DAVID GREENE, HOST:
NPR Business News begins this Labor Day edition with mini-strikes. On this Labor Day, union members will celebrate their history, and many will worry about the future. Only about 11 percent of U.S. workers are organized, down from 20 percent just three decades ago. It is different in Germany, where most workers bargain collectively. That cultural difference is causing a clash between Amazon, a Seattle-based retailer, and its German workers. Ross Reynolds from member station KUOW explains.
ROSS REYNOLDS, BYLINE: Bad Hersfeld is best known as a picturesque festival and spa town in central Germany. But it is also home to two Amazon Fulfillment Centers that employ more than 3,000 people, including Nancy Becker. She came to Germany as an exchange student from the U.S., married a German man and stayed.
NANCY BECKER: Before I was in a - what do we call them - (speaking German).
REYNOLDS: Becker is now 61. She's lived in Germany for so many years that sometimes the English word evades her. She's worked at the Amazon Fulfillment Center for 13 years.
BECKER: It wasn't that hard work. I was picker at the time. And we didn't have that much stress. As Amazon grew in Germany, then the pressure on the people here - yeah, do this more and more and more, kept growing year for year for year.
REYNOLDS: Along with more demands, Amazon did offer more. Workers in Bad Hersfeld get 28 days of paid vacation a year; that's four more paid vacation days than required by law. But Becker is unhappy because she and other workers are classified as logistic workers. They want to be classified as a retail workers; that pays more. And in Germany, virtually all salaries are determined by these job classifications.
Amazon officials declined to speak on the record, but in a written statement, the company said their German employees at fulfillment centers primarily load and unload trucks and stock shelves. They say those tasks are vastly different from the jobs done within a retail store. But there's a bigger issue here according to Simon Habermaas from Verdi, the union which represents service workers. He says they can't even get a contract from Amazon.
SIMON HABERMAAS: That's, for us, not acceptable and because of that, the fight with Amazon is a big fight for the successful German way of industrial relations.
REYNOLDS: In 2013 and continuing this year, hundreds of Amazon workers in Bad Hersfeld began a series of short strikes, each lasting one to three days.
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REYNOLDS: Now, according to Amazon, these strikes don't have any impact on customers. Nancy Becker disputes this.
BECKER: Amazon claims that they don't. But people will say, well, I ordered something or another. Instead of being delivered the next day, all of a sudden, it's delivered four days later. But Amazon claims it has no effect. But it does.
REYNOLDS: So have the many strikes won anything for Amazon workers?
BECKER: All of a sudden, last year we received 400 euro Christmas money.
REYNOLDS: Four-hundred euro bonus.
BECKER: Yes, which we had never received before and which Amazon had always said there was never going to be Christmas money. And all of the sudden, we got Christmas money.
REYNOLDS: Ralf Kleber runs Amazon operations in Germany. Kleber told Reuters news service that Amazon is a fair employer, and his workers are well-compensated for unskilled labor. Becker bristles at the suggestion.
BECKER: I'd like to see them actually do the work that a regular employee does, the physical work - when you're walking 10, 12, 15 kilometers every day, day in and day out.
REYNOLDS: Now, not all workers at Amazon Fulfillment Centers have participated in the strikes. In fact, Amazon says that more than a thousand of their workers signed a petition in support of the company in Germany. So if she feels it's so unfair to work at Amazon, why does Nancy Becker stay?
BECKER: I'm 61 years old. I'm 60 percent disabled. Where am I going to get a job?
REYNOLDS: Becker says the strikes will continue at Amazon facilities in Germany. For NPR, I'm Ross Reynolds.
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