Amazon workers at a vast depot in Coventry will stage a historic strike on Wednesday – the first time the delivery giant’s UK operations have ever been hit by industrial action.
The immediate cause of the dispute was a 50p-an-hour pay rise offered to warehouse staff in the summer, which many felt was insulting – particularly after they had worked throughout the Covid pandemic.
But staff also complain of gruelling round-the-clock shifts and constant, nitpicking monitoring by management.
One worker recently told the Guardian that it was impossible to make ends meet without signing up for a 60-hour week. “I don’t want Jeff Bezos’s boat,” he said. “I definitely don’t want his rocket. But I just want to live.”
It’s a story heard in campaigns by Amazon workers worldwide, including in the US, where there have been some notable recent successes in winning union recognition.
Derrick Palmer, a vice-president of the US Amazon Labor Union, which recently won a recognition battle at an Amazon fulfilment centre in Staten Island, New York, has backed this week’s action in Coventry.
The local Labour MP Taiwo Owatemi is also supportive, having listened to the experiences of workers at the warehouse, which is on a site previously occupied by carmaker Jaguar Land Rover.
The company claims to be relaxed about the stoppage, insisting that the strikers represent a small proportion of its workforce in Coventry, and that their action will have little or no impact on its operations. It also points to a £500 cost-of-living payment offered to all staff over the busy Christmas period.
Amazon is right about the numbers: the GMB union has signed up about 300 members at the Coventry site, and estimates that total staff numbers 1,400 or more.
But the union nevertheless regards Wednesday’s action as a historic step in a 10-year battle to organise inside Amazon’s warehouses across the UK, in the face of the company’s well-documented hostility to trade unions.
The GMB’s £15-an-hour pay demand appears punchy, to say the least. It says its members are currently paid £10.50 an hour, so that would represent a 45% rise. And unlike thousands of nurses, doctors, teachers or train drivers, industrial action by these 300 warehouse workers is unlikely to have an impact that impinges on anyone’s daily life.
The economic backdrop has also darkened since the union first began organising, last summer: retail sales fell by 1% in volume in December, which underlines the tough challenges facing the sector.
Amazon recently announced plans to close three warehouses in the UK, as well as seven smaller delivery sites, putting 1,300 jobs at risk.
But the GMB members hope that they can draw the public’s attention to the conditions faced by some of those whose work lies behind the brown cardboard parcels arriving daily at doors up and down the UK.
Stuart Richards, the GMB’s organiser for the West Midlands, says that since the results of the Coventry strike ballot were announced in December, the union has been hearing from a growing number of frustrated workers at other Amazon facilities, keen to make their voices heard.
He highlights the lengths the company appears to have gone to in order to frustrate efforts to organise its staff, saying the Coventry depot has been turned into a “mini-fortress,” compared with other facilities, with CCTV and security guards. The company says these are standard security precautions, and that all visitors to Amazon sites must be escorted.
“I’ve been involved in the union now for about 25 years and I have never come across an employer that just blanket refuses to enter into any kind of engagement at all,” he says. “Ultimately, the real aim is just getting one step closer to dragging Amazon bosses, kicking and screaming, to talk to us”.