December 2020: the three-hour-long blockade of Amazon’s gate near Wrocław causes serious delays – tens of trucks don’t leave on time. November 2020: a hundred forklift drivers gather in one section of the warehouse. They protest using horns and chant: “2,000 PLN for everyone!”. March 2020: thousands of Amazon workers in Poland, USA, Germany, and France sign a petition demanding implementation of additional protective measures. June 2019: Five thousand workers in Poland vote to strike in a referendum. April 2018: crowds protest in Berlin as Jeff Bezos receives an award for his “visionary business model.” October 2018: trade unions lead to the suspension of Amazon’s draconian system of norms. April 2017: An International Meeting of Amazon Workers from five countries is held in Poznań. March 2016: a picket against job instability and “junk contracts” at the offices of Adecco, an agency that provides services to Amazon. June 2015: as a protest strike against compulsory overtime (11.5-hour shift) is underway at Amazon Germany, a hundred pickers slow down their work by picking one product at a time, bringing the shipping department to a halt. December 2014: at 5 a.m. in a parking lot outside of the Amazon’s warehouse in Sady, several warehouse workers establish the trade union “Inicjatywa Pracownicza” [Workers’ Initiative].
In December 2020, Christian Krähling, a worker at Amazon’s Bad Hersfeld warehouse (near Frankfurt), dies suddenly and much too prematurely. Krähling was the co-founder of Amazon Workers International and an unrelenting Ver.di trade union activist. It’s a great loss for the global Amazon employees’ movement. On Black Friday, the 27th of November, he picketed outside Amazon’s warehouse with the #MakeAmazonPay banner. A few days before his death, he built a snowman in front of the entrance to Amazon and dressed it in the union’s vest; he also planned to publish an international newspaper written by workers for workers from different countries, beyond boundaries. He said: “I must admit that in 2011 in Bad Hersfeld, when we began to mobilize ourselves as a group of 15-20 people, we didn’t even dream of being where we are now. Today we have an enormous, active network: organized Amazon workers, trade unions, sympathizers, journalists and artists from all over the world who work with strong commitment”1.
Thanks to this network – a part of which is Tytus Szabelski’s exhibition – Amazon is on everyone’s lips again. Interest I the company grew in 2020, when we – employees in the logistics sector, were classified as key workers. The public discovers that online orders are not packed by robots or sent by drones – it’s the labour of hundreds of thousands of people grouped in enormous logistic halls, who continue to work despite the COVID-19 pandemic. They carry on unloading trucks, unpacking pallets, counting cartons, pushing pallet jacks, shelving products, and packing parcels. On 16 December, 2020 Dave Clark – the right-hand man of the founder of Amazon and the wealthiest person in the world, Jeff Bezos – wrote an open letter to American institutions demanding earlier vaccination for heroes, as he calls Amazon workers. We witness the collapse of neoliberal myths about big factories and the figure of a blue-collar worker as a thing of the past.
Szabelski asks: “How to support people who fight for employee rights and, in a broader perspective, for equality and social justice?” As an organized part of the work environment our answer is as follows: portraying Amazon exclusively as a symbol of digital exploitation and workers as modern slaves doesn’t help us. We need something opposite: the recognition of power that lies in Amazon’s workforce and the support of international mobilization in warehouses. We’re convinced that unless the debates about risks of digitalization, faceless algorithms, surveillance technology, Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce, tax evasion practices, and monopolies taking over different sectors, etc. recognize the potential and strategic role played by Amazon’s workers, they will fail at bringing more justice to the world.
Amazon’s workers in warehouses in Poland, Germany, USA, Spain, Italy or France, cooperate beyond borders: they go on strike, picket, slow down their work, collect signatures for petitions, support each other on a day-to-day basis, fight for justice in courts. Despite differences in salaries, bonuses, work rate, and legal norms defining their right to strike, they are still able see the collective interest within Amazon Workers International. They look for a common, transnational platform for local struggles in logistics warehouses proliferating around the world. Workers from Poland are a part of this initiative. Since 2014, we have been members of a grassroots trade union Inicjatywa Pracownicza [Workers’ Initiative] that currently includes more than 700 workers from Szczecin, Poznań, Wrocław, Łódź, Legnica, and Sosnowiec.
We believe that Amazon’s warehouses are the key site of struggle, the results of which will not only improve our situation, but will also impact the relationship between business and labour, today and in the future. That’s why it’s such a fascinating undertaking. Amazon plays an increasingly significant part in global capital accumulation and workers from Central Europe are the key element of this process. It’s fair to say that the company itself opened new possibilities for us by becoming the hub for a truly international movement strengthened by the power of its strategic location. This movement needs many people that wish to be on the front line.
What can you do? Get a job at Amazon to build grassroots labour movement. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed our bargaining power and we have to make use of this. While employees in other sectors are losing their jobs, Amazon hails us as heroes and hires an army of people worldwide. In Poland, 18,000 people work directly for Amazon and a further few thousand are hired via employment agencies. It was impossible to replace us with robots, or relocate warehouses outside of Europe, because our job has to be done locally, near main population centres. Now is a good time to join in the action, right in the belly of the beast.
You only need to make one call to an employment agency (Adecco or Randstad) to be hired at one of Amazon’s Polish warehouses. The hiring process is conducted remotely. Free factory buses serve almost all regions of Central and Western Poland. It won’t be easy: at first, you will be offered a one-month agency contract, but if you’ll get sick or are too slow at work, it won’t be extended. It’s hard physical labour on 10.5-hour shifts, 4 days a week (or 2 days part-time), including nights. In our experience, working at Amazon (at least for a month) and organizing in a big warehouse, overcoming divisions and building relations with co-workers whom you’d probably never met otherwise, is an eye-opening, perspective-changing experience.
You can support us from the outside, but remember: Amazon workers don’t need pity, but strengthening the existing local and global initiatives. You can make financial donations, take part in blockades and protests, print and hand out flyers, engage in press and artistic activities aimed at strengthening workers’ agency, start organizing in other workplaces and share experiences.
Christian Krähling, who visited Poznań many times, used to say that when he started to organize in a small employee group in Germany a decade ago, he didn’t dream about the vocal, involved, transnational, network that we now have. We will expand and develop this network in order to win with Amazon. Get in touch and we will help you take part in the struggle.
OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza / Workers’ Initiative
1 An interview with Christian Krähling: Common Strategy to Gain Power and Think Bigger, TSS Journal – Strike the Giant! Transnational Organization against Amazon, PDF: https://www.transnational-strike.info/wp-content/uploads/Strike-the-Giant_TSS-Journal.pdf
The article was written for the exhibition "AMZN" by Tytus Szabelski at the Arsenal Municipal Gallery, Poznań, 29.01 — 28.03.2021