By Peter McGregor
Amazon has decided to set up shop in Ireland. It plans to create a new ‘fulfilment centre’ at a 650,000sq ft unit in Baldonnell. The purported reasoning behind this is to avoid delays on the delivery of products and new taxes resulting from Brexit, which have added 40% to the cost of some products. The new warehouse would mean Amazon orders in Ireland would be picked and packed in Ireland, rather than in the UK.
It is highly doubtful that Jeff Bezos cares about delays and extra charges for customers in Finglas or Monaghan Town, the real motive behind this is Amazon’s continuing drive to expand its operations and global dominance as it edges towards being the world’s largest retail company. Irish purchases on Amazon jumped by 40% in the months leading up to Christmas 2020, and Jeff Bezos’ wealth has grown by $92 billion since the pandemic began almost a year ago. This is all the while Amazon workers face horrendous conditions and working-class people the world over are forced to pay for the pandemic.
Amazon’s abuse of workers
Amazon’s abuses of its workers have been well documented: workers have to meet impossible quotas, including having to scan an item every 11 seconds, and in 2018 the rate of serious injuries in 23 of Amazon’s ‘fulfilment centres’ in the US was more than double the national average for the warehousing industry (9.6 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers, compared to 4). More recently, at the beginning of the pandemic Amazon blatantly disregarded their workers’ and customers’ health by not providing hand sanitiser for delivery drivers, and continued operating delivery centres which can have between 100 and 1500 people working in them.
Amazon also refused to increase sick pay in the middle of a pandemic. One contractor who works at a centre in Seattle said in March 2020: “At our delivery station, we have also not seen any increase in our paid sick leave to account for the virus threat. Many of our coworkers would face a difficult choice if they experienced symptoms of coronavirus: go to work and risk infecting your coworkers, or miss as many as five days of pay”.
The unforgiving and inhumane conditions Amazon workers are forced to work in are a direct result of Amazon and Bezos’ push to maximise profit by intensifying the exploitation of its workforce. It doesn’t matter if Bezos is a ‘nice’ person or presents himself as a friend of the people, capitalists are inherently at odds with the working class and exploit workers for their own gain. For example Jeff Bezos said Amazon would “stand with” “the Black community” last year, and even pledged $10 million to combat systemic racism. But donating $10 million will do nothing to end systemic racism when Bezos is inherently part of the problem!
As Malcolm X said “You can’t have capitalism without racism”, the ruling class benefit from racism on a daily basis, whether that be people of colour and immigrants working the most exploitative jobs, or racist division in the working class allowing there to be a scapegoat for capitalism’s own shortcomings. If Bezos is so concerned with Black Lives Matter and fighting systemic racism, then why is he fighting so hard to crush a union drive of workers in a majority-black town in Alabama?
Historic union drive in Alabama
In Alabama right now workers are waging a historic battle against Amazon and are fighting to form a union. In the first union drive, Amazon has faced in almost seven years, balloting is due to go ahead and closes on the 29 March. Amazon tried to file for in-person voting only, however, the National Labour Relation Board ruled that mail-in ballots are allowed. This is an initial win for the workers who are organising with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Amazon’s push for in-person balloting was a tactic to diminish turnout amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The workers’ main demands are for better safety practices arising out of the centre opening during the pandemic, and more input from workers in how disciplinary measures are carried out. If successful it would be the first unionised Amazon workplace in the US. Amazon is not giving in easily though, it is pushing back with anti-union texts, an anti-union website and perhaps most cunningly, hiring between 500 and 700 contract workers who cannot vote in the ballot on whether to form a union.
If these workers win their battle and form a union it would be an inspiration not only to Amazon workers in the US but all over the world. Amazon is the beast of capitalism, and showing that you can beat the beast in its own lair, or hold your own, serves as an inspiration to all workers who are being forced to pay for the mistakes of the capitalist system’s deadly mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis.
Tax Amazon in Seattle
Taking a leaf out of the Alabama workers’ books, but also looking at other campaigns waged against Amazon will be important for workers and unions in Ireland. One such example is the Tax Amazon campaign, launched by Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the United States) and Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, alongside Unions, activists and progressive campaigns. The Tax Amazon campaign demands taxes on Seattle’s big businesses, such as Amazon, which has its HQ there, with the aim of using this to fund housing, education and a Green New Deal, among other things.
The Tax Amazon campaign was won by working-class people, socialists and trade unionists campaigning day in day out on the streets. Kshama Sawant got the tax through the Seattle City Council, where it was repealed by the Democrat-controlled council just six months later due to pressure from big businesses, Amazon included. The battle didn’t stop there, however, and in 2020 the movement was relaunched with a 500 strong conference. Unfortunately, the building of the campaign to collect the necessary signatures for there to be a ballot on the issue was cut across by the Covid-19 crisis, but with the relaxing of lockdown measures and following the Black Lives Matter movement Tax Amazon activists were able to collect 20,000 signatures in just 20 days!
This set the campaign well on its way to the required amount of signatures. Before that, however, the Democrats were scared into action and conceded to discussions on the issue. They proposed a highly watered down version of the tax which also included an expiration date on it. This however was once again pushed back on, and the campaign secured an extra $100 million on top of the Democrats’ offer, as well as the removal of the expiration clause.
Unionise Amazon in Ireland
Once Amazon sets up in Ireland it is vital that there is an organised unionisation campaign from the unions here. As outlined previously, Amazon depends on workers being unorganised to maintain its horrendous conditions, and that cannot be allowed to happen here.
If Amazon is allowed to tear apart workers’ rights, it sets a precedent that other companies can follow suit. We have already seen Debenhams show blatant disregard for their workers in refusing to pay them their agreed redundancy payments- this coupled with Amazon level abuse spells disaster for working-class people in Ireland and internationally. However, if the trade unions fight and win here against any attempt to roll back on workers rights then it sets a precedent that workers can be victorious when they stand up and fight back.
Irish trade unions need to recognise the significance of organising Amazon workers, there is over a year until the Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’ is built, which gives ample time for a militant strategy for unionising the warehouse to be worked out. Demands that a campaign to organise Amazon workers should put forward are:
- No to union bashing. No roll back on workers rights and conditions–unions must organise workers at Amazon’s anti-worker regime.
- For a €15 minimum wage for all workers
- No rollback on workers rights and conditions
- No to a Clerys mark 2- implement the Duffy-Cahill report to prevent what happened to Clerys and Debenhams workers from happening again
- Proper health and safety protections to be put in place — free and ample PPE to be provided and protections be put in place in case of future outbreaks. For health and safety to be placed under the democratic control of elected workers’ committees.
- Repeal of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act unions must display a willingness to defy this anti-worker legislation.
A working-class movement
A militant battle against Amazon or any other employers by workers has the potential to win. We’ve seen it time and again, however, the only way to win real and lasting change is by the self-activity of working-class people themselves. It is Jeff Bezos and his ilk that to maximise profit, they personify the same capitalist system that ensures rents are high and taxes on the super-rich are low.
A movement of all working-class and young people is integral to achieving change. We cannot have a world run by and for the exploitative and oppressive bosses. A mass movement of potential unionised Amazon workers, existing unionised workers like Debenhams workers, and people fighting against the climate crisis, racism, sexism, LGBTQ+ phobia is the type of movement that will bring an end to the capitalist system.