When Amazon worker Magda Malinowska spoke out about a coworker’s death at a warehouse in Poland, Amazon fired her. Now a court has ruled that Amazon committed illegal union busting. Malinowska tells Jacobin why Amazon is so afraid of its workers organizing.

An employee arranges goods for shipping orders at the Amazon fulfillment center in Poznan, Poland, on June 12, 2014. (Bartek Sadowski / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Two years ago, union organizer Magda Malinowska was fired from her job at an Amazon warehouse near Poznań, in western Poland. Her sacking came as retaliation for her efforts to speak out against poor working conditions — a conflict catalyzed by the September 2021 death of forty-nine-year-old Dariusz Dziamski, a colleague of hers who died on the shop floor. Fast forward to October 2023, and a Polish court has ruled that Amazon fired Malinowska illegally.

The ruling provides a small step toward justice for Malinowska, albeit only after a two-year delay, and a period in which many aspects of Amazon workers’ rights have worsened. In an interview, Malinowska spoke to Jacobin’s Caspar Shaller about Amazon’s inhumane treatment of staff, its violation of basic union rights, and workers’ efforts to stand up against corporate tyranny.

Caspar Shaller

A court has decided that Amazon fired you illegally and reinstated your job….

Magda Malinowska

…but they still have three weeks to appeal. I assume they will.

Caspar Shaller

What was the judge’s reasoning?

Magda Malinowska

That was the most interesting part: actually it is pretty clear that Amazon violated union rights. So, from a formal, legal perspective it was clear that I should win the case. But the judge also said that she tried “to take Amazon’s perspective.”

There is such a long-standing conflict between me and my employer that the judge at some point said that it would be best not to reinstate me. When the case started, she asked why I didn’t just take Amazon’s offer of a two or three month salary payoff and leave. She also made some anti-union comments that we are always complaining in the press and things like that.

But in the end the judge ruled that Amazon had violated my rights as a union activist. They broke all the laws that we had always said they had broken. The court finally ruled that the reason Amazon gave for my dismissal was false — and they didn’t manage to provide any evidence to support their position during the hearings.

Caspar Shaller

What was the reason Amazon gave for firing you?

Magda Malinowska

Technically, on disciplinary grounds. They fired me for taking pictures when the body of Dariusz, a colleague of mine who had died during his shift, was moved to the hearse.

Caspar Shaller

How did Dariusz die?

Magda Malinowska

Dariusz had all the signs of experiencing a heart attack, but apparently that was not the medical reason. His wife told me his heart was broken. That’s why this was such an important case for us. Dariusz worked so hard. His job used to be done by a few people during a shift, but then they made him do all that work alone, pushing around trolleys with heavy boxes.

Dariusz had been complaining that his job was too exhausting for him and he wanted a different task. But they wouldn’t give him another position. They did the exact opposite: they reduced the number of people working the same job, so his work got even more exhausting. That’s why we started an initiative to check if his tasks weren’t exceeding the limits set by Polish labor protection laws. That includes counting the calories you burn doing physical labor.

But Amazon refused to allow us to actually check how strenuous Dariusz’s job was and if it complied with labor regulations. Then one day, Dariusz collapsed and died on the floor of the warehouse. They didn’t really help him, they were just standing around, they didn’t send for medical support or paramedics. His wife later saw that on CCTV footage she was allowed to watch. My department was upstairs, so it took me a while to hear about what happened and get downstairs. So, I at least tried to document what was happening.

Caspar Shaller

Does this kind of thing happen a lot? Are there a lot of people who die in Amazon warehouses?

Magda Malinowska

It’s not like a construction site or a mine, where workers die all the time or have severe accidents. Amazon management actually gets pretty angry when there’s an accident. The work is dangerous in another way: the repetition and the strain get to you. That does affect your body and your health. That’s why we want to be able to do a labor inspection, to see if someone’s health is being affected by their work. And we want to change the definition of a workplace accident. Because if you do a super heavy job for some time and then you get a heart attack, formally it’s not connected to the job.

Caspar Shaller

Amazon is known for spearheading new types of labor surveillance, how is that connected to this case?

Magda Malinowska

One reason for the surveillance is that Amazon is trying to optimize all steps of the work process. They are not the only ones to try out new forms of labor management, but they are very quick at implementing changes. They are constantly implementing new ways of controlling workers’ bodies and movements. You can’t even leave your workstation for more than three minutes. You have scanners and cameras everywhere checking on your every movement.

So, surveillance is really the big issue at Amazon. Through all this, they force you to do very simple movements in a very repetitive way. Because they broke down the labor process into these simple movements, they can easily exchange workers, they don’t need experienced workers, they can just train new ones to do these simple movements. But having to do the same movements over and over and faster and faster is totally destroying our bodies.

Caspar Shaller

What are you going to do, now that you can go back to the warehouse?

Magda Malinowska

Well, for me, this is a completely new situation. I’ve never been fired and then reinstated. It’s going to be interesting what Amazon will do now. And I’m wondering if, after this ruling and the explanation that the judge gave us, they will be willing to change their relationship with us on the union side. That is actually what the judge said: that there is a conflict between labor and employer, but the conflict cannot be an argument to dismiss union members.

Firing all union members would mean there’s no union in the workplace anymore, but Polish law guarantees the right to a union. The juge even said she can see that Amazon’s attitude toward unions is very negative. It’s a global problem with Amazon: they don’t want to recognize unions anywhere. So, I think it was very important that this judge confirms what we’ve been saying, someone who’s not like us — some militant activist, who’s always up for a fight — but a representative of the state.

Caspar Shaller

Do you think this ruling will change anything in the immediate future?

Magda Malinowska

Unfortunately, I’m afraid they will not change their policy. They behave like they’re not scared of anything and try to break as many rules and regulations as possible. They’re just smashing everything on their way to making more and more profit. They’re always checking how far they can go, until finally there will be nothing left that can stop them. So this small victory is a step toward stoping them.

Amazon has used Poland as a base from which to attack German unions right next door, either by importing Polish workers as strikebreakers when German warehouses were being picketed or then by simply building warehouses along the German-Polish border to serve the German market and get around German labor laws and unions.

Caspar Shaller

How can workers cooperate over national lines and stop multinationals from playing workers off each other?

Magda Malinowska

The current situation is amazing for Amazon. There are so many different legal systems, even within Germany for example, different regions have different regulations. So they try to use it against us and to make bigger profits, pay less taxes, and so on. They move orders from one warehouse to another warehouse, if there is slack in one location – or when we’re organizing a blockade, for example for our campaign “Make Amazon Pay.”

When the Polish warehouses were opened, German workers were on strike, and the Amazon moved orders from German warehouses to Polish warehouses, forcing people Polish to work longer shifts. When Polish workers heard about the reason why they had to work longer shifts, they said, hey we don’t want to be scabs, and organized a go-slow. That was the beginning of our cooperation with German workers.

Caspar Shaller

How has organizing workers made progress over the recent years?

Magda Malinowska

Unfortunately, it’s become more difficult to organize. I think people are more scared. After previous actions, some people got fired. And there’s been a shift in company policy. When Amazon started out in Poland, they hired people on permanent contracts. That gave people a feeling of stability and legal protection, which allowed them to fight back.

But now, there are a lot of people who are employed by agencies. The split among the workers is pretty bad. I’ve seen discussions online about how only certain types of workers are allowed to do overtime. Pay is so low that everyone wants to pick up more shifts, so weirdly being allowed to work even more becomes a matter of prestige. So, working overtime isn’t a penalty, it’s a prize. That situation is totally sick.

Caspar Shaller

What are you doing to change that?

Magda Malinowska

Last year, we started a campaign about the firing of shop stewards and union representatives. Indeed, I wasn’t the only one who was sacked, there were others, too. And together with other unions, we organized a huge campaign to change the law. And it was successful: the government changed the law. Since the law came into effect in September it’s basically pointless to fire union officials. It’s still happening illegally, of course, but maybe it changes workers’ mentality a bit to know they have more legal rights. Maybe unions will get a little bit stronger. Or at least there won’t be a repetition of 2021 when so many people were sacked out of the blue.

Recently there was an election and the far-right government lost. So maybe there might be some change in how the state handles these cases. But we are not focused only on the law, we’re also trying to figure out how to strengthen our position in warehouses. And we will continue to educate workers and exchange ideas and experiences among people from my union and others. One important focus will be on inspecting labor standards and how workers can do that themselves. We will try to use health and safety as tool to make working conditions better.

Original post

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NESLETTERS

We’d love to keep you updated with the latest news 😎

We don’t spam!

Leave a Reply

We use cookies

Cookies help us deliver the best experience on our website. By using our website, you agree to the use of cookies.

Thank you for your Subscription

Subscribe to our Newsletter