War on Amazon: Workers Respond As Online Giant Expands
Filed under: Analysis, Capitalism, Development, Featured, Labor, Technology
Filed under: Analysis, Capitalism, Development, Featured, Labor, Technology
The latest word is that Amazon is planning to open, in the United States, 2000 completely automated convenience stores with no cash registers, hence no cashiers, and under total monitoring with facial recognition of the customers and real-time analysis of their gestures. On entering you make your smartphone beep at a terminal and then you serve yourself. What you take is automatically debited from your Premium account thanks to an app, and what you put back on the shelf is re-credited. It’s called Amazon Go. In this shopping dystopia of the future there is no more cash money, no more standing in line, no more theft, and almost no more employees.
-The Invisible Committee, Now, 2017
A long time ago, in the year 2013, several members of the Ver.di trade union traveled from Germany to the Amazon world headquarters in Seattle. In the weeks leading up to their visit, a series of wildcat strikes broke out at Amazon fulfillment centers in Bad Hersfeld, Leipzig and Graben. All of this culminated in a coordinated strike on December 17th, a first for an Amazon facility. Over one thousand workers walked out during the holiday order rush. That same day, the organizers of this strike gathered in the center of Amazon HQ in Seattle to send a clear message to CEO Jeff Bezos: “We are humans, not robots.” It’s unclear if he heard this message.
Amazon labor union rally.
This small demonstration of 50 people was supported by the Democratic Party aligned King County Labor Council and several mega-union locals. Unlike in Germany, Amazon has no unions at its facilities in the United States (although its Prime Air pilots and Amazon Studios film workers are unionized). For a supposedly liberal-minded company, Amazon is notoriously anti-union and burns through its workers at a high rate. From its tech workers to its warehouse employees, Amazon is known as a stressful and dehumanizing place to work. As one Teamster employee put it in December 2013, “If workers in Germany can’t get a fair contract, it won’t happen here.” Amazon didn’t accept any of the Ver.di union’s demands and stated that this limited strike (involving only 1,500 of its 9,000 German warehouse workers) had no effect on holiday order fulfillment.
Amazon protest in Seattle, WA.
The demonstration took place during a period of rising anger against the tech-industry and the economic inequalities it fostered. A wave of blockades, vandalism, and protests broke out in the San Francisco Bay Area between 2013 and 2014 that briefly spilled over into Seattle. On February 11th, 2014, a group of masked individuals blockaded the light-rail that runs through the center of Amazon HQ. They lit smoke bombs, caused a lock-down of the nearby Amazon buildings, and held a banner that read CIAmazon. In addition to pointing out that Amazon had recently built the CIA’s internal private cloud, the group issued a communique in which they stated:
Along with Google, Amazon is one of the main forces pushing for the total automation of capitalism. We see only one outcome if these corporations are successful: the complete redundancy of the traditional working class, the creation of a massive service class, and ever greater levels of resource extraction across the planet. The upper class of programmers and engineers will be served by the impoverished lower classes while the slave class extracts the gold, platinum, and other precious metals that allow this new technology to exist.
This action came the day after a blockade of Microsoft delivery buses in the Capitol Hill neighborhood that triggered a wave of news segments, articles, and commentary on the rising wave of tech-gentrification. There were further actions against Microsoft and Uber in Seattle later that year, but this wave of activity soon ended. The mega-unions and the Democratic Party eventually tried to channel this unrest into new unionization campaigns at tech campuses and requests for diversity at tech workplaces.
None of this challenged the neo-liberal establishment; it in fact bolstered it during the Black Lives Matter movement and gave the tech companies a way to absolve themselves and appear “woke.” By simply hiring more people of certain demographics and allowing a few unions to form among its service workers, the tech companies were allowed to wear the laurels of progressive culture and liberal values.
The necessary condition for the reign of the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) is that beings, places, fragments of the world remain without any real contact. Where the GAFA claim to be “linking up the entire world” what they’re actually doing is working toward the real isolation of everybody.
-The Invisible Committee, Now, 2017
The initial anti-tech backlash was subsumed into the Black Lives Matter movement until it became part of the general consciousness. More and more people distrusted the tech companies, but almost no one did anything about it. In July 2016, an infamous photo was captured when DeRay Mckesson was arrested in Baton Rouge wearing a Twitter shirt with the phrase “stay woke” emblazoned in black. A few days later, DeRay met with President Obama and law enforcement officials in an attempt to defuse tensions. A few days after that, Gavin Long killed three police officers in Baton Rouge after posting his reasons on social media. Most people followed these events on Twitter, just as they utilized Twitter to organize demos and uprisings that fateful summer of 2016.
DeRay is arrested in July 2016.
While all of this was happening, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt (who has just stepped down from Alphabet, which restructured Google) was openly helping Hillary Clinton defeat her opponent Donald Trump. At the same time, Russia was openly using Facebook, Twitter, and Google to sow discord and exacerbate the unsolvable contradictions of the United States. After trying to bolster him against the other Republican presidential candidates in their failed “pied piper” strategy, the Democratic Party was aghast when Trump actually got into the White House. Just like DeRay Mckesson, the new president was fond of using Twitter. After having ridden to power on the backs of white supremacists, Donald Trump and his political machine began to destabilize the United States using every method at their disposal, including Twitter.
In the days after the election, something strange occurred that few heard about: an Amazon fulfillment center was set aflame, twice. This workplace arson took place across the Atlantic at the BHX1 warehouse in Rugeley, Staffordshire. It struck during the build up to Black Friday, the annual clicking frenzy for online shoppers. The main blaze spread from the first to the second floor and resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in ruined commodities. The other fire was much smaller. Employees were forced to evacuate the warehouse, the holiday shipping orders were thrown into chaos, and the facility was close for the weekend. Several days later, the Staffordshire Police announced they had arrested two men for the arson: one was 19, the other 21. Both were soon bailed out and formal charges have still not been announced.
The dystopian facility of BHX1 is situated directly across from the massive cement venting towers of a shuttered coal-fired power plant. It draws its workforce from the Birmingham metropolitan area just an hours drive to the south. Workers are divided into two internal classes: the green badges and the blue badges. Those with green badges are “pickers” on the warehouse floor with little rights as workers. As one Rugeley employee described it, “They dangle those blue badges in front of you…if you have a blue badge you have better wages, proper rights. You can be working alongside someone in the same job, but they’re stable and you’re just cannon fodder.” After the November 2016 fires, one source claimed, “It took quite a long time for Amazon to come clean about the level of the damage, clarify with sellers what stock had been damaged or destroyed and then provide compensation.”
Inside an Amazon store.
Just shy of one year later, on November 4, 2017, another fire broke out inside BHX1. According to one of the firemen, the blaze, “Left the building seriously damaged.” Like the previous fire, this one took place on the eve of the Black Friday shopping bonanza. Amazon would later tell the media “The site was only out of action for a short time and staff were back to work on Monday. This won’t have an impact on our Christmas deliveries.” They referred to the arson as “an operational incident.” An online seller complained on an Amazon forum, “It’s not funny though is it? Somebody must be very unhappy with Amazon.” Another online seller griped, “Just had 121 units go into reserve due to this – all popular. Cash flow going to suffer replacing this whilst they sort it out & then probably have to wait for refund money. Ugh!” In short, these arson fires struck at the very heart of the new digital economy. For this reason, news of these rebellious acts have been suppressed by Amazon.
The wage system has enabled generations of men and women to live while evading the question of life’s meaning, by “making themselves useful,” by “making a career,” by “serving.” The wage worker has always been free to postpone this question till later—till retirement, let’s say—while leading an honorable social life. And since it is apparently “too late” to raise it once retired, all that’s left to do is to wait patiently for death. We will thus have been able to spend an entire life without entering into existence.
-The Invisible Committee, Now, 2017
On Black Friday, November 24, 2017, the Ver.di union organized a partial strike of Amazon fulfillment centers in Berlin, Bad Hersfeld, Leipzig, Rheinberg, Werne, Graben, and Koblenz. This strike was called Block Black Friday. 2,000 of the 12,000 Amazon warehouse workers in Germany walked off the job, held demonstrations at the gates, and marched through the streets of their cities.
— Insurrection News (@InsurrectNews) March 5, 2015
— Insurrection News (@InsurrectNews) November 28, 2017
700 supporters held a demonstration in Berlin and held signs that read Make Amazon Pay. Another strike of 500 workers also took place in the Northern Italian city of Piacenza, organized by three separate unions. The night before this coordinated strike, a group calling itself “autonomous groups and others” set fire to an Amazon delivery truck and sabotaged two others in Berlin. In a communique posted on the internet, the saboteurs wrote:
“We do not want to be governed by information…consumers of the global flow of goods are supposed to be rewarded with unsolicited emotion capture for personalized and controlled advertising. On the faces of all those up to something criminal, their tension may become apparent before the impending act of shoplifting…in this game, Amazon is at the forefront of poker. So last year Amazon was the company with the most research expenditure worldwide. So we’re already at the test phases of supermarkets without staff. ‘Amazon Go’ relies on customers being registered via app when entering the store, as well as the products removed from the shelves – the working customer in the panoptic shop. So soon will burst the service bubble, the reservoir for the countless industrial workers…the conflict of the striking workers at Amazon represents only part of the gigantic problem of the change of the work world, the isolation of the battlefields and the isolation of the fighting. The strikers likely suspect that in ten years there will be no human picker and packer anymore, because Amazon is already working on computer-controlled drones to upgrade the warehouses. Let’s disconnect the cables. Let’s be more than a zero and a one.”
In the days leading up to the strike, another anonymous group sabotaged the machinery in the Amazon sorting center outside Munich. Unlike fulfillment centers, these sorting centers are the “last-leg” of distribution and have a smaller workforce. The Munich sorting center employs just 130 people compared to the 2,000 at each fulfillment center.
As the saboteurs wrote:
“We paralyzed several Amazon pack stations in Munich. Smooth logistics is the prerequisite for Amazon’s ‘Prime’ concept of fast delivery of orders. We remain unpredictable! Make Amazon pay!”
This act of sabotage took place just as Amazon is extending its Locker pick-up locations throughout Germany, a service that requires reliable delivery times. While the low-wage earners toil in the sorting center outside the city, over 1,000 new high-earning employees work from comfortable chairs at the brand new corporate HQ in central Munich and eat expensive take-out inside their luxury condos. This is Amazon’s typical pattern of development wherever it establishes its operations. Behind the United States, Germany is its second largest market. What Amazon has done to its country of origin, so it will do to others.
Arson attack on Amazon trucks.
Two weeks after this strike, the German federal police conducted a series of raids on radical spaces in connection with the Hamburg G20 riots in July. On December 5, armed raids were conducted in in Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Bonn, Sieburg, Göttingen, Stuttgart and Lower Saxony. In the city of Bonn, the police raided the headquarters for the youth wing of the Ver.di union, claiming its members had participated in the riots. Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in response to this latest round of repression. One individual arrested at the G20 riots was recently given a 2 year and 7 month jail sentence for throwing bottles at the police. Another individual was just released on bail after being held in custody since the July demonstrations. According to the authorities, they were conducting an investigation on 75 known and 26 unknown individuals that would soon become very public.
— WWD (@wwd) December 21, 2017
On December 18th, the Hamburg Police released a wanted poster with the faces of 104 individuals alleged to have been involved in the rioting. This tactic drew immediate comparisons to the wanted posters made in the 1970s to catch the Red Army Faction. In retaliation, the website for the Rigaer94 squat in Berlin posted the faces of 54 police officers and solicited the public for information regarding their lives. While all of this was occurring, the stock price of Amazon rose almost sixty points on NASDAQ and the online Christmas shopping spree went into overdrive. Thus is revealed the true rebels of our age and their relentless antagonist, the empire.
Rigaer94 Squat in Germany
If one limits oneself to the forecasts of the World Bank, by about 2030, under the pressure of “innovation,” 40% of the existing jobs in the wealthy countries will have vanished. “We will never work,” was a piece of bravado by Rimbaud. It’s about to become the lucid assessment of a whole generation of young people.
-The Invisible Committee, Now, 2017
The worldwide headquarters for Amazon is in the South Lake Union District of Seattle. It is surrounded by a constellation of sorting centers, fulfillment centers, and other logistical hubs. The ex-rural suburb of Kent now houses the BFI4, BFI5, and BFI6 fulfillment centers, employing almost 2,000 workers. Another center (BFI1) exists just to the south in Sumner, with another on the way. Along with the fulfillment center in Dupont (BFI3) and assorted other facilities (Whole Foods, Amazon Fresh, etc.), Amazon employs roughly 5,000 low-paid workers in the Puget Sound region. All of them make $14 -20 an hour. All of them are meant to be replaced with robots. To make his intentions clear, Jeff Bezos has built the first “worker-less” Amazon Go store at the base of the new Amazon Tower II. It had a soft beta opening in December that was exclusively for high-paid Amazon employees. It opens to the general public in January 2018. It is located on the corner of 7th and Blanchard.
Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, and currently the richest person alive.
In contrast to the 5,000 low-paid workers employed by Amazon in the region, there are now 40,000 high-paid Amazon workers in Seattle who have driven up housing costs across the Puget Sound. By the time Amazon finishes its initial development plan, there will be a total of 55,000. Each of them is paid at least $100,000 a year to spend their wages on rent, food, entertainment, commodities, and expensive real estate. Very few of these employees remain in Seattle. By all accounts, Amazon is a horrible place to work, even at the higher levels. The only incentive is the high salary. Once a high-paid employee is burned out, they can cancel the lease for their luxury apartment and leave Seattle for a job with Google in Mountain View. Their apartment doesn’t sit empty for long. Amazon has already hired a replacement. This is the new form of capitalism. Seattle might as well be Munich. Every city is the same to them. Everybody is identical. Everybody is replaceable.
New Amazon stores allow customers to walk out with produces, having being charged automatically to their accounts.
The new mayor of Seattle is Jenny Durkan, the former Federal prosecutor responsible for the Grand Jury witch hunt against anarchists in the Puget Sound region. She was directly supported in her mayoral bid by Amazon on the other tech giants through a proxy foundation that netted her over a millions dollars in campaign funds. She was also supported by a majority of the labor unions in Seattle who heaped praise and admiration on her for upholding liberal values in the era of Trump. Along with these mega-unions, Jenny Durkan has proven herself to be a loyal enforcer of capitalist normality. Like the witch hunt that followed the May Day 2012 demonstrations in Seattle, the witch hunt against the J20 defendants in Washington DC is meant to frighten anyone who would challenge the reigning order through direct action. Amazon supported Jenny Durkan in her mayoral bid without hesitation. Jeff Bezos obviously felt he could trust her to protect his little glass balls.
— Richard Miller (@online_egroup) December 20, 2017
Given that Amazon has made its intentions clear, there is really no point in waiting much longer to act. In their grand plan for the future, all low-paid service and warehouse work will relegated to robots, creating a sea of impoverished and exploitable workers unseen since the Great Depression. None of the local unions have succeeded in organizing any Amazon workers, just as the leftist politicians in City Hall have been unable to restrain Jeff Bezos and his deranged vision. It took the Ver.di union four long years to reach its present strength (1/6 of German fulfillment center workers) and by the time their membership constitutes a majority of the employees, Bezos may already have discarded them.
In the spring of 2017, a call went out for a march on May Day against Amazon to demand 20,000 free housing units, free education, free transit, and a universal basic income. This turned out to be a long troll against Amazon, their internal security team, and the police who protect the corporate property. This viral ruse was followed by an anarchist rejection of those same reformist demands, claiming they would solidify the current dystopia if fulfilled. In the process, at least 50,000 readers were exposed to the idea of marching on the Amazon campus for a definitive rejection of this miserable world.
Hundreds Of Europe's Amazon Workers Plan Black Friday Strike https://t.co/pCxFgjUArZ
— Arnel Tanyag (@arneltanyag) December 22, 2017
Since the election of Donald Trump, the CEO of Amazon has done nothing but prove himself to be the arch-swine that he is. Jeff Bezos announced his newest version of the Hunger Games where the mayors of North America will beg and grovel for the chance to host his second corporate HQ. Despite the endless hit-pieces in the media of how Amazon is destroying Seattle, the bourgeois mayors of a dozen major metropolis are literally pleading for their own destruction. Between the misogynist toxicity of Donald Trump and the misogynist toxicity of Jeff Bezos, the choice is clear: let’s destroy work, let’s destroy the economy. Amazon’s aim is to supersede the traditional nation-state and replace it with a hierarchical network of surveillance, automation, and control. Amazon is quite relentless in its desire to ruin and degrade everything it touches.
Let this serve as a call for multiform action against the Amazon Leviathan. Let’s be inspired by our comrades in Berlin fighting against the new Google campus. Like the Diggers and Luddites of old, let’s destroy their world and build our own. All power to the communes!
Cover photo from Insurrection News
A anarchist newspaper from Seattle.