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Alex Salmond, Amazon and Trade Unions by Gregor Gall

Alex Salmond, Amazon and Trade Unions by Gregor Gall

1st August 2011

First Minister of Scotland, and Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, warmly lauded Amazon's further investment in Scotland at the end of May 2011 following the company’s plans to open a customer services centre in Edinburgh. He had previously welcomed Amazon’s earlier expansion in Dunfermline and Gourock in January 2011.

It is interesting to recall that Salmond announced on the day that the SNP won this year's Scottish Parliament election on 5 May that 'For the first time, we're living up to the idea that we're the national party of Scotland, all classes, all communities, all parts of Scotland'.

Without, it seems, making any attempt to influence the wages and conditions that Amazon pays or its policy toward trade unions, Salmond and the SNP government are rather more the party of one section of society, namely, the business community, than they are all parts of society.

This is because Amazon is known to be an anti-union company as the Herald (26 February 2011) indicated. A worker at the Gourock plant claimed his working life was made intolerable after he tried and failed to get a union representative to accompany him to an internal meeting. The worker also claimed that his GMB official had been refused entry to the company’s Gourock premises and that his career suffered after he made his union affiliation known. The worker then resigned after a series of run-ins with management following his attempts to be represented by his union and he took his case to an employment tribunal in Scotland, claiming trade union victimisation and constructive dismal.

The Herald obtained internal Amazon papers that showed the company’s most senior manager in Gourock failed to rule out repercussions for workers who joined a union. This manager, speaking to a meeting of all employees at the warehouse in 2010, was asked directly if there would be consequences for those workers who join a union. He replied: 'I can't say whether there would or wouldn't be repercussions. Amazon prefers to consult with its employees through other means'.

In the past, Amazon has used union busters, The Burke Group, to remain 'union free' at its Milton Keynes facility at the beginning of the 2000s. Here employees were issued with 'Vote No' T-shirts.

Amazon is also not known to be a provider of particularly good pay or working conditions (Herald 13 December 2010). In the run up to Christmas 2010, the company in Gourock cut short the shifts of casual staff in the middle of the night and without any notice, leaving some workers who were reliant upon public transport to get home to wait until the resumption of services the following morning. No compensation was paid to these casual workers for cutting their shifts short nor for the inconvenience caused. Their hourly rate is only just above the minimum wage.

So what has this got to do with the SNP? It appears the SNP seems to think that all new jobs are necessarily 'good' jobs, no matter their purpose, conditions, prospects or security. Indeed, Amazon's recent investments do not even match the commonly held desire of the main political parties - the SNP included - to see Scotland have an economy comprising high-tech, research-based, value-added activities. The consequence is that jobs such as Amazon's are not high skilled and not high waged so any multiplier effect is minimal to say the least.

Thus, if Salmond and the SNP want to make good on their claim of being a national party, it surely behoves them to use the leverage they have through investment policy and enterprise grants to insist upon a minimum level of living wages and working conditions for any new investments. They could also insist upon union recognition being a condition of companies being eligible for receipt of public funds. For example, Amazon received 2.5 million in Scottish Enterprise grants to establish its Dunfermline operation. This was such an opportunity. Such a policy would go a considerable way towards delivering a far greater benefit for the multitude of workers rather than the small numbers of shareholders and owners in Scottish society. This would at least give some sense that the SNP as a national party saw that all those living within Scotland were included within its conception of the Scottish nation.

(c) Gregor Gall