By some accounts, 2013 was a rough year for Amazon in Germany. From facing criticism that the company was trying to avoid taxes to being investigated for anti-competitive pricing practices, Amazon seemed to be under fire for most of the year — particularly damning was a public television documentary aired in February which documented generally poor working conditions of temporary logistics workers.
But perhaps most disconcerting for the company may have been the continued strikes by some of its employees, coordinated by the Ver.di trade union. The initial strikes were held last spring — in what were the first strikes at the company, in any country. Ver.di also coordinated a series of strikes leading up to Christmas, with hopes of disrupting sales during the company's biggest time of the year.
Typically, the strikes affected about two to three out of the nine logistics centers around Germany, and have usually involved about 1,000 workers across the country for up to a week a time (Ver.di estimated that during the largest strike in December, around 1,800 workers participated.) Amazon employs about 9,000 workers in the country, but during the seasonal rush hired about 14,000 temporary workers.
In short, the strikes are about wages: Amazon classifies their employees in Germany as 'logistics' workers, who generally receive lower pay than those classified as 'retail' employees. Strikers are demanding that Amazon categorize them as retail employees, so that they can get higher wages and collective bargaining rights. (Amazon employees start at around €9.50 per hour, where 'retail' employees might start at between €10 and 13 per hour, depending on the region.)
But if the strikers were hoping that their efforts over the past year would encourage German consumers to shop elsewhere — hitting Amazon where it hurts, so to speak — they might be coming away from the holiday season slightly disappointed, at least according to the company.
"The recent strike action before Christmas had no consequences on shipments," Amazon said in a statement, which added that holiday orders were up 15 percent year on year. Amazon is the country's largest online retailer, and Germany is the company's second-largest market in the world, after the US.
Werner Eichhorst, the director of labor policy in Europe at the Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labor (an independent research center), agrees that the strike efforts have, for the most part, come up short. "What has been shown in December is that the trade unions at Amazon are not strong enough to have a significant impact on business activities," he said.
And indeed, in a blow to the union's hopes for increasing solidarity within the company, a group of Amazon employees (over 1,000, according to a report by the newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung) have come out against the strikes, saying that Ver.di does not speak from them: it seems that at least these employees are generally happy with the working conditions at the logistics centers.
For its part, Amazon has insisted that its workers, since they do not directly interact with customers, are accurately categorized as logistics employees, and has claimed that its wages and associated benefits are competitive.
In the face of all this, Ver.di has been generally optimistic about the actions it's taken. Even if Amazon hasn't budged on the employee categorization issue or collective bargaining rights, "Amazon has not only raised wages to a certain extent, but now pays some employees Christmas bonuses", the union said in a statement.
While it's tempting to see the strikers' lack of traction as evidence that a country which was once progressive on labor issues is succumbing, ideologically at least, to a more Americanized vision of work, the reality is actually a bit more complicated.
A main issue might be that since Ver.di is so large and complex (the union represents about 2.2 million members in industries ranging from filmmaking to information technology) it might not be as on top of employee needs as a smaller, more focused union. "The issue is that Ver.di is too big and maybe a bit ignorant regarding what Amazon workers really want," said Eichhorst.
Furthermore, the union's general lack of results may not have anything to do with Amazon specifically, but might be representative of a larger trend: part-time workers are generally less receptive to unions than their full-time counterparts. And this has everything to do with the industry that Amazon is in: for example, union membership is higher in industries like manufacturing or in the public sector, which support a larger percentage of full-time workers than a more temperamental industry like online retailing, which is affected by seasonal shifts.
"There are a lot more flexible, temporary or part-time workers, and I think that they are somehow very reluctant to join a trade union, although they may need unions the most," Eichhorst said.
Nonetheless, Amazon might be wise to take a more conciliatory approach in future. If the strikes go on for much longer, and if the union can cultivate a more negative image of the company, there might be unforeseen effects for Amazon if it wants to expand to other countries in Europe. Although the company has recently been pushing east, a negative image of labor practices might be harmful if it ever wants to expand into Scandinavia, where labor unions tend to be more powerful. In this sense, "this could really be harmful to Amazon to some extent," said Eichhorst.
"And I do think that Amazon should, especially in those countries, consider the long-term perspective."
For consolation, Ver.di might be looking to a high-profile example of an American company that tried to get a foothold in Germany, but didn't succeed: in 2006 Wal-Mart had to abandon its stores in the country after continued labor disagreements (including strikes coordinated by the trade union).
Ver.di says that it does plan to continue the Amazon strikes into 2014, and wants to expand them to include more logistics centers. "People want to be treated by their employer with dignity and respect and not like machines or robots," a Ver.di representative told ZDNet.