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Labor Market

Amazon staff defend company against unions

For months, unions have been trying to pressure Amazon Germany to pay better wages. But now thousands of employees have come out defending Amazon. Are the unions fighting a lost cause?

"I like working here, the work atmosphere is super," says a young Amazon employee. "There's hardly any place where you'd find working conditions like this," an older colleague agrees. "For me this here is paradise." The quotes are from a videoblog by Amazon featuring enthusiastic staff from one of their German logistics center, in Bad Hersfeld. They praise the company, saying their work is individually tailored to each employee and no one was overworked.

Amazon workers

Is this Amazon logistics center in Germany paradise or hell?

Aside from the videoblog there are also several amateur videos on Youtube where employees speak out against the actions by union Verdi. "The union wants to finish Amazon," a grim-looking young man says, "but I am happy that I have this job."

A strike with no one attending?

The remarkable solidarity of the workers with their employer is in stark contrast to the picture painted by the media. That has focussed on the poor working conditions at Amazon Germany. For months, the company has been under fire for its poor wages, permanent stress and the lousy mood among the staff.

Yet when Verdi called strikes in recent weeks, only very few employees took part. The union wants to get a pay deal for them with a pay level similar to other companies in the mail order business. Currently, Amazon pays the lower rates applicable to the logistics sector.

Now, over a thousand employees have signed a statement against the "negative depiction" of their company in the media. They're planning to print "Pro Amazon" t-shirts, to show they are not backing the union strike.

Forced loyalty?

Union protesters

The Verdi union is trying to muster support for its struggle against Amazon

Luitpold Rampeltshammer, a labor market expert at the University of the Saarland, is surprised at the sudden loyalty and support shown by the Amazon staff. He said he could understand that some workers were worried about losing their jobs, "but at the heart of it, this is about better pay. So I ask myself: what's their motivation? Were they put under pressure?"

For Martina Sönnichsen of Verdi there's no question but that Amazon's image has suffered significantly from the reports. "Now the company is trying to brighten their image again," she says. The company had every right to do that, but the way it was using its workers to do so was highly questionable: "We have heard from employees that some of the signatures were collected under the supervision of the management."

A very American company

Amazon management rejects the accusations. In a written statement, the company told DW, "It shows a lack of respect to claim that the more than 1,000 staff members who have been involved don't have opinions of their own. We respect the fact that people make use of their right to strike - in the same way, a union should respect such a petition." But Amazon is sticking to its line on negotiations with the union: "We don't see a reason to start talks with Verdi," it said in an earlier statement. "We prefer to talk to our employees directly."

Rampeltshammer has a very simple explanation for what sounds to German ears like very brusque language. "Amazon is a US company and has very American views on how to deal with workers and unions." While workers in Germany usually have representation on management, that's a concept unknown to many US companies.

No union power

Werner Eichhorst of the independent research institute Future of Work believes that Verdi will have a hard time trying to put pressure on Amazon: "The union's problem is that it doesn't have enough power to push through a strike that would really hit the company."

For one thing, it's a sector where it's difficult to get a strike to really hurt the company. With a car manufacturer, for instance, every strike day costs millions, in hospitals or on the railways, strikes immediately hit the consumers. "That has more impact than when a parcel arrives a few days late," says Eichhorst.

The other thing is that Verdi simply doesn't have enough members among the Amazon staff. Unions generally have a weak footing in the service sector, and it's especially hard to convince workers with low qualifications of the advantages of joining the union. But, as Eichhorn says, "Individual employees have no way of standing up for their interests. For this, they have to organize."

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