Introduction and summary
In April 2022, Amazon workers at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse became the first to successfully unionize at the firm in the United States.1 This was a major achievement and has been rightly celebrated by supporters of workers around the globe. Through a variety of means, these workers will now try to encourage Amazon to negotiate and then sign a collective bargaining agreement that secures the improvements in working conditions they are seeking.
However, because of the many flaws in U.S. labor law, securing a collective bargaining agreement is uncertain.2 Just one-seventh of U.S. union organizing drives lead to a first contract within one year, and that number falls significantly if any party commits an unfair labor practice.3 Even in organizing drives in which workers successfully unionize, such as at the Staten Island warehouse, only half reach a contract with their employer within one year, and 30 percent do not reach an agreement within three years.4 Another challenge is that even if the Staten Island warehouse workers sign a collective bargaining agreement, they could still be vulnerable to the warehouse closing or other corporate reorganizations, as they are only bargaining over the conditions at their particular worksite, not for all of Amazon’s warehouses or for the entire delivery sector.
Amazon workers in countries around the world have been attempting to sign collective bargaining agreements with the company for years, but few have succeeded. Only in Italy have workers been successful, with unions and Amazon agreeing in 2021 to a “historic” first contract covering all workers in the firm as well as follow-on agreements.5
Comparing the Italian case with efforts to organize Amazon in other countries suggests that other campaigns have failed because they were missing one or more of these favorable elements.
Amazon, one of the largest companies in the world, has reportedly “long discouraged staff from organizing,”6 and according to one source, it allegedly refuses “in principle to recognize trade unions as collective representatives of workers’ interests.”7 Yet in Italy, Amazon signed agreements that recognize unions as the workers’ representatives, set company-specific requirements for hours and worker protections, and oblige the firm to comply with relevant sectoral agreements that set minimum compensation and other standards for entire industries. Moreover, the contracts cover not just direct employees of Amazon, but also temporary workers and those who make the “last-mile” delivery that is often done by other firms or independent contractors.
This report explains how Italian unions were able to succeed in such a challenging endeavor and draws out lessons for workers and their allies in the United States and elsewhere.
Three factors were likely critical for enabling Italian unions to sign a collective bargaining agreement with Amazon:
- Pressure from workers, including an Amazonwide strike, disrupted the firm’s operations and incentivized the company to bargain.
- A supportive policy environment, especially assistance from the Italian minister of labor, encouraged Amazon to negotiate.
- Italy’s sectoral bargaining system facilitated worker activism, anchored discussions, and reduced Amazon’s opposition to an agreement.
Each element made a deal between Amazon and unions more likely, and together these provided sufficient incentives and impetus for the parties to sign a contract.
The combination of these three factors was likely decisive. Italian unions conducted a systemwide strike—meaning throughout Amazon’s operations in Italy—that significantly reduced Amazon’s ability to deliver packages in a timely manner. These disruptions and the potential for more incentivized Amazon to negotiate. The strikes provided an opportunity for the minister of labor to bring the parties together and provide a forum and encouragement for unions and the firm to reach a deal. One of the reasons workers engaged in a strike was to ensure that Amazon fully complied with the existing sectoral agreements. The sectoral agreements also limited Amazon’s costs from signing the collective agreement: Their competitors would have similar labor costs and parts of the sectoral agreement were already de facto requirements.
There are limits to the lessons that can be drawn from a single case. For example, it is possible that workers could have succeeded with just one or two of these elements and conducted strikes that singlehandedly brought Amazon to the table. Yet comparing the Italian case with efforts to organize Amazon in other countries suggests that other campaigns have failed because they were missing one or more of these favorable elements. For example, German unions have waged strikes against Amazon for years, but they have been unable to sign an agreement with the firm. The reason may be that German governments do not push for negotiations, as well as because in Germany, the terms of sectoral agreements are not extended to other companies, placing less pressure on Amazon to comply.
This report provides a detailed investigation of the Italian agreements. It first outlines information about the collective bargaining agreements that Amazon signed with Italian unions as well as background on the Italian industrial relations system. It then discusses evidence highlighting the importance of worker power, supportive policy, and the sectoral bargaining system, explaining how each element facilitated the Italian agreement and occasionally noting the role these factors played in organizing campaigns in other countries. Finally, the report concludes by drawing out the implications of these findings.
Background on the Amazon agreement in Italy
On September 15, 2021, several Italian unions—Filt Cgil, Fit Cisl, Uilt, and temporary worker unions—signed a collective bargaining agreement with Amazon, known as a protocol agreement.8 The protocol established the unions as the workers’ legitimate representatives, recognizing the unions and creating a partnership for future discussions. The protocol also maintained that Amazon would comply with the rules laid out under the sectoral agreements—the Italian National Collective Labor Agreement for Logistics, Freight Transport and Shipping—setting standards for minimum pay and benefits. In addition, it outlined issues for firmwide bargaining, including safety, training, schedules, shifts, and performance bonuses. Therefore, the protocol formally bound Amazon to the relevant sectoral standards and set a process for agreeing on detailed firmwide standards. This created two levels of worker protections—firm-level standards that improve on the baseline provided by the sectoral standards—as is common in Italy.
The protocol and follow-on agreements cover not just direct Amazon employees, but also many “atypical” workers such as temporary workers, subcontractors, and independent contractors who ultimately work for Amazon.9
In short, the agreement provided important advances for workers and their unions and created a path forward for additional gains.
The September protocol is considered the first-ever national collective bargaining agreement with Amazon. Maurizio Landini, the head of the Italian CGIL union, said the agreement marked “something new, at a world level, in relations with the e-commerce giant.”10 Livia Spera, acting general secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation, claimed it was an “example for the world to follow.”11 UNI Global Union, an international federation of service sector unions representing 20 million workers from more than 150 different countries, called it a “historic, first-ever national agreement.”12
The September agreement was vitally important and deserves its historic accolades. It is the first nationwide collectively bargained agreement with Amazon, although it is noteworthy that there have been other instances of Amazon workers being covered by a collective agreement. For example, workers at some warehouses in Italy have previously secured workplace-specific agreements.13 These previous agreements covered a particular warehouse and addressed a more limited set of issues.
As is common of first contracts, the protocol has limits and did not resolve all the issues that workers had. The protocol agreement is only three pages long and left many details to be resolved later. Therefore, the September agreement should be considered more of a framework rather than a detailed contract. However, the protocol is a major achievement in its own right, providing significant improvement for workers and set the stage for future discussions. Indeed, the protocol has already led to follow-on agreements. For example, on February 22, Italian unions signed a much more detailed collective bargaining agreement covering Amazon’s so called last-mile workers—subcontractors and independent contractors who make Amazon deliveries.14
Background on the Italian labor system
In 2019, one-third of Italian workers were trade union members, roughly the same level as over the past 20 years15 and higher than most other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, except for those in Scandinavia and a few others such as Belgium. As in the United States, Italian collective bargaining is largely a private matter between workers and their firms, with relatively few laws dictating whether collective bargaining must occur, and it retains significant flexibility.16 For the most part, the relative power of employers and workers determines the outcome of collective bargaining. As one study explained, collective bargaining is “largely dependent on shifting power relations between the social partners.”17
Unlike the United States, however, strikes are generally not regulated by law, and Italian unions therefore have greater flexibility in their tactics.18 Moreover, bargaining generally occurs at two levels: at the sector level and the firm level or sometimes—for sectors with many very small enterprises—the region level. Agreements cover all workers whether they are unionized or not. The sectoral agreements set broad standards, such as for compensation, while the firm- or local-level agreements tend to address more detailed issues. The firm-level agreements set higher standards than the sectoral agreements, and they address issues not covered by the sectoral agreements. “The national industry-wide level defines basic common rules, while the second, which is facultative, serves to integrate related disciplines according to the long-standing principle of favourability,” explains an Italian labor relations scholar.19
Sectoral agreements end up setting the minimum compensation standards for most workers in the sector. This is done through a type of de facto extension that allows workers to go to court if they are paid below the minimum sectoral agreement rate. Unions often play an important role in the enforcement of sectoral agreements, not just in their negotiation.
Most Italian workers are covered by the collective bargaining agreements for their relevant sector.20 The specific sectoral agreement that employees are covered by—such as for logistics or temporary agency work—depends on their employer. Independent contractors are generally not covered by sectoral agreements.21 Company-level agreements are relatively common at larger companies, though not required or legally promoted to the same degree as sectoral agreements.
Union membership and power is important for workers’ success in both levels of bargaining. This is perhaps particularly so for company-level bargaining, as there are no requirements (de facto or otherwise) for coverage at this level. Still, union membership and worker attitudes are also important for sectoral agreements: Union members shape the bargaining positions of their unions, and then all workers must ratify the sectoral agreement that unions and employers negotiate.22 Unions tend to represent all workers—not just their members—and their membership is crucial for giving them a base of power in their negotiations.
To achieve their high membership levels, Italian unions have emphasized recruitment strategies, particularly in recent years. Unions work hard to ensure workers want to join their union, especially because workers can pick which union they want to join. According to UNI General Secretary Christy Hoffman, “Most workplaces with a union will have elected representatives, equivalent to shop stewards, and when there is a new employee, the shop stewards from the various unions will always compete to be the first to sign up the new worker into the union.”23 In addition to the strong recruitment efforts of unions, one of the reasons for high union membership in Italy has been a system where unions gain access to workers by helping deliver governmental services, such as assisting workers with their taxes.24 This system is akin to the Ghent systems in Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark, where trade unions help deliver government-supported unemployment insurance.25
While Italian unions enjoy significant membership, they fall short in other metrics of union power.26 In recent decades, Italian unions have been ineffective at raising workplace standards, with working conditions stagnating or declining throughout the economy. Furthermore, a large share of the country’s workers are in the so-called informal economy—reportedly the highest percentage in Europe.27 Although there are numerous potential culprits for these problems, including the country’s economic challenges, Italian unions’ inability to broadly raise standards or, until very recently, deal with the extensive use of atypical workers was seen as emblematic of their weakness.28 Therefore, union efforts to improve working conditions at Amazon were viewed as an important test of unions’ ability to address the many challenges posed by the firm, particularly the treatment of subcontracted and other atypical workers, as well as their broader position in Italian society.29
Factors that contributed to Amazon workers’ success in Italy
How Amazon workers in Italy successfully negotiated collective bargaining agreements, which included major improvements in working conditions for direct company employees as well as temporary and indirect workers, provides an interesting case study. A review of studies about Amazon and the Italian agreement and conversations with close observers, including Italian unionists and academics, suggest three factors were particularly helpful in facilitating the groundbreaking agreements: pressure from workers, a supportive policy environment, and the nature of Italy’s sectoral bargaining system. Together, these three factors created an incentive structure that likely pushed Amazon to come to an agreement with Italian unions.
Pressure from workers
On March 22, 2021, Amazon workers in Italy conducted a 24-hour strike seeking recognition of their unions and to secure a collective bargaining agreement with the company.30 The strike included workers throughout Amazon’s Italian delivery chain—including warehouse workers, drivers, and even contractors—and was much bigger and broader than previous Italian strikes against Amazon. Union leaders said that about 70 percent to 75 percent of direct employees working in warehouses and delivery went on strike, as did about 25 percent to 30 percent of temporary workers.31 The unions felt the strike was a big success that significantly disrupted Amazon’s operations and delayed deliveries, although the company argues that fewer workers went on strike than the unions claimed and that delays were minimal.32
Whether or not the strike caused major delays, it almost certainly slowed packages and disrupted Amazon’s delivery system. Systemwide actions against Amazon are seen as particularly important because no single warehouse is critical to the company’s operations.33 Furthermore, the ability to conduct a strike throughout Amazon’s entire delivery chain was a significant display of power by workers and their unions. Indeed, one outlet said that it was “the first time in the world that there has been a nationwide/system wide strike against Amazon.”34
Undoubtedly, the systemwide strike and its disruptions to Amazon were major factors in encouraging the company to negotiate. Not only was this strike particularly powerful, but it also generated favorable media coverage that threatened to damage Amazon’s image.35 Furthermore, previous strikes in Italy have led to improvements for Amazon workers, as have strikes in other countries, providing additional evidence of their importance.36
Yet it is hard to conclude the Italian strikes were decisive on their own. Workers in numerous European countries—including Germany, Spain, France, Poland, and the United Kingdom, as well as those in Bangladesh, India, and Australia—are all engaged in active campaigns with Amazon.37 These workers have gone on strike on many occasions and yet have not achieved anything like the kind of success Italian unions recently accomplished, although it is possible that future strikes in these countries could be more successful. Indeed, as recently as 2019, union efforts to organize and strike in Italy were considered “weak.”38 Still, strikes against Amazon in countries around the world have been quite extensive and may be insufficient to compel the company to sign the types of collective agreements that workers and their unions would like.
In its analysis of Amazon workers’ organizing efforts in Germany, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, a foundation affiliated with the German Left Party, concluded that grassroots worker power is necessary, but may not be sufficient.39
Strikes against Amazon in Germany have been impressive in scope and scale: Workers have been striking on and off since 2013, conducting 300-plus days of strikes that spread to more than half of the company’s sites, amounting to the longest labor dispute in German history.40 As the 2019 report by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung explains about the efforts of the German union ver.di, “[N]o other European trade union has invested anywhere near as many resources in organising Amazon employees or taken such a strategic, systematic approach to the issue.”41 According to the report, although the strikes helped German Amazon workers achieve some successes—modest wage increases, a Christmas allowance, better breakrooms, and limits on supervisor actions—workers and their union are still “a long way from achieving … a collective agreement.”42
Indeed, in the years after the report was written, German workers were still striking Amazon in hopes of achieving a collective agreement.43 As the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung writes, “[D]oubts persist as to whether … Amazon can be brought to heel by strike action alone.”44
Supportive policy environment
In addition to the direct impacts of the strikes, these efforts also provided an opportunity for Italian Minister of Labor Andrea Orlando to intervene and summon Amazon and the labor unions for discussions.45 The minister did not directly negotiate, but rather offered a place for the negotiations and encouraged them.46 More than just bring the parties together, the minister of labor wanted the parties to come to an agreement and apparently pushed them to do so. As Minister Orlando stated after the September 2021 agreement was finalized, “I express great satisfaction with the agreement signed today … It is good news, desired and urged by the Ministry.”47
Although the labor minister played a role in facilitating them, the agreements were between the firms and the unions; the government was not a party to them. Therefore, these are traditional collective bargaining agreements and are not considered tripartite.
The Italian labor system is relatively voluntaristic, with few laws directly regulating unions or bargaining, but the government can—and often does—promote discussions. Formal laws are largely hands off. As one study explained, “Key issues such as workers’ representation, collective bargaining (procedures and effects), minimum wages, strikes and employee participation in the private sector are not regulated by law.”48 Yet the type of government support demonstrated in the Amazon case is common in Italy.49 As another review of the Italian labor system explained, the government often acts as a “third party, intervening to help solving the most intractable conflicts.”50
In the Amazon case, the minister of labor acted as a third party, bringing unions and employers to the table and pushing them to find an agreement. Exactly what the labor minister did to encourage the parties to come to an agreement is unclear. It could have simply been providing a forum and general encouragement, although Italian observers suggest other possibilities as well. The minister’s actions could have assuaged Amazon’s concerns that negotiating would be seen as capitulating to workers and their strikes. The government also has many tools that could affect Amazon’s business, from subsidies to enforcement of various labor policies, including those around temporary workers and independent contractors.
Whatever roles the government performed, it is clear that the minister’s actions were helpful to the signing of a collective bargaining agreement between unions and Amazon. According to an analysis by Giulio Centamore, a labor law professor at the University of Bologna, the minister’s actions were key in leading to the agreement.51 Manola Cavallini, a leader with the Italian union CGIL, said the minister’s role as a “middleman” was “very positive.”52 Government support was also seen as helpful in the workplace-specific collective agreement Amazon signed in Italy in 2018.53
Other European cases also reveal how government pressure on Amazon was helpful. Although French unions have been unable to achieve the type of collective agreement with Amazon that their counterparts in Italy have, they have succeeded in making significant improvements to working conditions, due in part to government policies and pressure. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, French unions successfully convinced courts to close Amazon warehouses for health and safety reasons and then negotiated with the firm about the conditions for reopening, which included additional safety measures and bonus pay.54
In contrast, unions have been less successful at improving conditions at Amazon in countries where government policies or actions have placed few pressures on the firm. Marcus Courtney, a U.S. labor organizer who attempted to unionize an Amazon call center that the firm subsequently closed, argues that because of Amazon’s power, “No successful unionization happens without active government support of it.”55 Whether or not Courtney’s claim is completely accurate, the German example, where workers have been unable to achieve a collective agreement, supports the argument that government pressure is helpful in facilitating collective agreements with Amazon. In Germany, Amazon is not legally required to pay the minimums from the sectoral agreement. Furthermore, the German government has done little to encourage Amazon and unions to negotiate. Therefore, there has been relatively less legal or political pressure on Amazon to come to an agreement than in Italy.
Sectoral bargaining system
The Italian labor relations system, with its emphasis on sectoral agreements, also helped unions to secure an agreement with Amazon. The system’s flexibility and lack of formal rules helped create opportunities for the innovative agreement,56 while its sectoral nature encouraged worker actions and provided a framework to guide negotiations.
Some Americans may wonder why workers would be motivated to strike if courts have the ability to require payment of the minimum compensation rates in the sectoral agreement. Workers have concerns outside of the sectoral agreement, such as hours and schedules, that may motivate taking action. Moreover, workers can be motivated to help enforce the sectoral agreements, and the sectoral agreements can help structure their activism.
Indeed, early Amazon worker actions in Italy, such as strikes in Milan, aimed to get Amazon to fully comply with the national sectoral agreement.57 Similarly, one of the motivations for the March 2021 systemwide strikes was for Amazon to respect and comply with national sectoral agreements.58 Workers wanted full coverage and compliance with all the terms of the sectoral agreements, not just the minimum wages of the sectoral agreement that they were legally entitled to. Therefore, Italy’s sectoral system facilitated worker organizing at individual workplaces and across Amazon’s delivery chain.
Larry Cohen, former president of Communications Workers of America, argues that sectoral bargaining “largely explains” the high level of Amazon organizing in Italy, as well as Germany, where one of the drivers of the strikes was Amazon paying wages below the sectoral agreement pay scale.59 Cohen maintains that “[w]orkers there are joining unions that bargain for their sector and not starting from scratch … they have participated in strike activity, and in the internal life of building a union.”60 Whether or not sectoral agreements were the primary driver of worker militancy, as Cohen argues, the Italian sectoral agreements clearly helped facilitate worker organizing and did not hinder it.
In addition to supporting worker organizing, the sectoral system also anchored discussions between unions and Amazon. Indeed, the first bullet point in the historic September 2021 framework agreement references the sectoral agreements, and the second bullet highlights that Amazon will comply with them.61 In addition, prior to the systemwide strikes that helped achieve the first companywide agreement, Amazon workers had on previous occasions taken actions to improve conditions at their individual workplaces, and the negotiations based on these actions frequently referred to the sectoral agreement. One of the demands that Amazon workers had previously made, for example, was to get paid more than the sectoral agreements required, specifically to “improve the salaries linked to local productivity, based on the minimums established by the national collective agreements.”62
The Italian sectoral system was also important in another way: The sectoral agreements put pressure on Amazon while making it less costly for the company to sign an agreement. Amazon aims to portray itself as an important community actor in Italy, promoting needed jobs in impoverished communities as well as academic scholarships, yet failing to comply with required sectoral standards made its reputation vulnerable.63 In the Italian system, collective bargaining coverage is the norm, and Amazon stuck out as an outlier by not complying with the sectoral agreement.
Furthermore, the de facto extension of parts of the sectoral agreement meant that compliance was likely not particularly costly for Amazon because the firm was already supposed to pay the minimum sectoral rates.64 In other words, Amazon could protect its reputation at relatively low cost. Therefore, there was less company resistance to the protocol agreement than there otherwise might have been.
In contrast, Amazon is under no legal obligation to comply with any part of a sectoral agreement in Germany. While the German sectoral system has facilitated worker activism, union power has been insufficient to encourage Amazon to sign a collective agreement. Compared with the Italian sectoral system, the German system provides less of an incentive for Amazon to comply with the sectoral standards.
The Amazon agreements in Italy are historic achievements. Workers secured recognition of their unions as well as significant improvements in pay and working conditions for both direct employees and indirect workers. In spite of significant efforts, Amazon workers in other countries have not achieved anything close to that of Italian workers and their unions.
The Italian agreements likely occurred because of three factors: worker organizing that disrupted Amazon operations; governmental pressure that encouraged negotiations; and a sectoral system that facilitated worker actions, anchored discussions, and incentivized Amazon to comply.
Because of different laws and customs, the path Italian workers took may not be directly replicable in the United States or other countries where Amazon workers are trying to organize. However, the lessons from their success do suggest a path forward. Grassroots worker activism, combined with supportive policies and frameworks, has proven successful in the United States and throughout the world, and these lessons can be applied broadly.65 Indeed, the United States has a rich tradition of broader-based bargaining as well as government support for union efforts that could be relevant for Amazon workers.66 As Amazon workers press to sign a collective bargaining agreement, they can apply the lessons from Italy in their own way by combining their activism with supportive policies and frameworks.
The author would like to thank all those who contributed to this understanding of the Italian labor relations system and the Amazon agreements, including Giulio Centamore, Ida Regalia, Salvatore Marra, Manola Cavallini, and Christy Hoffman, as well as Michela Zonta and Tabitha Bartolini for their help with translation.