Amazon workers in Alabama may have voted not to unionise on Friday but the e-commerce giant faces stiff opposition further from home. Activists and trade unions across Europe are mobilising against the company's "disrespectful" business model. FRANCE 24 spoke to an anti-Amazon protest movement in the west of France about why the company faces so much opposition.
The tally is in. A Friday vote count revealed that Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted overwhelmingly against forming a trade union, with 1,798 against and a paltry 738 in favour.
Labour union organisers in the US had hoped that workers at the Alabama warehouse would help kickstart the labour activist movement.
But Amazon has a history of extinguishing attempts at unionisation in the US. This is just the second time in the company’s history that a union effort has even got so far at a vote. Yet overseas, the company struggles to win over its workers in the same way.
In Europe, Amazon’s second-biggest market, different labour laws, regulators and the power wielded by trade unions means that Amazon frequently has to concede to pressure from workers.
One prime example occurred last year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. French Amazon warehouse workers sued the company, saying they refused to work in unsafe conditions. In April, a judge ruled in their favour, and Amazon was ordered to only sell essential items. During lockdown, when sales of video games and entertainment products were booming, this was a huge blow to the company and Amazon France responded by deciding to temporarily shut down operations, only reopening in late May.
A slow rise to dominance
Amazon arrived in France in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the company launched its delivery service in the country. Every year Amazon covers more ground in France – opening up more warehouses and dominating the e-commerce sector. In 2019, Amazon represented 22% of the e-commerce market in France, with its nearest rival Cdiscount accounting for just 8.1% in comparison.
But unlike in the United States, its progress is stalled by France’s energetic activist and trade union movements.
A national strategy
Amazon’s strategy is to target several areas at once as possible locations to build warehouses or logistics facilities. Depending on the size of local opposition – and how loudly that opposition can make its voice heard – Amazon will either let the idea fade away and set its sights on another spot, or will follow through with a request for planning permission and lobbying local authorities.
Amazon is currently pursuing a number of plans to build warehouses in different French regions. One proposed site is in Montbert in the west of France, a plan that has been met with passionate demonstrations from locals and trade union representatives. Amazon’s proposal has now run out of steam, partly because of the backlash, and was halted in March.
FRANCE 24 spoke to Alain Thalineau, a spokesperson for the protest group ‘Amazon Ni Ici Ni Ailleurs’ (‘Amazon neither here nor elsewhere’), who helped to organise the movement against Amazon in Montbert.
“It’s not that we don’t want the warehouse, it’s the fact that it’s an Amazon warehouse,” he explained. “They’ve come here without any attempt at dialogue."
A French trade union posted a 'survival guide to Amazon' on its Facebook page. Amongst its advice: 'Don't think of the job as a stroke of luck. You're selling your labour', 'Don't trust Amazon if you're ill or have an accident. They only want to make sure you don't get paid', 'HR is there to manage human resources, not to help you', and 'Get everything in writing'.
An un-European business model
The accusations that activists and trade unions level against Amazon focus not only on workers’ rights but also on environmental issues and Amazon’s reputation for tax avoidance.
Thalineau says that Amazon's business model disrespects the rules of the countries where it operates: “Amazon thinks it’s above state laws, above thinking about working conditions, the environment or the tax system. Amazon will always find opposition in France because they think that the country is there to work for them, when in fact [the company is] there to serve us, the citizens.”
Thalineau was keen to stress that it’s not just in France that trade unions and activists are putting up a fight – he considers this a pan-European battle.
Amazon has also encountered resistance in Italy, Spain and Germany as well. The German trade union Verdi called a general strike for workers at six Amazon sites at the beginning of April to try to force the company’s hand on wage issues. Just a week earlier, Amazon workers in Italy went on their first ever national strike over working conditions, a 24-hour strike that affected the company’s entire logistics operation in the country.
The vote in Alabama represents a victory for Amazon over trade union organisers in the US. But as its empire expands, it faces a bigger war against labour activists in Europe.