Last year Amazon rang up record-breaking sales between Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving—and Cyber Monday. According to data from Numerator, the company captured 17.7 percent of Black Friday dollars—more than any other retailer.
Black Friday—November 25 this year—is also the kick off for peak season, the period beginning the week of Thanksgiving when shippers like UPS, USPS, DHL, FedEx, and Amazon struggle to meet holiday orders. It’s the time when many warehouse and package delivery workers have to say “See you next year” to their families.
Peak season’s intense workloads combined with a shortage of workers creates a special opportunity for workers to put pressure on their employer.
Although Thanksgiving is a unique US holiday, “Black Friday” is celebrated in many countries as the opening of the Christmas shopping season. In Italy, merchants offer Black Friday discounts that fill their stores with crowds of bargain-hungry shoppers just as in the US.
That’s why three Italian trade union federations chose it as a strategic day in 2017 to strike Amazon’s million-square-foot distribution center in Castel San Giovanni near Piacenza in Northern Italy.
The San Giovanni facility opened in 2015. In 2017, about 50 percent of the 1,650 “Blue Badge” or permanent employees struck. However, another 2,000 temporary “Green Badge” (short-term and seasonal employees) mostly came to work.
While there were some previous job actions at Amazon in Germany, this was one of the first Amazon strikes in Europe—or, indeed, anywhere.
Amazon spokespersons insisted that the strike was only 10 percent of the workforce because they factored in the temporary employees. Nevertheless, Amazon agreed to negotiate with the unions the following Monday. Then management canceled negotiations and unilaterally sought to reschedule the meeting for the following January. The unions warned that there would be more actions if there were no substantive face-to-face discussions by December 6. In a victory for the unions, on December 5, management agreed to meet and subsequently agreed to improvements in working conditions.
The Italian actions and later Amazon strikes in Germany and Poland were an inspiration to many Amazon workers and union organizers. We believed they would help motivate more worker organizing in the United States and thus began urging socialists to get jobs at Amazon.
Since 2017, coordinated international actions targeting Amazon have increased. In 2019, UNI Global Union and Progressive International launched Make Amazon Pay, a coalition uniting over 70 trade unions, civil society organizations, environmentalists, and tax watchdogs. The coalition’s unifying demands are that Amazon pay its workers fairly and respect their right to join unions, pay its fair share of taxes, and commit to real environmental sustainability.
Last November, peak-season actions took place in 25 countries around the world. However, participation in the past by US unions and organizations has been modest at best.
Recent organizing successes at US Amazon facilities—including the Amazon Labor Union’s winning an NLRB vote at the Staten Island Fulfillment Center in April—and the numerous walkouts over pay and conditions at Amazon facilities from Maryland to California reflect a new spirit of labor militancy in the United States. Building on that opportunity, UNI Global will announce the exact locations and times of planned actions on its website over the next three weeks.
Amazon organizers participating in planning for Black Friday range from Amazonians United, Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment (CAUSE), Warehouse Workers for Justice, the Warehouse Workers Resource Center, and similar worker’s centers and nonprofits aligned with the Athena coalition, as well as organizers from the Teamsters, Postal Workers and RWDSU.
The Black Friday actions are an opportunity for Amazon workers to build their power while strengthening relationships between the various groups organizing for justice at Amazon in the United States and internationally. As momentum for the day of action builds, hopefully more Amazon labor groups will get on board.
In addition to the substantial increase in worker organizing at Amazon, other factors could contribute to broader support and participation in Black Friday this year:
- The Teamsters have already begun a contract campaign for their 340,000 members at United Parcel Service;
- The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the West Coast dockworkers, are working without a contract as negotiations continue with their employers’ group, the Pacific Maritime Association;
- Railroad workers in 12 different unions are voting on a national agreement with the giant freight railroads. Two rail unions, the Maintenance of Way and the Railroad Signalmen, have voted to reject the contract. Other votes are pending. If enough members vote to reject it, it could lead to a dramatic work stoppage, affecting the 40 percent of US GNP that travels on rail;
- The increased support for unions generally means that Black Friday protests will be perceived as part of a much broader labor movement.
Could these combined developments lead to a “peak season” moment when workers at many companies across the entire logistics sector take action together? Imagine walkouts at Amazon, with Teamster-led protests at UPS barns, followed by members marching to nearby Amazon facilities in support. Or dockworkers and railroad workers taking their message to workers at intermodal facilities that handle Amazon freight? Or thousands of warehouse and delivery workers at smaller companies using Black Friday as a strategic opportunity to dramatize their power in the supply chain and begin forming their own unions.
While much of the above may only be a dream for this November, it’s the direction that the labor movement is headed in. For now, it’s realistic to envision US-based peak season actions dovetailing nicely with the Make Amazon Pay activities around the world. That in itself would give the international battle cry, “Workers of the World, Unite!” a new twist: “Logistics Workers of the World, Unite!”