What's up with Amazon's German workers?

A German journalist says Seattle isn't the only place where minimum wage has labor in a fighting mood.
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Amazon's logo on a company building

A German journalist says Seattle isn't the only place where minimum wage has labor in a fighting mood.

No "Silent Night" for Amazon.com in Germany this Christmas season. Unhappy members of Ver.di, Germany’s second-largest trade union, noisily blew horns at the gates of several Amazon warehouses in Germany this past week. A handful of Ver.di demonstrators flew to Seattle, standing outside Amazon headquarters to make the same raucous point.

More than two million workers belong to Ver.di, an acronym for “United Services Union.” “You can’t ignore us,” the union crows, and with members in more than 1,000 trades and professions, there’s truth in that boast.

Money, in the form of minimum wage, is at the core of this dispute. But it's also a clash of old and new — old world labor power vs. new globalized e-commerce. Germany is Amazon's biggest market outside America and business is booming.

Consider this. On Dec. 15, according to a Reuters report, Amazon’s German group said it processed 4.6 million orders, or 53 orders per second.

This year, e-commerce in Germany will grow more than 40 percent compared to an already brisk business in 2012, according to the German Retail Association. Amazon, employing 9,000 regular and 14,000 part-time workers in eight distribution centers scattered throughout Germany, will capture a large share of this growth.

Ver.di's strike aims at rising the minimum wage for Amazon’s warehouse and logistic workers to the somewhat higher minimum wage paid to retail workers, the sector where Ver.di argues Amazon actually belongs.

Beneath the argument over wages lurks a clash of cultures. And this might hurt Amazon in the long run more than adding a few more Euros to its workers’ paychecks.

  • The robot-like working conditions in Amazon's giant warehouses near Augsburg, Frankfurt, and Leipzig were widely reported in Germany’s news media.
  • German e-commerce customers are finding alternatives to brand leader Amazon. Retail giants, and especially startup companies, are waking up to internet commerce and are fighting to keep their businesses afloat. The result is plenty of choices for German online consumers.
  • Ver.di, and other still powerful German trade unions, are on an upswing. The just established “grand coalition” engineered by Chancellor Angela Merkel — a combine of the two main conservative parties, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU), with the liberal Social Democratic Party (SPD) — intends to establish a nationwide minimum hourly wage of 8.50 Euros (US $11.62). The government’s minimum wage initiative should help insure four more years of labor-friendly politics.

Ver.di, having made its point, temporarily called off its strike. And Amazon Germany assured its customers that the holiday gifts they ordered will be beneath the beloved Weihnachtsbaum on Dec. 24.

But it’s not over. Ver.di has said it will restart the strike after the three-day Christmas holiday at two warehouses near Frankfurt and Leipzig and continue the protest into the New Year. It's a tactical jab at Amazon at exactly the time when millions of returned packages need to be handled.

So was this pre-Christmas squabble just a tempest in Amazon’s teapot? Clearly not.


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