This article appears today in Solidarity.
Recently, I co-authored a book on online campaigning for trade unions and self-published it using a print-on-demand service called CreateSpace.
CreateSpace is a subsidiary of Amazon, the giant online retailer, and any book you publish there is automatically available for sale on the Amazon websites. It was a great option as it cost nothing and allowed us to reach a very large global audience.
When I announced this to LabourStart’s mailing lists, we got hundreds of people to buy copies of the book. But a small number, mainly from the UK, wrote in to say that they wouldn’t buy from Amazon.
Most of them had heard that Amazon doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes in the UK. Some will have heard of the online petition at Change.org that got over 90,000 supporters.
That petition — which has proven to be far more popular than any of the campaigns we’ve done in defence of workers’ rights — was posted by Frances and Keith Smith, independent booksellers from Coventry. The first line reads like an advertisement for their shops.
Their shops, they say, “have been a proud part of our local high streets for many years. We are proud of the personal service we provide to all those who visit our store.”
That sounds like self-promotion to me, but for tens of thousands of people, it sounds like a just cause — supporting small, family-run businesses against the encroaching faceless and all-powerful American-owned corporation.
This is, as Marxists will be aware, a thoroughly reactionary attitude toward capitalism, a longing for an earlier era of friendly Mom-and-Pop shops where smiling shop owners greeted every customer by name, and freely extended credit to those who were a bit skint.
It goes without saying that Amazon should pay its taxes. We also demand that government ramp up corporate taxes and enforce payment. And that’s our minimum demand — in the longer run, we support expropriating the expropriators.
Unions have also started to take on Amazon here in the UK.
In mid-February, the GMB held protests at nine Amazon facilities. They presented the company with “corporate ASBOs” in an attempt to focus public attention on the company’s record of tax avoidance — but also on their record of low pay and union-busting. These are issues which concern socialists and deserve our support.
As the union put it, “Amazon pay its staff as little as £6.20 per hour — just above the national minimum wage of £6.19 per hour. Staff complain to GMB about a culture of bullying and harassment endemic in the dataveillance that comes from staff being required to wear digital arm mounted terminals (AMTs) with no agreed protocols re breaks, speeds etc. Union activity has to be kept underground for fear of reprisals.”
But GMB have so far refrained from calling for a boycott of the company.
And they’re absolutely right — because this is not how you will compel Amazon to pay a living wage and recognize trade unions.
The boycott, like the strike, is one of the most powerful weapons in a trade union’s arsenal. It needs to be used with care — which is why unions very rarely use it.
For a boycott to be called, one should expect it to produce some kind of result. Calling a boycott that has no effect on a company’s profit may make boycotters feel worthy, but it distracts from the real issues.
Coca-Cola is a company that is often targetted by campaigners for boycotts — but the unions representing Coke workers have never called for such a boycott, and in some cases have outspokenly opposed one.
For a boycott of Amazon to be effective, it would need to make a dent in the company’s sales — something that seems rather unlikely considering just how vast the company has become in recent years.
A decade ago, when the Communication Workers of America were attempting to organize Amazon workers in the Pacific Northwest, a boycott might have had a chance. Not today.
Amazon made the news yet again this week, as reports came out of its maltreatment of temporary workers in Germany, where neo-Nazi thugs were hired by the company to “keep order” among the workers.
This, just like union-busting, low wages, contract labour and tax avoidance, are all good reasons to shop elsewhere if you can — but they are not grounds for a general boycott of the company.
So if we’re not boycotting Amazon, what can we do?
We can support the GMB and any other union that tries to organise workers there. We can publicise their appalling record on the living wage and union busting through the media. We can demand that Parliament fix a system which allows companies to legally avoid paying taxes despite earning billions of pounds in this country.
We can even help build alternatives by supporting left-wing bookshops, of which there are still several in the UK.
But signing up on Change.org to show your solidarity with some small bookshop owners in Coventry, or taking the personal decision to not shop at Amazon and then telling all your mates about how worthy that makes you, is little more than posturing.