strike

Lessons from Amazon’s Italian hub strike: industrial action that does not factor in both work AND data is doomed to be ineffective

On Nov 24, 2017, the three main Italian unions (CGIL, CISL, UIL) have called for a strike over the failure to negotiate Black Friday bonuses for the 1,600 permanent workers at the distribution hub near the Northern town of Piacenza. Unions say 50% of the workers partake in the strike. Amazon says it was more like 10%.

Bottom line: the strike did not stop Black Friday in Italy. Someone was working. Yet, according to several sources, it was not not permanent workers, but the 2,000 temps that Amazon recruited until Xmas who saved the day. They were not hired to replace striking workers. Even in Italy, this would be illegal. They were hired to face Nov./Dec. surge in retail sales. And of course they did not stop working on Black Friday 2017. That said, Amazon is known internationally for its brutal workplace discipline, its anti-labor stance, and has been accused of hiring temps, contingent workers and even workampers to edge out unionized labor force.

In Italy, one can recruit a lot of those. Unemployment is at 11.1% and there’s a millions-strong industrial reserve army of faux-freelance, part-timers, “coordinated collaborators”, “project-contractors”, “leased staff” and many other forms of non-standard employees. Especially since the infamous Jobs Act heralded by the government of former PM Matteo Renzi, among young workers temp jobs accounts for 50% of employment and they are up 7% since Sept 2017.

But Italian retail workers and their strike tell only part of the story. Amazon isn’t about e-commerce: it’s about big data. Interestingly, Matteo Renzi’s government has been very helpful in facilitating the strategy of “data entryism” of the Seattle giant, going as far as to hire Amazon’s former vice-president and now-biggest employee shareholder of the platform as “Commissioner for Digital Italy”. He’s doing this for free, and you know what they say when you’re not paying for something…

Which brings us to the main point. Amazon strategy is predicated on data and work. Even better: it is predicated on data-as-work, because it extracts value from the data stored in its humongous cloud and hosting services, and because it uses people-as-a-service (according to Jeff Bezos’s early characterization of Amazon Mechanical Turk) to train, enrich, refine data.

Btw, do you wanna know what the new Italian Digital Commissioner considers as a success story for digital transformation? The controversial Indian biometric ID system… And do you know where 36% of Amazon Mechanical Turkers live? India… (Here’s the interview [in Italian] where the Digital Commissioner talks about Indian ID system while at the same time declaring that “he misses Amazon so much”).

Take-away message: Amazon corporate takeover of Italy is as much a matter of labor policy as it is of data politics. As long as the unions continue to focus on the former while neglecting the latter, their action is doomed to be ineffective. Case in point: after dominating Black Friday sales, Amazon’s shares are up 2% and Jeff Bezos is still world’s wealthiest man. So Amazon Italia just gave a giant middle-finger to workers by cancelling the meeting with unions and rescheduling it for after Xmas…