This Black Friday, a coalition of unions, nongovernmental organizations, and grassroots groups joined under the name of Make Amazon Pay is staging a day of strikes and protests targeting Amazon across twenty countries, demanding the company pay a living wage, taxes, and compensation for its environmental impact.
The action takes place at the level of Amazon’s operations: the planet. While the tech and logistics company is based in the United States, it operates globally, employing some 1.3 million people worldwide, a number that doesn’t include its many workers who are employed by subcontractors. So, too, must resistance to Amazon traverse borders.
The Make Amazon Pay coalition launched last year with a Black Friday day of action, but this year, the coalition’s reach will be broader, with protests and strikes planned in twenty countries. The coalition says that the day of action will range from “oil refineries, to factories, to warehouses, to data centres, to corporate offices,” highlighting Amazon’s far-reaching, less-visible arms.
Amazon Web Services (AWS), for instance, generates the bulk of the company’s profits and works with both the fossil fuel industry and the military, but its data centers are far less visible than its warehouse and delivery operations. With its protests outside of oil refineries, Make Amazon Pay hopes to begin to change that. As Kelly Nantel, director of national media relations at Amazon, told Motherboard, which first reported on the Black Friday actions, “These groups represent a variety of interests.” Indeed, that is the point.
“The Make Amazon Pay coalition is a very diverse group of workers and their allies in a lot of different activist silos,” says Casper Gelderblom, the Make Amazon Pay coordinator for the Progressive International, a transnational organization of left-leaning activists that is helping to coordinate the day of action along with UNI Global Union, a labor federation that is affiliated with some 150 unions representing 20 million workers. “The way the campaign was born was by recognizing that Amazon is both a transnational and cross-sectional entity. If you want to take a stand against a huge entity like Amazon, you have to mirror its own structure.”
“On global action days like Black Friday, we are seeing how the movement pushing to change the rules of our economy and challenge corporate power is growing bolder and stronger,” said Christy Hoffman, UNI Global Union’s general secretary. “More and more people are asking more questions about Amazon’s brutal anti-union behavior, antisocial tax-dodging practices, and obsession with control.”
The actions traverse Amazon’s supply chain, ranging from garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia to delivery drivers in Italy to the River Club development site in Cape Town, South Africa, where Amazon hopes to build Africa Amazon’s headquarters. In addition to worker actions, Make Amazon Pay is highlighting eight locations “to represent the depth of Amazon’s abuse and the scale and unity of resistance to it.” These are an oil refinery in Latin America, a factory in Asia, a container ship in Latin America, a warehouse in North America, a trucking depot in Europe, a regional office in Africa, and a finance ministry in Europe.
At issue in Bangladesh and Cambodia are poor treatment of workers by companies that produce clothing for Amazon’s consumer lines — while Amazon is a marketplace for third-party sellers, it also produces quite a few of its own private-label products. Garment workers in the cities of Dhaka and Chittagong will stage demonstrations over union busting by Global Garments, and in Cambodia, workers from the now-shuttered Hulu Garment factory will continue their campaign demanding Amazon and other companies that the factory supplied pay them the $3.6 million they are owed in severance.
“There have been union-busting campaigns in Bangladesh that Amazon has, at the very least, turned a blind eye to, which in their form are reminiscent of the struggles we see in, for example, Bessemer, Alabama,” says Gelderblom. “Working-class destinies are connected — generally, but also specifically in this struggle.”
Amazon workers in Italy have proven to be some of the most organized members of the company’s workforce: Last month, warehouse workers engaged in a one-day strike that led the company to agree to some level of recognition of the workers’ unions on the issues of job openings and training. This Black Friday, thousands of delivery drivers will engage in their own one-day strike, demanding lower workloads and a more sustainable pace. While these drivers do not work directly for Amazon — as in the United States, they work for third-party contractors —they are nonetheless a key component of the company’s operations.
The day of action comes as organizing against Amazon continues in the United States, where the company is on track to soon become the country’s largest employer. US-based groups involved in the Black Friday protests include the Athena Coalition, Oxfam, and the Sunrise Movement. While the path to reining in the company is riddled with obstacles, there are hopeful signs even here. Earlier this month in California, Amazon was fined $500,000 for hiding COVID-19 cases from its warehouse workers. Organizing efforts by the independent Amazon Labor Union continue in Staten Island (as does the company’s union busting, both in New York and in Bessemer, Alabama, where a rerun of the recent union election looms).
Perhaps most importantly, a reform slate just won the Teamsters leadership election on a platform of organizing Amazon workers and taking on the United Parcel Service (UPS) when the union’s contract, which covers some quarter million workers, is up for negotiation. The two planks are related: It will take a fight at UPS, up to and including a strike that would be the largest private-sector work stoppage in my lifetime, to win a contract better than the weak one Teamsters leadership undemocratically pushed through in 2018, and it is by strengthening UPS workers’ position that the Teamsters can take on Amazon, too.
“This movement is increasingly succeeding in becoming international in its outlook,” says Gelderblom:
Many of the defining issues of our time, be they income inequality or climate destruction, are intrinsically international in nature. If you want to challenge power at a fundamental level, you need to find each other, coordinate together, and effect broad-based transformative change at that transnational level. We need to meet capital at its level, which is global.
If the boss is the best organizer, as we sometimes say in the labor movement, then Jeff Bezos may end up being a big part of the story of how the international labor movement gets rebuilt.