NEW YORK, N.Y.—“Amazon must be broken up,” Sharan Burrow, the Australian general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, told a Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union forum on the digital economy and the future of work Jan. 16.

Union workers and allies rally against Amazon HQ2 on the steps of City Hall in December.

The company is now the U.S.’s second-biggest employer, with 650,000 workers on its payroll, said AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers, and its business model combines 21st-century technology with “monopoly power and 19th-century worker exploitation.” But while Amazon is “one of the central institutions of the global economy,” he continued, “it’s not about one company.” The dramatic economic inequality of the digital era, he said, is not the inevitable result of technology, but comes from power—and is causing “a global crisis of democracy.”

“Governments are cowed by these major corporations,” said Burrow.

The median wage for U.S. Amazon workers is only $28,000 a year, and one-third of them are poor enough to be eligible for food stamps, Silvers said. The company has traditionally made only marginal profits, but they have increased tenfold in the past five years, said Burrow, as it’s “starting to monetize its monopoly” after years of concentrating on expanding its reach. Meanwhile, she added, the tax rate it paid fell from 44% to 17% last year—part a result of the Trump tax cuts for the rich, part from a more aggressive tax-avoidance strategy.

With almost half the U.S. online-retail market and businesses in cloud storage, finance, and logistics, Amazon is so large that it’s “hard to exaggerate” its ability to dominate any industry it moves into within two or three years, said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, a federation of service-industry unions that represent more than 20 million workers from over 150 different countries. It may soon control more than three-fourths of U.S. e-commerce, and it’s moving into media and health care.

The company, she said, follows a pattern of getting government subsidies, avoiding taxes, paying low wages, attacking working people, and using monopoly power, such as buying out competitors or setting up rivals to vendors. Before Amazon began selling diapers online in 2010, it offered to buy out online baby-products retailer—and when Diapers’ owners refused, Amazon lost an estimated $100 million undercutting their prices by 30%, until they agreed to sell. Burrow called that “gangster behavior.” 

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum with ALIGN Executive Director Maritza Silva-Farrell looking on in December.

In Western Europe, Hoffman said, Amazon has “fractured” the practice of sectoral bargaining, in which unions work out pay and benefits with all employers in a sector so low-wage competitors can’t undercut them. In Germany, she said, it has been willing to give workers raises, but refused to sign union contracts. 

The RWDSU is the city labor movement’s most outspoken opponent of the $3 billion in subsidies the state and city governments have promised Amazon for locating its planned secondary headquarters in Long Island City. “We’ve been shocked by the way they dehumanize their workers,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told the forum.  

European Amazon workers’ biggest complaint, said Hoffman, is not low pay, but the way they’re treated. In Britain, there have been sporadic strikes over conditions, as the pace of work the company demands—and enforces through monitoring—is so intense workers don’t have time to take bathroom breaks. Even in Poland, she said, where Amazon pays only 3 euro an hour (about $3.40) the speed of work was their main issue.

The digital-era amplification of post-1980 trends such as outsourcing and the use of temporary workers doesn’t preclude organizing, she said. “We organize contract workers all the time,” she said. “It’s harder, but there are plenty of temporary workers organized in Europe.”

In any case, she added, “we have to.”

The RWDSU is now trying to organize workers at Amazon’s warehousing and shipping “fulfillment center” on Staten Island’s western edge. However, neither Gov. Andrew Cuomo nor Mayor Bill de Blasio has made a neutrality agreement, not interfering with workers’ efforts to form a union, a condition for receiving public subsidies. The mayor told reporters in November that New York is a “union town,” and “Amazon will benefit from being in an environment that’s pro-union.”

Appelbaum mocked that attitude as magical thinking. The only transportation infrastructure the company has agreed to build in Long Island City, he said, is a helicopter pad for hectobillionaire owner Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. 

At the time, an Amazon spokesperson responded to de Blasio’s remarks with standard corporate anti-union boilerplate. “Amazon respects the rights of employees to choose to join or not join a labor union. We firmly believe the direct connection we have with employees is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our employees.”

“This fight is not just about Amazon,” Appelbaum told the forum. “It’s really about the future of work and how workers are going to be treated in this new economy.”


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