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Amazon workers in Germany expand strike to a fifth distribution center

September 24, 2014 10:36 AM
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Sept. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Amazon.com Inc. workers in Germany expanded a strike to a fifth logistics center as the country’s largest union pushes the U.S. online retailer to join collective bargaining agreements and pay higher wages.

“The people here are fed up,” Karsten Rupprecht, a Ver.di union representative attending the strike in the city of Werne, said in a phone interview today. “We have to show Amazon that they can’t just do with us what they want.”

Amazon workers in Germany, the retailer’s biggest market outside the U.S., have held walkouts in the last 1 1/2 years demanding that the Seattle-based company recognize industrywide labor agreements. The dispute highlights the conflict between Amazon’s business approach -- built on cost flexibility -- and a labor model in Germany that dates from the middle of the 19th century. The company has about 15,000 German logistics workers, including those on temporary contracts, according to the union.

“Contrary to labor-union propaganda, workers in Germany don’t have a right to a collective labor agreement,” said Volker Rieble, professor for labor and civil law at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. “They only have the right to try and push one through with a strike. There are lots of companies in Germany with no wage agreement.”

The union says Amazon’s method of dealing with workers individually or in small groups has led to many employees being on short-term contracts, people not getting sufficient breaks and higher sick rates. It also says employees should be classified as retail rather than logistics workers to justify higher wages. The current strike started Sept. 22 and is set to end later today.

Wal-Mart Failure

Germany posed too big a challenge for the world’s largest retailer. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pulled out of the country in 2006 after battling with workers over labor policy issues, which culminated in strikes.

“It’s possible that Amazon is operating on the basis of an American culture even though another wind prevails here in Germany,” Philipp Fischinger, lecturer for labor law at Mannheim University, said in an interview. “If you think about Wal-Mart, and how they tried to introduce their ethics and labor standards to Germany, it failed.”

Amazon has said that it pays logistics workers at the upper end of what’s usual in the sector and that employees wouldn’t benefit from collective wage agreements. Amazon representatives in Germany didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment on the widening of the strike.

“Some of the employees have reached their limit,” said Frank Schrand, a 48-year-old Amazon employee who has worked at the Werne site for three years. “They can’t work any faster. For Amazon the customer is everything and the worker means very little.”

 

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