January 24, 2014

Amazon to Central Europe: “No unions, please!”


Amazon-face1Amazon, the global megacorporation owned by lubricant-obsessed spaceman Jeff Bezos, is currently expanding its operations in Central Europe. Unfortunately (for Amazon, at least), its quest to dominate every aspect of commerce hit a number of snags last year in Germany. In February, it emerged that Amazon had hired a security firm whose staff included neo-Nazis to manage security at its warehouses—hiring neo-Nazis is bad anywhere, but it’s especially bad in Germany. And in May, November, and December German warehouse workers, who belong to the Ver.di Union, went on strike, demanding fair wages. (That said, it wasn’t all bad news for Amazon: they barely paid any tax in Germany. So there.)

Now, with the company set to expand its operations in Central Europe, Amazon is intent on avoiding trouble. And there’s no better way to avoid trouble than by avoiding unions—like so many companies before them, Amazon is headed east, where workers are cheaper and less likely to unionize. Tim Collins, Amazon’s director of logistics in the EU, recently told Jan Cienski of the Financial Times, “In terms of unions themselves, we don’t see a need for that. Any friction that gets between us and our associates slows down innovation, slows down change, slows down improvements on the shop floor, and we don’t see that as being good at all.” You got that? Paying people fairly slows down innovation and should be avoided at all costs. It causes friction with the innovators, who, coincidentally I’m sure, tend to be paid very well. Presumably the “improvements on the shop floor” Collins refers to are logistical improvements—i.e. they help customers receive shit they order from Amazon quickly—not improvements in working conditions. This is, after all, a company that hired paramedics to wait outside its steaming hot warehouses instead of, you know, turning on an air conditioner.

Amazon will, however, face formidable competition in its quest for a union-free workforce in Poland. The Solidarity labor union, which grew to prominence as an anti-Soviet workers’ movement in the 1980s, has stated that it intends to stand strong against the e-tailer. Marek Lewandowski told the Financial Times that “It’s up to the workers to organize themselves, but we’re here to help. Amazon won’t scare us off.” Still, as the Times notes in their report, union membership has increased dramatically in both Poland and the Czech Republic since the fall of communism. Roughly 12 percent of Polish workers belong to unions, compared to 17 percent of Czechs. On average, Polish workers earn one quarter of what their German equivalents make. Cheap wages + low unionization = Amazon’s dream workforce.

Although Amazon currently has “no retail presence in either country,” that will presumably change—the Times suggests Amazon is planning to begin to sell in those countries in the future. For now, however, the warehouses will serve customers in western Europe. “The existing thrust will be the growth of our core network today, which is primarily west. And going forward it will be in indigenous markets and to the east,” Collins told Cienski. The best thing about those indigenous markets? No pesky unions.





Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.