Amazon workers are fighting for their rights. This holiday season, think of them | David Adler and James Schneider

In the early hours of 27 November – as shoppers around the world woke up to a frenzy of Black Friday bargains – workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Poznań, Poland, went on strike. Since March, CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his personal wealth soar: in a single day this July, Bezos made more than $10bn, the largest jump in individual wealth in human history. Meanwhile, Amazon workers have been forced to work long hours in precarious conditions at the frontline of the pandemic, with almost no increase in pay. “We keep the world running,” said the workers at Poznań, “so we deserve much more!”

The headline demand of Friday’s action at Poznań was to “Make Amazon Pay”. Alongside garment workers in Bangladesh, hawkers in India and climate activists in the United States, a coalition is forming across the planet to demand justice from Amazon for its abuse of workers, the environment and democratic institutions. “Amazon takes too much and gives back too little,” the coalition writes in its common demands.

But the strikes on Black Friday aimed at far more than restitution. Rather, they modeled a radical new strategy of supply-chain organizing against Amazon, building a solidarity that transcends borders, sectors and struggles across the planet.

Amazon is an iceberg. Only a fraction of its operations are visible to us as users and consumers of its services: the shop, the shows, the packages and – if you’re really paying attention – the web services platform. But the corporation relies on a complex infrastructure below the surface, stretching across countries and processes of production, distribution and delivery.

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Concealment at scale is the secret to Amazon’s success. Customers enjoy a seamless one-stop shop experience from the comfort of their homes. Out of sight is a ruthless game of regulatory arbitrage, as Amazon installs itself in low-tax jurisdictions and exploits legal loopholes around the world. Even further away from the customer lies Amazon’s environmental impact, scorching frontline communities in the global south while executives in Seattle roll out their latest greenwashed PR campaign.

Taking on Amazon – and the full range of transnational corporations that feed, clothe, and entertain us – will require us to take stock of this global infrastructure, and to reclaim it. Warehouses in places like Poznań, Wrocław, and Bad Hersfeld are key links in this supply chain, the nearest site where customer comfort and worker exploitation come into contact. But it must stretch across the global economy and the regulatory archipelago that runs through it.

Our struggles today remain divided across geographies, themes and targets. Climate activists in Germany, for example, rarely speak to trade unions in Chile, despite the fact that Europe’s decarbonization plans call for a massive increase in their lithium production. To organize down the supply chain, then, is about more than linking one widget to the next. It is about coordinating across silos of struggle that have the appearance of difference, when their interconnections lie just out of sight.

There is a rich tradition of such internationalist organizing. A century ago, Rosa Luxemburg traced the imperial expansion of capital over “vast tracts of the globe’s surface” to capture and commodify “the land, its hidden mineral treasure, and its meadows, woods and water”. For Luxemburg, internationalism was not the sentiment of solidarity. On the contrary, it was a strategy to organize the dispossessed across the core and periphery of an increasingly global economy, and to throw sand in the gears of extraction. Supply-chain organizing today holds the same promise: to make solidarity more than a slogan, and put action at the heart of internationalism.

The pandemic has revived a contentious conversation about the role of supply chains in our economies. Procurement crises and critical shortages of medical supplies once again reminded our politicians of the complexity – and the fragility – of our global system of production. “Will coronavirus pandemic finally kill off global supply chains?” asked the Financial Times back in May.

The answer is no. Even if politicians like Joe Biden promise to “shift production of a range of critical products back to US soil”, the scale of corporations like Amazon – and just as important, their impact – will remain unchanged. In other words, such rhetoric runs the risk of submerging even more of the Amazon iceberg, rendering even less visible the connections between quarantined lives and working conditions around the world.

The pandemic, then, is not a call to retreat to “US soil”, but to organize at the international scale. It is a call to flip the iceberg upside down. Rather than leading with consumer concerns, we should look to those workers and frontline communities at the base of the global economy to set the priorities for the broader movement. Rather than regulating supply chains from their final destination, we should coordinate actions across every link in the chain, transcending the regulatory arbitrage on which corporate power relies.

Back at Poznań, the demand is clear: “Better working conditions for all company warehouse employees around the world.” Their struggle starts on the shop floor. But as Black Friday’s actions showed, everyone has a role to play in making Amazon pay.

  • David Adler is a political economist and general coordinator of the Progressive International

  • James Schneider is a socialist organiser, communications director for Progressive International and former press secretary for Jeremy Corbyn and the UK Labour party



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