National trade unions and the absence of struggle coordination

16 February, 2021

The Covid epidemic situation has not only affected struggles in the healthcare system or in education, it has also transformed conditions and exacerbated previous trends in the logistics and retail sectors. Many large companies in this sector have been making huge profits from online sales while keeping their workers on the job without protection against the pandemic. Strikes broke out practically simultaneously in several countries, reflecting the worldwide interconnection of capital and the working class, strikes which were drowned out in small local struggles by the unions. Let’s see what happened and what effects this situation had on the class at the global level.

Amazon and uncoordinated union activity

Amazon has been one of the companies benefiting most from the shift to online retail caused by the pandemic. The company has achieved record figures this year. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, announced that he was stepping down as CEO with a very significant message:

Amazon is what it is because of inventions, Bezos said in a prepared statement. He went on to mention Amazon innovations such as one-click checkout, Kindle, Prime’s fast shipping promise and Alexa. […] When you look at our financial results, what you really see are the long-term cumulative results of invention.

As expected, for its founder the company’s profits are simply the result of personal genius and applied ideas and inventions. The company apparently runs on its own and the workers, a mere nuisance to be paid, play no noteworthy role. This is by no means unique to Bezos’ or Amazon’s thinking, but rather is hegemonic and mainstream capitalist ideology. But it naturally has its reflection in the way wage labor is treated and exploited.

Amazon has not responded to its rising profits by even raising proportionally and equally the amount it pays in wages, but has responded by reducing what it pays in wages through increased seasonality and work paces, as unions and Amazon workers in France point out:

This impressive increase in sales made possible by the health measures [lockdown and closure of non-essential stores, not the measures inside Amazon] is by no means synonymous with improved working conditions, virus protection and employee pay. The hiring of temporary workers in this period of high demand before the Christmas vacations, and the rotation in the warehouses, favor the possibility of contagion of employees with Covid-19. As Emilien Williate, CGT Amazon France delegate, told RT France on November 18: We fear that there will be hotbeds of contagion. We note that cases are increasing markedly week after week.

The business is a single enterprise, the capital invested is also one, and the exploited workers are united across borders by the same capital that articulates and exploits them. However, the responses are local and dependent on the interests and maneuvers of national unions. This is more than just a matter of form.

Although the plight of Amazon workers extends to several countries simultaneously, the trade union response has been uncoordinated and uneven depending on the country. In Germany, the Verdi union called workers at several Amazon distribution warehouses to strike during the Black Friday and Christmas peaks of activity. At its peak the call was in effect for as many as seven logistics centers. In France, three unions called for a strike… on the weekends in which work is compulsory. And in Spain, where Amazon has been accused of spying on and intimidating striking workers through the use of private detective services, unions called to avoid the strike in order to achieve social peace.

Now, on the eve of Black Friday and in the midst of the Christmas campaign, talks are continuing in an attempt to reach a social peace with the incorporation of several improvements in the working conditions of the workforce of more than 2,000 permanent employees and as many temporary employees hired through temporary employment agencies. The aim of the staff representatives is to sign a collective bargaining agreement before the end of the year. The unions’ weapon in this tug-of-war is the lawsuit in the courts. After the CGT withdrew theirs, everything has focused on that of CCOO. Therefore, for now, mobilizations and strikes are ruled out, as was the case more than two years ago. In other countries where Amazon has a greater labor unrest, there have been strikes in some of the centers.

The business is a single enterprise, the capital invested is also one, and the exploited workers are united across borders by the same capital that articulates and exploits them. However, the responses are local and dependent on the interests and maneuvers of national unions. This is more than just a matter of form.

Ikea and the isolation of workers

Ikea workers on strike in France

Ikea is another company in the retail sector that has reported good figures thanks to a rise in online sales. There seems to be contradictory news which actually reflects the fact that Ikea is made up of several interlocking holding companies. The holding company controlling only the physical stores has racked up losses, but the holding company controlling logistics in addition to the stores has made handsome profits.

Capital uses and will use every opportunity to further exploit workers, and the uncoordinated struggles offer it new opportunities to redraw accounts and intensify exploitation on a country-by-country basis

Several strikes have broken out this year in European Ikea stores and warehouses. In France, where the company scrapped workers’ end-of-year bonuses, unionists literally admitted to being on total improvisation. The company responded by providing the accounts of the Tours region – in order to claim losses – rather than its total figures.

In Italy, strikes such as the one at the Bari site, have been triggered by the company’s decision to suddenly increase the maximum occupancy, putting employees’ health at risk. The same safety problem occurred in Turin after the Ikea store opened in the middle of the pandemic peak last May.

Safety conditions are not that much better in France nor are wage conditions better in Italy, it’s that the opportunity for what could have been a joint fight on both counts was lost for workers on both sides.

Union-led protests at Ikea Korea

But the situation is much worse in South Korea. Workers in Korean Ikea stores are paid much less than Ikea workers in the rest of the world. Wages are at the legal minimum and wage differentials between managers and employees are much more marked than in Europe. Korean workers and unions denounce that the company uses the differences between countries to squeeze Korean workers with special intensity.

Capital uses and will use every opportunity to further exploit workers, and the uncoordinated struggles offer it new opportunities to redraw accounts and intensify exploitation on a country-by-country basis.

A universal class needs to coordinate itself and fight globally – across and above borders and unions – in order to stand up to capital and demand the fulfillment of humanity’s basic needs. In the absence of such coordination, capital is able to respond and redistribute exploitation as it sees fit…

This year strikes broke out virtually simultaneously in several countries, reflecting the worldwide interconnection of capital and the working class, which were all drowned out in small local struggles by the unions. A universal class needs to coordinate itself and struggle globally – across and above borders and unions – in order to stand up to capital and demand the satisfaction of humanity’s basic needs. In the absence of such coordination, capital is able to respond and redistribute exploitation as it sees fit… After all, capital possesses economic power, the connivance of states and the fervent support of trade unions, always ready to sacrifice whatever it takes to balance the books of accumulation.

That’s why it’s so important to gather among ourselves as workers and discuss our situation, try to find out what’s going on in the rest of the world – not through the big headlines in the press, but by trying to find out what’s happening to our class – and see how we can get in touch with workers in other countries, whether they’re employees of our same company or branch or not.

Because even the smallest meeting can spark class consciousness. It all starts with small gestures and coordinated acts. We must build a foundation, however small, so that the potential of our enormous class, the universal class, can arise.