Amazon Just Saw Its First Strike in Britain
Yesterday, staff at Amazon’s Coventry warehouse did something no British workers at the company had previously done: they walked off the job.
It’s 5 a.m. and Amin is on the picket line outside the Amazon warehouse in Coventry. He’s one of the hundreds of Amazon workers making history, being the first ever in the UK to engage in formal strike action. It’s a chilly winter morning, and we’re gathered around the fire, engaging in conversation about this important moment.
Amin has worked here for nearly three years now. He never thought he’d find himself on a picket line, but he says he had no choice. “The cost of living is going up. Things are really, really hard, not just for me but for people across the UK. Prices are going up. Energy prices are ridiculous. When you’ve got a family to feed, it’s even tougher.” Also hovering round the fire is Mark, who’s worked at Amazon for nearly four years. “There was nowhere else to go,” he explains. “A lot of people here depend on these jobs, and they deserve so much more money. You shouldn’t be living just above the poverty line when you’re working for one of the richest companies in the world.”
Mark is right: Amazon is one of the most profitable companies on the planet, with its annual revenue soaring to $386 billion in 2020. As high streets shuttered, its online sales model made it one of the major beneficiaries of the pandemic; sales in the UK alone jumped 51 percent that year, to hit £19.4 billion. On top of that, Amazon UK Services Limited reported paying just £10.8 million in tax in 2021, despite recording a pre-tax profit of £204 million.
“We weren’t saving lives during the pandemic, but were doing work,” says Mark. “We were working with approximately 800 people every night in a warehouse. At that point, I had an email to show the police that I was a key worker if I got stopped on the road; two years on, I’m just ‘unskilled,'”
Given these circumstances and a cost-of-living crisis, workers saw proposed pay raises of 35-50p last year as a kick in the teeth. So in August, Amazon workers across the country took on the behemoth. From Rugby to Rugeley, Doncaster to Bristol and, of course, Coventry, workers engaged in a series of wildcat strikes. Those strikes began at the Amazon site in Tilbury, Kent over a proposed 35p pay raise. Though unofficial, the strikes demonstrated the strength of feeling amongst a demoralized and downtrodden workforce and would lead to growing unionization at a number of Amazon warehouses. “Me and pretty much everyone else at the warehouse were involved in it,” says Amin. “It was a peaceful protest. We didn’t get paid for those hours, but we needed to make our voices heard.”
Workers in Coventry were offered a 50p pay raise at the time. With soaring inflation, rising rent, and bills going through the roof, workers like Amin felt insulted. “No one was happy with it. We’d worked really hard throughout the pandemic and Amazon increased their profits. Engaging in wildcat strikes was something people had wanted to do for a long time. The pay offer was the spark that lit the fire.”
During these wildcat strikes, a degree of coordination existed between workers across different warehouses, with social media an important tool for disseminating information. Workers in Telegram groups would frequently share clips of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ Mick Lynch speaking on TV and news of unions winning pay rises, emboldening Amazon workers to demand better. “That’s where most people got their motivation from,” says Amin. “We also had support from Doncaster, Rugeley, and other places across the UK.”
Donning a Fire Brigades Union beanie hat, Zarah Sultana, the MP for Coventry South, arrives on the picket line around 6 a.m. Many of her constituents work at this warehouse, and she’s determined to support them.
“Today is a historic moment,” she tells Tribune. “Amazon is one of the most profitable companies in the entire world. During the pandemic, Jeff Bezos could have given every single worker a £90,000 bonus and still be as wealthy as he was during the start of the pandemic.” She continues:
This is a company that has made £23 billion in UK sales [in 2021] and has only offered workers a 50p pay rise, which is an insult. It’s a slap in the face when we have a cost-of-living crisis. Only one in four Amazon workers in Coventry say they can afford to pay their bills, according to a GMB survey. When we look at health and safety across Amazon, it’s absolutely shocking. More than a thousand serious injuries since 2016. Since 2018, at Amazon’s warehouse here in Coventry, they’ve had 59 ambulance call-outs. People are fainting. People are having serious injuries like burns and traumatic incidences.
Since these wildcat strikes, Amin and many of his colleagues have joined the GMB union. Originally from West Africa, before moving to Norway and then the UK, Amin says joining the union has helped him familiarize himself with the rights of employees here.
Like Amin, Mark has got involved in the GMB union. While not a union rep, he’s vocal in his support for unionization. He tells me that many workers often approach him in the smoking area and other communal areas, asking how they can get involved in the union. Amazon is a notoriously difficult place for unions to organize in, not just for their anti-union culture but also the prevalence of agencies and, particularly in the UK context, a workforce made up predominantly of immigrants from various countries who are unfamiliar with the British labor movement.
“While we’ve been trying to build support for this union and move this union forward, we’ve had so much trouble with the language barrier. So we’ve translated everything,” explains Mark. “We’ve had some support from some universities up north who have translated everything we could possibly want into every single language.”
As she’s about to leave the picket line, I ask Sultana what more the labor movement can do to engage with these workers. “The trade union movement has to adapt and evolve to the changing nature of work — obvious things like literature in diverse languages, but also reps and organizers reflecting the diverse nature of the UK, especially in workplaces like warehouses,” she says.
“We’ve been working on organizing in Amazon for over ten years now,” says Rachel Fagan, a GMB organizer in the Midlands. “We’ve done a lot of solid work in Coventry. We had GMB members who moved to Coventry when that site first opened.”
While starting out with a relatively small existing GMB membership, the last year or so has seen a significant increase in union density at the warehouse. After the pitiful pay offer last year, Rachel says she received phone calls from workers saying they were doing wildcat demonstrations in factories. The workers would take their protest to Coventry City Centre to get the message across to the general public. Alongside other GMB organizers, Rachel attended the demonstration and met a mix of union members and nonmembers.
“We started to build up a relationship with some of those natural leaders within the workplace,” she tells Tribune, explaining how she took a book and pen, jotting down names to create WhatsApp groups. “We had so much interest that we had to create a second WhatsApp group. At one point, we had seven hundred workers joining.”
As well as the cost-of-living crisis, health and safety concerns and poor working conditions would create the perfect storm.
“The workers go above and beyond for a company owned by one of the richest men in the world that sends rockets up into space for a hobby while his own workers are struggling and physically cannot tighten their belts anymore.”
Over the autumn months, more and more people would join the union amid a concerted effort from GMB organizers who would leaflet workers in the car park.
“We’ve got to the party a bit late,” says Mark about the growing wave of strike action in other industries. “Because of the loopholes and the height of the fences that the Tory government have put in our way, we had to do the ballot twice. We failed the first time by three votes, which was just soul-destroying. But we came back stronger, and we’re pushing on.”
For Mark, the growing wave of strike action, the largest in decades, is something that keeps morale high amongst Amazon workers. “The firemen, the nurses and the ambulance workers are what holds this country together. These people are worth their weight in gold. I cannot see anyone in the government running into a burning building to pull out a kid. I can’t see any of them trying to do CPR on someone who’s dying. I can’t see them sitting with patients in wards, knowing they’re taking their last few breaths. These people haven’t got a clue what it’s like to live in this world.”
Organizing in Amazon hasn’t come without its challenges, with workers and GMB organizers alike adamant that Amazon is trying to squash dissent and discontent.
That’s evident to me as soon as I arrive at the warehouse. There are two picket lines in operation at both the walk-in and drive-in entrances. Amazon has hired private security guards on foot and parked in vehicles just yards away from both picket lines. “I’m really surprised by what I’m seeing today,” says Amin. “I’ve never seen this level of security before.”
In recent months, there’s been a reported an increase in fencing, CCTV cameras, and the presence of security personnel. Stuart Richards, a GMB organizer, points toward a formerly public pathway that has now been closed off to the general public. The pathway leads to the Amazon warehouse and is a short distance from the picket line. A new yellow line has been painted, and a new CCTV camera has been installed. “They’re so scared about people like us on the outside, not knowing we’re already there on the inside,” he chuckles.
There is also a significant police presence on the picket line, something which doesn’t go down well with striking workers. “They want to intimidate us,” says Ahmed, a young Amazon worker who came to the UK five years ago as a refugee from Eritrea and has worked at the warehouse for four years. There are many like him on the picket line this morning, workers from various countries who are keen to take action but, at the same time, incredibly worried. Ahmed is with his colleagues who are hesitant to speak to the press, which comes as no surprise given the level of hostility from management.
“When we had the protest in the canteen, everyone joined, but people are scared to go on strike. When you’ve never done it before, it’s hard,” he says, citing a lack of knowledge about trade unions as a key barrier. He himself joined the GMB very recently and, like others I speak to, says a desperate situation requires action like this. “This winter was very cold. I couldn’t afford to turn my heating on. We can’t afford to live. We’ve got to take a stand,” he tells Tribune.
Anti-union tactics are also present within the factory itself, says Rachel, citing anti-union messaging and union busting in briefs and huddles — but, she adds, this has only made more and more workers determined to take a stand.
“Amazon workers at different sites have contacted us. People are asking us how to do what Coventry is doing. We are hoping this action will empower more workers to become organized, and the union will be there every step of the way to facilitate this.”
I ask Rachel how likely it is that others will follow suit. “I think there’s a likelihood that we’ll see more wildcat action afterward because that’s the natural process of what’s happened so far,” she tells me. Communication via social media platforms like TikTok and Telegram platforms has helped spread the message. “It’s given them that sense of solidarity, that they’re not alone. They’re part of this massive organization across the whole country. They also feel empowered looking at other strong unionized workforces, like the ambulances, nurses and the RMT union.”
A Historic Moment
The action taken by Amazon workers yesterday is set to spark conversations about pay and conditions in warehouses across the country. Months of organizing, hundreds of conversations, and a sustained presence on the site have led to this pivotal moment.
“We’ve been able to organize a large group of unorganized workers in a short amount of time,” says Rachel, jubilant as more and more workers join her on the picket line. This strike action is unlikely to dent the company’s profits, but for Mark, it’s just the beginning. “Mighty oaks grow from little acorns. We’ve got support from Europe, we’ve got support from the US, we’ve got support from all around the world,” he says.
In a statement of support to Tribune, the Amazon Labour Union, which organizes Amazon workers in the United States, said: “The message is clear: Amazon workers across the world are not going to continue to sit around and let this company mistreat them.”
Alongside messages of support both nationally and internationally, Rachel says a seventy-member Amazon support group has been set up by workers who aren’t Amazon workers but are supportive of those who are. These workers have been knocking on doors and leafleting in support of Amazon workers and held a fundraising drive for striking workers in Coventry city center on the weekend.
For Amin, this strike action might not lead to instant change, but it’s a small step in the right direction. Mark, too, is under no illusion about the scale of the challenge, but he says workers are up for the long slog.
“Amazon as an employer are bullies. They just are. And people like us in Coventry need to stand up to those bullies. There’s strength in numbers, and we have got numbers. This isn’t just about Coventry. This is about every Amazon worker in the UK. These people deserve a lot more money, and when I say a lot more money, I mean enough to live on. We don’t want to buy yachts like Jeff does. We just want to be able to pay our way.”