Union leader: Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods accelerates race to the bottom

The leader of a retail workers union said that Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods is “a rotten deal for workers and consumers.”

Amazon announced on June 16 that it was purchasing Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. Whole Foods is an upscale national supermarket chain with 460 stores in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It reported sales of $16 billion in 2016.

The business press reported that because of Amazon’s competitive advantages, its acquisition of Whole Foods poses a threat to the US’ largest retailer Walmart and also to national retail chains such as  Target and Costco as well as to regional grocery chains.

Stuart Appelbaum, president the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), described the acquisition as a “game of Monopoly” that will lead to the loss of good jobs for workers and fewer choices for customers.

“The latest move by Amazon to establish itself as the dominant retailer—both online as well as in the physical world of brick and mortar retail—shows the lengths it will go to destroy competition at any cost in its longstanding battle with Walmart to become the nation’s largest retailer,” said Appelbaum. “This disruptive and destructive battle between two of the nation’s leading low-road employers like Amazon and Walmart can only mean bad news for workers, and ultimately consumers, who in the future will almost certainly be faced with fewer options and no real competition in the retail and grocery industries.”

Like Walmart, Amazon has a dubious record where worker rights are concerned.

In 2014 when a small group of electricians and machinists at an Amazon warehouse in Middletown, Delaware wanted to form a union, Amazon called in a union avoidance consultants to quell the union drive.

According to John Carr, a union organizer who was interviewed for a Time magazine article entitled “How Amazon Crushed the Union Movement,” the workers trying to form the union “faced intense pressure from management and anti-union consultants hired to suppress the organizing drive.”

The New York Times reports that a turning point in the organizing drive came when an Amazon manager told the workers how his family was deserted by a union when his father died while on strike.

After the union lost the vote, it came to light that the manager’s sad story was a lie. The events he described were fabricated and never happened.

In November 2000, 50 workers at an Amazon call center in Seattle began efforts to organize a union. In January 2001, Amazon announced that it was closing its Seattle call center.

Working at Amazon can be arduous and pressure to produce is relentless.

The company closely monitors its employees every move. In Amazon’s cavernous warehouses, workers are constantly pressured to keep on the move in order to meet production goals.

In 2011 when conditions at an Amazon warehouse near Allentown, Pennsylvania got oppressive because of the summer heat, the company showed little interest the workers’ safety.

When temperatures inside the warehouse reached more than 100 degrees, workers requested that the warehouse’s doors be left open to help cool them off. Amazon managers refused.

Workers started coming down with heat related illnesses. A local doctor who treated some of the workers at an emergency room contacted the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report an “unsafe environment” at the warehouse

 

Instead of taking steps to make the warehouse safer, Amazon stationed ambulances and paramedics in the parking lot to treat people overcome by the heat.

Appelbaum said that as Amazon and Walmart vie for a bigger share of the retail market, more good retail jobs will be sacrificed as the two companies compete to lower labor costs.

Other competitors will also be affected by Amazon’s merger with Whole Foods. For example, after the merger was announced, the stock price of Costco, a retailer that pays decent wages and treats employees with a modicum of respect, dropped sharply.

One reason given for the precipitous fall was that Amazon’s competitive advantages will make it difficult for Costco to maintain its share of the retail market.

It’s quite possible that Costco and regional retail grocery stores may feel pressure from investors to lower labor standards to keep up with Amazon.

“(Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods) will only accelerate the trend of low-wage employers like Amazon increasing their market share and profits by destroying good jobs–and their competition–in a race to the bottom,” said Appelbaum.

America’s sweatshops: The new and the old

Sweatshops have always been an integral part of capitalist economies.

Most sweatshops that serve the US economy are located offshore in places like Bangladesh.

In order to avoid working in these sweatshops, some workers pay human traffickers to help them get to the US.

Unfortunately when they get to the US, many of these workers still end up working in sweatshops or in sweatshop-like conditions.

That’s what happened to three immigrant workers from the Philippines who recently told their stories in a short video produced by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. These workers are hoping that their stories will help bring justice for others who like them have been the victims of human trafficking and wage theft.

Another group of workers recently told their own stories about working under the omniscient gaze of an overseer intent on making them work longer and harder for less money.

These white-collar workers are current and former employees of Amazon, the US’ largest online retailer.

They told their story to the New York Times.

Together, these collections of stories offer two perspectives on the modern American sweatshop.

According to the Times article, written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “(Amazon) is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.”

At Amazon, work hours are extreme, workers are constantly monitored by a sophisticated electronic data collection system, some managers act like bullies,  and little consideration is given to an employee’s life outside of work. Sounds like a sweatshop.

Eighty-hour work weeks at Amazon are common, and in most cases expected.

One former Amazon employee told Kantor and Streitfeld that she received high performance ratings until she had to cut back working at night and on the weekends to help take care of an ill parent.

When her work hours dropped, so did her job performance ratings.

“When you’re not able to give your absolute 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” said the Amazon employee to the authors.

Former workers also complained that their job performance ratings declined after they had to take a leave of absence for serious illnesses such as cancer.

Amazon regularly carries out arbitrary job cuts in which people with low performance ratings are fired.

Performance ratings are based on data collected on employees by the company’s electronic monitoring system and feedback from managers and other employees.

The Times reporters found that managers and employees sometimes game the performance rating system to advance their own careers, often at the expense of others.

For example, those interviewed for the article said that to protect their own jobs some employees form secret alliances and use the feedback system to snitch on other employees. Victims of these secret alliance may find themselves kicked off the Amazon team–sort of like an unsuccessful contestant on the reality show Survivor.

According to the authors, one Amazon human resources executive described the way that Amazon treats employees as “Purposeful Darwinism.”

The term sweatshop when applied to Amazon may be more figurative than literal.

That’s not the case for other employers like the ones who hired the three human trafficking victims interview by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

“(The trafficker) stayed in the factory to make sure I was working,” said Flor Molina, who like the other two interviewees on the video was able to escape her human trafficker. “She said she had brought me to the United States for work, so now my time was hers.”

“I was given only ten minutes to eat in the full 18-20 hours (of work).  I wasn’t allowed to take a break. If I took 10 or 20 minutes, I was punished,” continued Molina.

After Molina and the other two victims were able to escape they found other jobs, but they ran into another problem–wage theft.

One payday, Molina’s employer didn’t pay her. He went out of business and in order to avoid paying her, he moved, and changed his telephone number. He still owes Molina the money that she earned.

Molina and the other two told their stories in hopes that the California legislature will pass SB 588, which will strengthen California’s wage theft laws.

Currently, many California workers who win wage theft suits are unable to collect their wages because the state’s wage theft laws lack strong enforcement remedies. .

Molina said that she is speaking out about her experience because being silent only helps human traffickers and wage thieves.

“Silence is bliss for traffickers and abusers,” said Molina.

Amazon workers strike

Amazon workers in Germany on December 16 went on strike to protest low wages, company spying, and job speed up.

The strike, the latest in a series of rolling strikes, was also aimed at winning a collective bargaining agreement with Amazon.

More than 1,100 workers at two Amazon distribution centers in Bad Hersfeld and Leipzig and an office in Graban stayed off the job in support of the action. Those on strike represent about 20 percent of permanent workforce at the struck Amazon worksites.

Another strike at a distribution center in Werne is scheduled to take place on December 17.

Some members of the workers’ union, ver. di, traveled to the Amazon world headquarters in Seattle where they rallied on December 16 with members of US labor unions.

Amazon, whose most recent annual sales in Germany totaled $8.6 billion, has imported its US style of labor relations to Germany.

“The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent performance pressure (speed up), and short-term contracts,” said Stephanie Nutzenberger, a ver. di board member.

Amazon workers have gone on strike four times since May.

Low pay has been one of the reasons for the strikes.

Ver. di wants Amazon to pay its distribution center workers the same as unionized workers in Germany’s retail and mail order sector.

The company currently pays its workers a lower wage comparable to wages paid in Germany’s logistics industry.

Pay, however, isn’t the only concern. Workers are under constant surveillance on the job and are continually pushed to do more.

“The workers are treated more as robots than humans,” said Markus Hoffmann-Achenbach, a ver. di organizer to the New York Times.

Conditions at Amazon distribution centers in Germany are not unlike those in the UK where a BBC investigation found that Amazon distribution center workers called pickers walk as much as 11 miles a shift and are expected to collect orders every 33 seconds.

The BBC quoted one of the UK’s leading experts on the effects of stress at work as saying that, “The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”

In Seattle, more than 50 US trade unionist rallied with ver. di members in Seattle. One of the ver. di members who travelled to Seattle for the rally was Nancy Becker, an American who has worked for Amazon in Germany since 2001.

“I’m coming to Seattle to dare (Amazon CEO) Jeff Bezos to try working as a picker for a single week,” said Becker to the New York Times. “I’m sure he would not survive.”

The rally at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters was co-sponsored by the Washington State Labor Council,  the ML King County Labor Council in Seattle, CWA, Teamsters, UFCW, SEIU, and Working Washington.

“We’re standing in solidarity with (the German Amazon workers),” said Kathy Cummings of the Washington State Labor Council to USA Today. “We are asking that Amazon respect the union there in Germany and negotiate in a way that is acceptable to ver. di.

George Kohl, senior director of CWA said that Amazon’s attempt to export its style of labor relations abroad is a dangerous precedent.

“Ver.di recognizes the danger of allowing the US model of suppressing workers’ rights and living standards to take hold in other countries, and is standing strong against this assault on workers,” said Kohl. “Members of CWA who have built a strong partnership with ver.di are supporting the strike by Amazon Germany workers and are letting them know, as ver.di members have promised us, we have your back.”

Ver. di has helped the CWA with its organizing campaign at T-Mobile, a German owned company.

Frank Bsirske, ver. di’s chairman, said that the Amazon workers strike and the US support for it sets a great example for all workers.

“(Amazon) employees are now taking the initiative,” said Bsirske. “These people are performing successful and reliable services day by day. With great justice, they call their employer for appreciativeness, respect, and a clear commitment to the collective agreement of the retail and mail order business.

“The act of solidarity of American unions for the strikes in Germany is a powerful sign that cooperation among workers is not bounded by national borders and continents. These protests are an encouraging response to the questionable methods of a global company like Amazon.”

Amazon.com workers go on strike in Germany

Amazon.com workers in Germany staged a one-day strike on Wednesday, May 15 to demand that the company increase wages and improve benefits. The workers are members of the Germany service union Ver. di. The union had negotiated an industry-wide agreement with representatives of Germany’s retail and mail order businesses. The agreement sets standard wages, benefits, and working conditions for the industry, but Amazon has refused to abide by the agreement

Leaders of Ver. di said that Amazon has been unwilling to negotiate with its workers’ union and that if Amazon continues along this path, strike actions could escalate.

“We are counting on a dispute which could last for a while,” Heiner Reimann, a spokesman for Ver.di. “Amazon so far has shown that they are unwilling to negotiate. They are willing to talk but they are unwilling to negotiate. So we are preparing for an open-ended strike.”

In April, 97 percent of Ver.di members who work for Amazon voted to authorize a strike if the company refused to improve wages and benefits.

Wednesday’s strike was the latest development in contentious relationship between Ver.di and Amazon, which employs about 9,000 workers at its warehouses in Germany. The union says that Amazon has imported labor practices from the US that threaten to undermine hard-won good wages, benefits, and working conditions that other workers in the industry enjoy.

Wednesday’s strike took place at two of Amazon’s  warehouses, one in Bad Hersfeld and the other in Leipzig.

Amazon pays its warehouse workers with less than one year on the job 9.30 euros an hour. After one year on the job, the pay rate increases to 10 euros an hour.

The union wants worker pay to begin at 10.66 euros an hour and increase to 12 euros an hour, which would put Amazon workers more in line with other retail and mail order workers in Germany.

More is at stake than just better wages though. Amazon doesn’t provide holiday or vacation pay as other German companies do, and it employs a sophisticated surveillance system that monitors workers’ every movement on the job. Two thirds of Amazon’s warehouse workforce are temporary workers, with even fewer benefits and job security than the company’s full-time workers.

Amazon says that it does not have to abide by the agreement between Ver. di and the industry because the Amazon operation in Germany is a logistics business rather than a mail order business.

The dispute between Ver. di and Amazon is not the first time that two sides have clashed over the company’s labor cost cutting measures.

In 2011, Amazon hired 1,500 unpaid interns to staff its warehouses. These unpaid interns were out-of-work workers, who were receiving unemployment insurance. Amazon justified its unpaid internships as a way of determining whether the interns might be worthy of more long-term employment. Ver. di called the unpaid internships slavery.

More recently, a television news program in February exposed Amazon’s latest attempt to reduce labor costs. The company hired foreign workers, mainly from European countries like Spain where the economy is in a severe depression, for temporary positions. The workers were housed in cheap motels and hostels and were subjected to threats and intimidation by employees of a security firm that monitored their actions.

The television station conducting the investigation said that the security firm had ties to Germany’s neo-Nazi movement.

The Mail Online reported that in addition to being bullied and intimidated, the workers had to walk up to ten miles to get to and from work, were paid less than they had been promised, and could be fired at will.

The workers had no way of addressing their concerns. “They don’t see any way of complaining,” said Reimann to the Online Globe. “They are all too frightened of being  sent home without a job.”