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Amazon faces labor backlash in Europe as worker union vote proceeds in US

As a historic vote count gets underway to determine whether Amazon.com Inc. workers in Alabama will form a union, the company is facing increasing resistance from its already unionized employees across Europe.

German service trade union Verdi recently called on Amazon workers at six company sites to launch a four-day strike ahead of the Easter holiday to demand higher wages. The strike is taking place roughly a week after Amazon logistics workers in Italy went on a 24-hour strike called by the FILT-CGIL, FIT-CISL and Uiltrasporti unions over issues including delivery workloads. The latest actions add to a growing labor backlash in Europe, including a strike among Amazon workers in France last year related to concerns about worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SNL Image

An Amazon box with a handwritten note encouraging employees
on strike, seen in front of a company delivery station near Milan,
Italy, on March 22.

Credit: Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty News Images via Getty Images

In the U.S., the National Labor Relations Board began counting votes March 30 from among nearly 6,000 eligible workers at Amazon's Bessemer, Ala., fulfillment facility on whether to establish the first-ever unionized Amazon warehouse in the U.S. If more than half of those who voted are in favor, the board will certify the new union.

The European protests add to evidence that Amazon workers on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly willing to work collectively to push for better conditions during a pandemic that has yielded record profits for the e-commerce company. Labor experts say European employees may have based the timing of their strikes in part to leverage attention on the union vote in Alabama.

"No doubt, Amazon workers and probably other retail workers too, in Europe and all over the world, are paying attention to what is going on in Alabama," said Joshua Freeman, distinguished professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

An Amazon spokesperson said in an email statement to S&P Global Market Intelligence that the company expects the German strike to have "zero impact" on customers, adding that 90% of employees in its German fulfillment centers are working as regularly scheduled. In response to the strike in Italy, the spokesperson said the majority of employees and drivers of Amazon's independent delivery partners in Italy came to work to ensure customers received their orders on time.

It's unclear what, if anything, Amazon will do to address the concerns raised by striking workers. The labor pushback comes as the e-commerce giant is rapidly expanding across Europe, with plans to add thousands of workers in areas including logistics, cloud-computing and software. Amazon already has a workforce of more than 135,000 employees in Europe, and Germany is one of the company's largest markets outside the U.S.

While Amazon has successfully quashed union efforts in the past, the company is more vulnerable now, not only due to worker protests but also political pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Freeman said. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., visited the Alabama facility this month to cheer on union efforts, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., penned an opinion piece in USA Today supporting worker efforts to form a union. President Joe Biden also signaled his support of unions in a video message.

Amazon employee Jennifer Bates testified before a Senate Budget Committee hearing in March about the grueling working conditions she experienced at the company's Bessemer, Ala., facility. The group organizing the Alabama union drive also said they stood in solidarity with striking German and Italian workers.

"It's not just workers in Alabama, it's workers everywhere who are saying to [CEO] Jeff Bezos that enough is enough," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in a statement. "No matter what language they speak, Amazon workers around the globe will not stand for the working conditions they've been forced to endure for too long."

Friendlier labor policies and Europe's pro-union environment could make it easier for Amazon employees to realize higher salaries and better benefits compared to those in the U.S., which has a more anti-union culture, labor experts say.

Erin Hatton, a labor expert and associate professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said labor policies are especially friendly in Germany, where there is a long and robust history of trade unionism.

"There are high levels of regulation and protection for workers, which leads in general to higher unionization and better protections for workers who can get it," Hatton said. "I would imagine Amazon workers would be among those because they are classified as employees and would qualify for all of those protections accordingly."