scheduled on the popular shopping day to negatively impacting the company’s profits.

Protests were also planned for Amazon facilities in Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Some 620 employees at Amazon distribution centers in Rheinberg and Bad Hersfeld, Germany joined the walkout to demand higher wages, while union members in the U.K. organized actions at five warehouses across the country to highlight safety concerns.

As Tim Roache, head of the London-based GMB union explained: “The conditions our members at Amazon are working under are frankly inhuman. They are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious, and being taken away in ambulances.”

While Amazon denies these claims—telling Business Insider in a statement Thursday that “all of our sites are safe places to work and reports to the contrary are simply wrong”—Roache said the workers are “standing up and saying enough is enough.”

Amazon CEO “Jeff Bezos is the richest bloke on the planet; he can afford to sort this out. You’d think making the workplace safer so people aren’t carted out of the warehouse in an ambulance is in everyone’s interest,” Roache added. “These are people making Amazon its money. People with kids, homes, bills to pay—they’re not robots.”

In a video from the union targeting Bezos, workers also declared in multiple languages, “We are not robots.” Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party, shared the video on Twitter and expressed “solidarity” with those participating in the walkout.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

47 comments

    1. kurtismayfield

      This will never happen here, because everyone who strikes will be laid off. Until we get over the “Every American is a temporarily embarrassed millionaire” attitude and actually support unions good luck striking.

      Reply
      1. Anarcissie

        It’s somewhat more complicated. For one thing, existing American unions are rather passive about organizing — see https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/06/21/amazon-whole-foods-unions-grocery-workers-labor-organizing/103040844/. For another, unions have generally not adapted to the situations where most jobs are temporary and part-time — the ‘gig economy’ — where the workers and their labor are not focused on more or less permanent institutions. We should consider as well that the US is in decline in terms of real wealth, and there may not be all that much to go around regardless of how the pie is cut.

        Reply
        1. tongorad

          …the US is in decline in terms of real wealth and there may not be all that much to go around regardless of how the pie is cut.”

          What is “real wealth,” and who creates it?

          Reply
        2. Arizona Slim

          About that gig economy, it’s not stopping workers from organizing. Ever heard of the Independent Workers of Great Britain?

          Reply
        3. kurtismayfield

          They are passive because they know anyone who is caught will be let go, and if the entire store organized the corporation will close the store and open one up three miles away.

          Reply
        4. drumlin woodchuckles

          There has long been a Union of and for heavy-work temporary-job laborers. They make their living, I think, by bidding on job after job after job after job at the Union Hiring Hall. Here is the link.
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laborers%27_International_Union_of_North_America

          It seems to me that THIS union would be the logical people to try organizing the millions of temp and gig and freelance and etc. workers . . . . who are also serially one-job-at-a-time workers ( or “independent contractors”). How big is the conceptual leap from Unionized Laborers to Unionizable temp workers and job surfers and free lancers?

          Reply
          1. jrs

            The one union that always seem willing to take on the fight is IWW, although they may be stretched a bit thin, so it’s not the early 20th century for them unfortunately, but still they take up hard fights.

            Reply
            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              Well . . . any IWW-branded activity today seems like a retro-nostalgia trip to me. But America contains enough people that thousands or even millions could try it while other thousands or even millions of people try something else.

              I just thought and still think that since the Laborers Union is already built around representing people who job-surf from job-project to job-project to job-project; that it would not be a head-rattling conceptual leap to expand representation to other people who in effect also go from discrete little job to job to job. The Task Rabbiters, the Uber Jobbers, etc.

              Reply
      2. Denis Drew

        TODAY’S US LABOR LAW WAS NOT BROUGHT DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN TOP BY MOSES.

        Quick reset of the American labor market:

        FIRST, recognize that old fashioned union organizing as we knew it may safely be declared dead (forever!) in this country. Even if we now make union busting a fed felony and hire (tens of?) thousands of fed investigators, what’s to keep millions of business owners and managers from laughing it off, asking: “What are you going to do, lock up all the business know how of the country?”

        SECOND, observe Repub: H.R.2723 (115th Congress) — Employee Rights Act
        “(2) require union recertification after a turnover in the workforce exceeding 50% of the bargaining unit”
        https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2723

        THIRD, think blue wave Dem modification: H.R.2723 (1/2)116th Congress — All Employees Rights Act
        (1)
        Require union cert/recert/decert elections at all private workplaces — option for one, three or five year cycles, local plurality rules.”

        Why Not Hold Union Representation Elections on a Regular Schedule?
        Andrew Strom — November 1st, 2017
        https://onlabor.org/why-not-hold-union-representation-elections-on-a-regular-schedule

        Offer former Obama/today’s Trump voters non-subliminal, consciously directed relief to the specific roots of their powerlessness and Elizabeth Warren can water balloon folks on Fifth Avenue and never lose a single vote. :-O

        Reply
    2. DJG

      I-B:

      Our Revolution posted this information yesterday at Facebook. Commenters immediately began defending Amazon: I don’t know if Our Revolution is infested by trolls, which is highly likely.

      Yet Americans are so far gone as to lack miminal solidarity. This does not bode well for the social fabric.

      Reply
      1. False Solace

        Trolls? Amazon pays a ton of money for good social media. Those are hardworking people out there earning their daily pittance by making pro-Amazon comments on FB and other venues. The rest are propagandized, which merely requires ruling class solidarity and ownership of mass media.

        Reply
      2. Carla

        “Our Revolution posted this information yesterday at Facebook. Commenters immediately began defending Amazon”

        Well, OF COURSE they did. They are on FACEBOOK.

        What would lead you to believe that Facebook captives are possessed of the discernment to resist Amazon?

        Reply
  1. JTMcPhee

    Memo to HR and location managers
    From JBezos

    Re: Recent profit dip

    Fire them all.
    Tighten your damn recruiting algos, or you are next.
    And implement radio silence in all our facilities. All cell phones and devices to be lockered during robot work hours.

    Do it.

    Reply
  2. Carla

    I fully support anyone striking Amazon, and boycott it myself. But… Europe doesn’t celebrate the American Thanksgiving … yet, they have Black Friday? What am I missing?

    Reply
    1. DJG

      Carla:

      Unfortunately, there has been “contaminazione” (influence), as the Italians say. I bought three books on Friday at Internet Bookshop Italia, which dutifully was touting Black Friday (the Italian words for the day).

      Americans don’t monitor the deleterious effects of American practices and prejudices on other cultures. It may be harmless that Italians are now exposed to Halloween (which is not native there), but it isn’t harmless that the Brazilian election may have gone to Bolsonaro in part because of the Brazilian evangelical and fundi churches, which are American religious exports.

      Reply
        1. XFR

          In the years after 9/11, any attempt to push back against such “influence” was basically regarded as being “with the terrorists” in the eyes of most Americans. And Americans were very loudly mooting “glassing” any place that so much as looked at them sideways. And asserting the right to extra-judicially arrest, detain, and subject to “enhanced interrogation” anyone, anywhere, at any time they so chose. (Droning would become a thing some years later.) A huge majority of Americans continued to believe in Iraq’s WMDs many years after Bush’s lies had been thoroughly discredited. Karl Rove’s famous assertion that the U.S.A. was an empire now, and could create reality at its whim seemed to have been horribly vindicated.

          So to put up even the most timid sort of resistance to Americanization was a pretty dicey affair.

          And if you did still have the temerity to try, your own political and media elites were there to rail at you for “hating” Americans at a time when we all need to stand with them them in the face of the existential Muslim Threat.

          It was not a fun time to be a not-American.

          At all.

          I recall the ployglot storefront signage that had been a Toronto trademark for generations vanishing practically overnight. Greektown used to be wall-to-wall Greek. No more. Ditto for anything South Asian. Some East Asian signage stayed but was now invariably bilingual with English. Digitally printed signs started using Comic Sans and suchlike in order to look more like the hand-painted signs in the “authentic” American South. (No really, they did.)

          In news reports from almost anywhere protest banners stopped being written in the local language and started being written in English. U.S. holidays became de-facto obligatory practically worldwide.

          About the only places to escape that era mostly unscathed were Russia and China, due probably to their own nuclear deterrents having provided them at least a psychological shield at the time, coupled with the vast size of the former and the huge population of the latter.

          Reply
      1. jrs

        “But it isn’t harmless that the Brazilian election may have gone to Bolsonaro in part because of the Brazilian evangelical and fundi churches, which are American religious exports.”

        and part by the bad example of having Trump elected (my god what have we done). In the U.S. it’s a clown show (although some very destructive legislation and precedent), but there it’s tragedy.

        I agree entirely on the evangelical part. There was also voter disenfranchisement on a mass scale in Brazil of course, but U.S. mass “culture” is a negative.

        Reply
      2. California Bob

        re: “Americans don’t monitor the deleterious effects of American practices and prejudices on other cultures. It may be harmless that Italians are now exposed to Halloween (which is not native there)…”

        Wasn’t native to America, either. Speaking of “contaminazione:”

        “It is widely believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain; that such festivals may have had pagan roots …”

        Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween

        I know it’s popular to blame the US for all the world’s problems, but perhaps Europeans, and others, ought to occasionally look a little closer to home for the causes of such ‘deleterious’ behavior.

        Reply
      3. Kurt Sperry

        Halloween was celebrated in our little Italian hilltop town by children in costume going from shop to shop in the centro for candy. Apparently it hasn’t progressed to going house-to-house. This is all quite new here, although the practice of carving faces into pumpkins aka jack ‘o lanterns apparently isn’t.

        The “Black Friday” thing is pervasive now — you see the English phrase used in print and broadcast ad copy. English language itself is still pretty absent in daily life here in rural Tuscany, very few of the locals know more than a few words, which is of course of great benefit when one is learning the language –if you don’t know the Italian, you won’t get whatever you are trying to do accomplished. I think that’s key to learning a language, constant and quite immediate rewards and punishments.

        Reply
  3. eD

    If this was every retail worker not showing up on one day in a coordinated protest for better working conditions, mandated by law if necessary, it would be hard to counter. With one company it would be easy to fire them and hire new workers. However doing it at Amazon is needed to get things started.

    Reply
  4. voteforno6

    It’s not just their warehouse workers…Amazon doesn’t exactly have the best reputation amongst other types of workers, either.

    Reply
  5. cnchal

    Amazon employee slogan – “tied to the whipping post”.

    . . . You’d think making the workplace safer so people aren’t carted out of the warehouse in an ambulance is in everyone’s interest,” Roache added. “These are people making Amazon its money. People with kids, homes, bills to pay—they’re not robots.”

    You’d think so, but are probably wrong. Making the warehouse workplace safer implies employees can survive there longer term, something not in the Bezos playbook. The goal is to burn them and churn them to get as much as possible out of them in the shortest amount of time and then move on to the next employee. No seniority worth anything is ever built up, no one gets any higher pay. Got it?

    The money losing or barely profitable activities that come from the warehouse thrashing and bashing sending stuff to households is massively propped up by the ridiculous margins that come from AWS, which governments and spy agencies grossly overpay for and by direct state and municipal government subsidies. Crap, even their electric power is subsidized or priced at a low cut rate which is a secret between Amazon and the local power company. So next time you tell that bitch Alexa to turn on your lights, give a little thanks to the suckers living near an Amazon facility for their involuntary servitude.

    Reply
    1. Michael Fiorillo

      To say nothing of the immense subsidy that Amazon received for many years by not having to charge sales tax…

      Reply
  6. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thanks, cnchal. Re your observations and concluding ‘involuntary servitude’ remark, what I consider to be a related issue currently receiving some renewed media attention is that of private prison companies’ use of detainee labor:

    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/25/private-prison-companies-served-with-lawsuits-over-usng-detainee-labor

    Aren’t neoliberal labor markets and “Public-Private Partnerships” grand? Maybe we’ll see a competitive bidding war emerge between prison contractors similar to that of Amazon’s HQ2 search, all “”completely voluntary and operated in full compliance with ICE standards”, of course, with wage rates that simply cannot be beat. Reminds me of the film “Shawshank Redemption”.

    Reply
  7. ChristopherJ

    Robots don’t go on strike. Jobs are only temporary and Bezos will not win world domination if he has to pay living wages to people, so he won’t unless governments force him to.

    Why is it that amokers only kill innocents?

    Reply
  8. Michael Fiorillo

    Thank God actions like this aren’t necessary here, ever since President Obama supported card-check legislation, public worker unions that were under attack in states like Wisconsin, and never hesitated to “put on (his) comfortable shoes to join picket lines.”

    Oh, wait…

    Reply
  9. TG

    Indeed, human workers are not robots.

    If a human worker goes on strike, it could be a short-term hassle but eventually they can be fired and replaced with others. In third-world countries workers can just be kicked out on the street if they get sick or injured and there are plenty more where they came from.

    If your 10-million dollar automated whatsitmaker 3000 – on which you have a massive outstanding loan – goes on the fritz, you have no choice you HAVE to get it fixed up.

    So machines have more bargaining power than human workers!

    Wonder how long it will take big business to figure that out.

    No, wait, big business has already figured this out. Which is why productivity is stagnant and declining: it’s taking MORE human labor to achieve the same production, because businesses see no current need to invest in more productive systems. That’s why your shirts are all still sewn by hand…

    Reply
  10. Jeremy Grimm

    I thought unions were a compromise Big Business allowed to get the growing amount of random wild-cat strikes and sabotage under some sort of control. Strikers once were not so kindly toward scabs and finks. There were sit-down strikes — now outlawed — that effectively shutdown production. Today’s surveillance technology, Patriot ‘laws’, and jackboot-militarized police forces supported by military weapons and backed up by domestic military forces present a far greater force facing labor than the brutal and murderous Pinkerton’s, police, and National Guard of bonus march days or the Blue Meanies, FBI, and National Guard of the 60’s protests. I suspect those who rule America today believe they have us well under control. Perhaps the different conditions for labor in America explain why the Amazon strikes are first happening in Europe. Their labor laws are less ‘advanced’.

    Reply
    1. Tony Wright

      And you have the tone of industrial relations set and confirmed by a POTUS whose most famous (and infamous) quote before he was elected was YOU’RE FIRED.
      And Americans voted for him anyway.
      Illogical, Captain?

      Reply
      1. jrs

        About the only country in the world besides Mexico, where you can be fired basically for no reason as well. They have labor protections against that elsewhere.

        Reply
  11. EMtz

    Ultimately, it’s up to each one of *us*. I stopped buying from amazon, closed my account and sent a note to corporate HQ that said, basically, I would rather make a purchase for a little more from a company with a conscience than wring out every last penny by buying from amazon which treats its employees like crap.

    Reply
    1. jrs

      It’s more up to the workers to strike and i wish them well. Because there is a history of labor actions actually being effective and producing results and the effect of boycotts isn’t there unless widespread and widely publicized, like boycotting grapes and that was supporting a labor action. Plenty of people have not shopped at Walmart for ages, their consciences are clean and all to the good, but Walmart is still in business and treating it’s workers the same as ever. So if we want effective change, there are only so many templates that have ever worked.

      Reply
    2. Raulb

      Unfortunately this does not work, unless you are willing to dedicate a significant portion of your personal time to campaign and canvass on it so it has any impact on what you hope to change.

      Disparate individual action will not impact behemoths and structural issues, like saying during the time of slavery you will personally not have slaves, it won’t matter. You need regulations.

      Same for the environment, people are not damaging the environment, they are choosing what’s available, and they often do not have perfect information or the time to get it. Its those who are directly damaging the environment who are responsible and they should be stopped legally from doing it. For individual action to have an impact it needs to be extremely well organized and the environment may well be already damaged before this has any effect.

      This is something large vested interests are acutely aware off and push ‘individual choice’ in this context as some sort of false empowerment to escape accountability. But it is toothless. Choice can only be exercised in within the confines of acceptable societal standards, not as an arbiter of ethics or ‘acceptable working conditions’. Only rule of law can help here. Or large well organized groups.

      Reply
  12. redleg

    European workers are not dependent on their employers for health insurance (yet)?
    That would be a difference maker in the US.

    Reply
    1. jrs

      well the difference maker is probably actually difference in labor law, how easy it is to strike, how is it is to fire someone (not as easy) etc..

      Reply
    2. Ignacio

      In Europe Amazon, as any other company has to pay workers’ social security that covers public health services (not insurance) and pensions. In Spain this payment corresponds to 33% of total salary.

      When you have universal H.C. insurance is not required except for services like insurance during travelling, you just have the service when needed.

      Reply
  13. fries

    “They are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious, and being taken away in ambulances.”

    Should be easy enough to prove.

    Amazon says “all our sites are safe..”

    Should be easy enough to refute.

    Let’s see some evidence.

    Reply
  14. Bern

    Go to washingtonpost.com, search “Amazon Black Friday walkout” and be surprised by the result: “Your search returned no results.”

    Reply

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