Georg Barthel

Institute for Work, Skills and Training, University of Duisburg-Essen

Digitalisation as contested terrain

Digital Taylorism and labour politics in Amazon‘s logistics centres

Georg Barthel, Institute for Work, Skills and Training, University of Duisburg-Essen

The public debate about the digitialisation of labour is dominated by a technical determinist perspective trying to extrapolate its consequences from technical developments and potentials. Thus, the influence of actors, their interests and institutions on the implementation of digital technology is often ignored (Pfeiffer 2016: 6). If we do ask for the consequences of digitalization for industrial democracy, we have to keep in mind, that Technology is not only influencing social relations, but “is produced by the social relation represented by capital” (Braverman 1973: 14). Since employers and employees do have potential antagonistic interests, the introduction of new technologies is “a site of potential conflict” (Briken et al. 2017: 4) and the shaping of digitalization depends on power relations and resources (Dörre 2018: 366). It is therefore appropriate to analyze in concrete terms how digitalisation changes industrial relations as well as how they are shaped by them.

Amazon has been called “an avantgarde of digital capitalism” (Nachtwey/Staab 2015) and has been creating many simple jobs in its more than 40 logistic centers all over Europe. It is known for its harsh anti-union stance. Nonetheless, it has been the scene of ongoing workers struggles and strikes in Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Italy and France for several years. While the developments at Amazon might not be representative for all regimes of productions in every industry, it shows nonetheless one important possible challenge to decent work and industrial democracy posed by digitalization.

In my paper I want to discuss how Amazon is using digital technology to control the market as well as the workforce. Furthermore, I want to show how digital devices are influencing the working conditions and relations in production, what is also provoking resistance and conflict in its logistics centers. I want to present preliminary findings of an ongoing observing participation as a supporter and researcher in the struggle of warehouse workers at Amazon since 2015. I have participated in numerous of meetings of shop stewards and strike assemblies and I have conducted qualitative Interviews with workers and trade unionists, too.

The creation of massive simple jobs in its network of warehouses and logistics centers form the basis  of the rapid expansion of Amazon to grasp the monopoly in e-commerce (cf. Staab/Nachtwey 2016). Following tLabour Process Theory and the power resource approach I will analyze selected strategies of management to maximize the control and exploitation of labour, among them first of all a digital Taylorism. I will discuss their shortcomings and problems and how they are influencing the workers’ power resources. Amazon is constantly deskilling the labour in its so-called fulfillment centers (FCs) to create a contingent work force and to undermine the workers’ power.

Nonetheless, workers are resisting to the regime of production, resorting to different levels of activities: Everyday resistance up to sabotage, works councils, strikes as well as other trade union actions. Meanwhile, Amazon is not only attempting to control the labour process but is also aiming to hollow or to refuse the two elements of the dual system of representation, which is characteristic for German industrial relations: works council and trade unions/collective agreements. Therefore, Amazon can be seen as a site of class struggle, in which digital technology is used to challenge industrial democracy, while workers and trade unions are struggling to defend it.


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