An Essential Strike
An Interview with a Piacenza Amazon Worker on the Struggles during the Pandemic
by Precarious Disconnections (Bologna, Italy)
We are publishing an interview with Gianpaolo, who has been working for eight years in the Amazon warehouse in Piacenza (MXP5) and who participated in September at the Amazon Workers International assembly in Lille, which was attended by workers from France, Germany, Poland and the United States.
In the months of the pandemic, the transnational organization of Amazon workers made a step forward with a wave of protests and strikes. These shook the warehouses all over the world and a series of common standings and shared claims at the transnational level that frightened the company, forcing it to react. More than 19,000 Amazon workers caught Covid in the United States alone, according to a report on the contagion that the company published with extreme delay and after multiple requests.
Gianpaolo says that, at the beginning of the pandemic, Amazon in Piacenza agreed to introduce health measures only because it was forced to by a thirteen-day strike and by a mass refusal to go to work for fear of the contagion. Moreover, the problem of the sanitary conditions in the warehouses predates the pandemic. Meanwhile Amazon takes advantage of the social-distancing measures to harden control on the workers and enforce discipline in the warehouses.
The wave of strikes in recent months has been important not only because it forced the company to increase salaries and take steps back from the initial unwillingness to respect minimum safety conditions. But it also showed workers around the world that “they are not totally alone”. For this reason in Italy it is so important to establish connections with other warehouses in Europe and beyond. With Gianpaolo’s words, “to beat Amazon we need a greater force than to beat any other adversary” - the transnational organization is the way to accumulate this force.
In this direction, Lille assembly decided to undertake a common campaign towards Black Friday, putting at the center the request to maintain the bonus of two euros obtained during the first months of the pandemic; and to fight together so that the anti-contagion measures are respected in the warehouses, since the emergency is still in progress.
Can you tell us about your work experience at the Amazon warehouse in Piacenza? How has the warehouse changed?
I have been working there since 2012 and started as a 'green badge'. Thirty or so employees started the warehouse in 2011, which reached 6000 employees after 2013, when we were still the only Italian warehouse. Today we are about 1800 permanent workers.
When you start working for Amazon you don’t realize what it really is. Amazon settles in poor zones, with the highest unemployment, exploiting these situations to its advantage, bringing work, and creating an apparently professional selection process. Especially in the early years you were selected by passing tests. All this at first leads you to see work for Amazon in a positive way, it is presented as a job where safety comes first. The motto is: “Work Hard. Have Fun. Make History”. The work environment is very young, apparently there is no one controlling what you do.
At first everything distracts you from the reality of the facts. Then, in retrospect, you understand things. They used to let us in 15 minutes earlier to have unpaid briefings, where managers would tell us: either you work well or there are plenty of people who would like to work here. They were constantly pushing the psychological level and this led you to run like crazy, because the goal was to become permanent through a process that inevitably depended on high productivity and a positive approach to work.
A very significant change was in 2013, when they opened the new 100,000 square meter warehouse (MXP5) with a much larger number of workers. With the passage to the new warehouse the management has changed a lot, hardening and worsening the way in which they treat us.
What happened in the warehouse after the beginning of the pandemic and what has changed since the March strike?
At the beginning of the pandemic there were no gloves, no masks, there was disinfectant gel but in very limited quantities. After the strike in March, which lasted thirteen days, there was an agreement with the unions. This undoubtedly brought improvements, with restricted entrances, with a distancing of the posts, with a minimum distance of two meters between workers.
After the strike, a committee was created, which includes union representatives, safety representatives and some workers chosen by the company, especially to control entrances and exits, but also to avoid gatherings. The instrument of the committee would make sense if it had real power, while in reality everything goes through the company. The latter may or may not endorse the advice given by the committee, so basically the company decides everything.
In Piacenza the strike obtained more than elsewhere because we have been organizing for years. We joined the union in 2016, so there is an organizational structure, a strong group and a discussion with the company that has been going on for much longer. The strike was fairly solid, but the point is that a lot of people were at home on sick leave, or simply didn’t want to go to work because they were afraid of the contagion. It was precisely to discourage this widespread absenteeism that Amazon put on the table the wage increase of two euros per hour for all the months of lockdown.
However, in the end, what got us back to work was the implementation of sanitary measures: the use of masks, spacing, limited entries, the use of gloves. These were the things that the company was forced to introduce also for the decrees issued by the region and the government. The problem is that when, at the end of the strike, these measures arrived, everything cooled down in the media. The day before Amazon was the villain - who did not give the masks; and the next day - it was the saviour of the nation that provided essential goods, or allegedly such, to everyone.
Amazon made propaganda by donating 500,00 euros to the Italian Red Cross, 100,000 to the Red Cross of Piacenza and 100,000 masks to the city of Piacenza. Amazon, however, never does anything for nothing. This personally pisses me off because we know very well that they wanted to leave us without protections, without masks, without gloves. But after the strike - they had to change their attitude and try to present themselves in a different way. Obviously, they did only the bare minimum.
What is the current situation with regard to safety and contagion risk?
Actually, even now, there is no distance of two meters, in the pick towers, for example. People are constantly crossing each other, creating groups. In short, at the moment the attention on distances has decreased a lot, or rather the managers are monitoring and supervising especially productivity, and not the distancing. The committee goes around the lanes, but the few who seem to really want to help their colleagues are disappointed. Because they see that reporting risk situations does not lead to long-term solutions to the problem.
Even at the general safety level there is total inattention, now they are emptying the lanes to make room for clothes and food, piling the objects into containers from which the objects overflow and fall on the workers from above. A girl had two cans of paint fall on her head, but a company doctor tried not to recognize her injury at work and advised her to go on sick leave (not all doctors are like that).
Now Amazon is investing to prepare to take advantage of the second wave, as well as of the autumn peak. They are opening new entrances and new turnstiles to make sure that you only enter from one side and exit from the other. Certainly not because they want to protect us, but in order to have the green light to the entrance of as many people as possible.
Theoretically, according to the March agreement signed after the strike, the number of personnel had to remain unchanged to protect the distance. But the company does not seem to cooperate and does not provide any data in this regard, but it merely asks to “trust” that they are respecting the agreements made. However, we see that the parking lot is increasingly fuller and new people are continuing to enter.
Anyway, on safety there are also problems that come from before the pandemic. The safety department - which is the department that should take care of the worker’s safety - actually takes care of safety according to what comes back in Amazon’s pocket. There are rules on how to make various movements in a correct way for the body. But then if you have to respect the standards of productivity it makes no sense. For example, I can make a movement as correct as you want - but if you make me do it 1,000 times a day moving loads - in the long run it damages me anyway. There are occupational diseases that are not recognized or often unreported. There are problems with tendons, wrists, back, which depend on the job, but which almost certainly get you if you are in there for three or four years doing the same job.
During the pandemic they said that they would stop controlling productivity, but now they have certainly started to do so again. In fact now they use anti-covid health measures to intervene on the control of productivity itself. One day, I was at the pack and, while I was working, I was talking to a colleague behind me and sometimes I turned around, but at a distance of two meters, and a manager came and told me not to turn around and not to talk. The anti-contagion rules have been instrumentalised to prevent contact between workers.
The software Proxemics [a software to control the gatherings and movements of workers] that Amazon is trying to introduce in the warehouses. It is a tool created before the pandemic. It was clearly designed to avoid social encounters between workers, and was pushed as an “anti-gatherings” tool. Since the Covid-19 arrived - for Amazon it is like Christmas, not only for productivity. It can make humans run like horses, well-spaced out so that they do not talk to each other, so that they cannot share the problems they have. For them it is perfect, they avoid gatherings, they avoid circulating rumours - for Amazon it is a boon.
What do you think about the wage increase that Amazon has achieved during the emergency and the attempt to impose an exchange between money and health?
I have a sad comment. When the bonus arrived a colleague asked me if I was happy with the increase. I replied: “No, I am very pissed off”. For four years we have been asking for an increase that recognizes our results. Because every year they tell us that we are improving, that productivity is higher, and they have always denied us such increase. Then - when a pandemic comes - when Amazon has no competition because everything is closed - when there is absenteeism because Amazon is not providing personal protective equipment - only then do they give us two euros more per hour? Which is a huge increase, let’s face it. But for years they said they couldn’t give it, and suddenly they can?
I have another very sad comment. Some unions tried to pass it off as their own victory, saying that they were the ones who got the increase, but this is false. It was because of the international movement, strikes and global protest that the two euros arrived, not thanks to the demands of a single center. Then it must be said that for Amazon this increase represented an investment that allowed them to earn even more money, but it was something they would have gladly avoided. The absenteeism and protests in particular gave a shock.
What change do you think was brought by the global wave of strikes against Amazon during the pandemic?
The workers realized that they were not totally alone, which was the worst thing about the mood of those working at Amazon, that they felt isolated in the fight against this giant. But in order to beat Amazon we have to deploy a greater force than against any other opponent. And in fact Amazon, immediately after the strike at the Piacenza site, did what we workers should have done. It enhanced what had happened, on the media with a video that showed all the health measures they had introduced. But without specifying that they had introduced them only in Piacenza. Because in the other sites we know very well that it was not so, that the protection was completely different.
Amazon is invading television with positive advertising. We may not have the resources to do the same, but we should fight Amazon’s fake news. These ads show workers saying that Amazon saved their lives, as if Amazon was doing charity, but these ads hide what the worker gives to Amazon and the fact that the company does not donate anything to anyone.
With this wage increase Amazon has shown that it is able to impose from the center a decision on wages that affects all warehouses globally, but at the same time differentiates the increases according to the national purchasing powers. What could be a claim to unite the different specific conditions and challenge Amazon on this ground? What do you think of the claim of an equal salary between all the warehouses?
Asking for an equal wage for the same type of work could be a very good point, we have to understand how feasible it is. An equal wage would blow many dynamics of the game that Amazon wants to play, for example between Poland and Germany. Amazon went to Poland, which has almost no domestic market, to exploit Polish wages (about a quarter of German wages) to fulfill the orders of the German and European market in general. An equal wage could be a way to avoid this kind of games and the export of labor to poorer countries. It must be understood how to propose it concretely, but it is a good idea.
For me, however, wage claims should not be unrelated to the protection of workers’ health, especially knowing the dynamics of work in Amazon. The first general manager we sat down with, Tareq Rajjal, told us “this is an assembly line". But you can’t keep the same people doing the same job for every day of their working life. On an assembly line you can break the pieces, you can break the machinery too, let alone a human body. If I have to turn a bolt all day every day sooner or later I will break my wrist. Carpal tunnel problems, De Quervain’s disease, back and shoulder problems, this is the norm at Amazon. I have a lack of cartilage on my left ankle because they put me in a job where I was handling heavy goods and dragging hand pallet trucks all day long, often all by myself.
Amazon makes a wicked use of workers: it uses them exclusively according to what the algorithm says. If the algorithm says that a person can do that job, only one person does it, it is not the employer who looks and evaluates. It is only the algorithm that commands. Health and safety are decisive issues. Also psychological health - I see young boys, twenty years old, who entered with enthusiasm and willingness to do, who have been treated very badly and now walk around with their heads down, they look like zombies, totally transfigured.
This is the first thing I would fight, because in Amazon the only decent treatment is reserved towards managers and to those who always say yes. Indeed in Amazon it is not enough to be a “yes man”, but you have to be a “yes, yes, yes man”.
Recently, you attended the Amazon Workers International meeting in Lille, where Italian, French, German, Polish and American workers discussed the challenges that the fight against Amazon is facing. Why do you think it is important to organize with workers from other countries?
I think we have a common evil and that we must unite as much as possible to face it. The first thing I asked when we entered the warehouse with the union was to make contact with Germany, because I knew that there was already a movement there, in fact then we went to Poznan in 2016 at the first meeting of 'Uniglobal', a movement for the worker’s defense that I do not consider much different from what I saw in Lille.
It is essential that workers unite, that they talk to each other, that they explain to each other the ways out of some specific situations, that they exchange more information. It is essential to understand and share the ways everyone found to solve some problems, such as in Germany, for example, where they managed to prevent the introduction of 'Proxemics' (The software noted above-editor) by legal means. A judge prevented the installation of Proxemics in Germany arguing that it violated European privacy legislation.
You have to use what Amazon says against Amazon. Do they say safety? Then we claim to work safely. Do they say quality? Then we claim to do quality work. Productivity, on the other hand, should not exist at all as a criterion for us. In some countries Amazon fires people below certain productivity thresholds, but it is us who have to perform the productivity. In Amazon, we are forced to have a certain productivity in order to have indefinite time. But after this “race” we have to slow down. It is a “marathon” to arrive healthy at retirement, because otherwise - with the productivity that Amazon would like to impose on us it would be impossible to get there. This type of attitude must be shared among workers from different countries. We should find a way to intensify international contacts, talk to each other every month.
In which direction do you think this transnational organization of workers against Amazon should go?
I have been talking for many years about the need to organize a global day of strike and demonstrations by Amazon workers. Some people have told me that it is infeasible, but I like to dream. We need a way to connect workers who are far away. For example, I thought that during a day of strike and protest all over the world - you could put big screens in front of the warehouses and connect with all the other warehouses and squares involved in the strike - to feel all part of a unique event, where workers from all over the world intervene.
The worker must know that there is someone else protesting. It must be an event that remains, it would be a generational change of the way in which to strike. It would be a way to connect and show workers that are on strike, make them talk, make them share ideas. This would be a step forward. You don’t have to do it on Black Friday, because Amazon expects it by now. I like surprises. You have to be able to create a “positive panic” that makes the company understand that we are many and all connected, and then put them in trouble and force them to listen. We have to be more creative.
This article first appeared in English on the Transnational Social Strike Website. Reproduced with permission