How Britain’s Unions Took the Fight to Amazon

With the support of the GMB union, British workers at Amazon’s Coventry fulfilment center have turned a wildcat strike into a fight for a collective bargaining agreement.

Amazon workers hold placards on a picket line during a strike over pay at the Amazon fulfillment center in Coventry, England, on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. (Darren Staples / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On a mid-April morning, hundreds of workers from Amazon’s Browns Lane fulfillment center in Coventry, England, formed a picket outside of the warehouse before marching to the front gate. “What do we want? £15! When do we want it? Now!” they chanted. The scene, reminiscent of the heyday of industrial conflict in the 1970s, marked a sea change in attempts to organize at the world’s second most valuable company.

Five years ago, Amazon set up shop in Coventry, erecting a humongous site the size of eight soccer fields. Housing nine miles of conveyor belts and anywhere between twelve hundred and eighteen hundred workers, depending on the time of the year, it is comparable in scale to the Jaguar motor factory that previously occupied the site.

Browns Lane is one of two “cross-dock facilities,” or fulfillment centers for fulfillment centers, in the UK, a fact which underscores the strategic importance of unionization drives at the site. There are twenty fulfillment centers across the UK, and fifty-four more in Europe. Through a network of logistics subcontractors and “flex” workers (a gig-work platform for self-employed drivers), they process and deliver a huge volume of goods. In 2021, turnover in the UK alone topped £6 billion with pretax profits at over £200 million. Amazon UK Services Ltd employs over fifty-one thousand managers and administrative employees and an army of self-employed subcontractors. It’s owned by Amazon EU, which is incorporated in Luxembourg, a fellow monarchy and tax haven in Europe.

Pay rates for Amazon warehouse workers vary by location but the minimum hourly wage is between £10.50 and £11.45 ($13.24 and $14.44). Amazon is notorious for its use of anti-union consultants and other intelligence operatives to counter labor “organizing threats.” Despite these efforts on the part of the company, the ground that workers have gained at Browns Lane might mean that the warehouse is set to be the first unionized Amazon facility in the nation. After decades of defensive struggles, the trade union movement is back on the offensive, with the GMB union in Coventry likely just one of many new collective bargaining agreements to come.

From Motor City to Ghost Town

The Browns Lane site is a case study in the deindustrialization and recomposition of the UK economy. Like many industrial powerhouses of the postwar era, Coventry’s “golden age” was bound up with automobile production, which boomed throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Built as a World War II shadow factory by the Daimler Company Ltd, Browns Lane was taken over by Jaguar Cars in 1951. The site remained the company’s home and employed around two thousand workers until 2005.

Even within Coventry the factory was not exceptional but instead part of a manufacturing-heavy economy that hubs across the country. In 1960, over eighty-one thousand people were employed in the production of motor vehicles, tractors, and aircraft in Coventry. Deindustrialization was a process that affected all the Western European economies from the 1950s onward.

Postwar Britain adopted a policy of industrial protectionism that enabled the growth of a social democratic welfare state. The opening up of the British economy to international competition as the rest of the world industrialized, the introduction of labor-substituting technologies, and the dismantling of state support for industry championed by free market fundamentalists and the turn to monetarism meant that by 1981, Coventry was in an economic crisis, with one in six of its residents unemployed.

The last cars rolled off the line three years before Tata Motors, an Indian multinational corporation, bought Jaguar in 2008. The last strike on the site was in 2010, when three hundred fifty Unite union members took part in a ballot in which 66 percent voted in favor of industrial action. The workers lost and the site was gradually sold off and demolished. But soon Amazon, which was already steamrolling through Europe, would arrive and see opportunities for profit-making in and amongst the rubble. In 2017, the company purchased the former Jaguar site and built a forty-thousand-square-meter warehouse on the same land.

Like many other urban areas, Coventry has evolved to be primarily driven by services, particularly the two universities in the area, but now also Amazon. A demographic transformation has accompanied this economic transformation. From 2011 to 2021, the population increased by 8.9 percent to around 345,300. The “Black, Black British, Black Welsh, Caribbean, or African” population rose from 5.6 percent in 2011 to 8.9 percent, the most significant increase in ethnic groups in the area. The “Asian, Asian British, or Asian Welsh” also rose from 16.3 percent to 18.5 percent.

The changes in Coventry’s demographics reflect the evolving nature of the working class in the midlands and the trade union movement more broadly. White British people are still the majority, accounting for 65.5 percent of the population in 2021, but at Amazon warehouse and on the picket they are underrepresented.

The workers I met whilst standing in front of delivery trucks and cars attempting to enter the site were majority non-native English speakers. The scene was the opposite of the clichéd “white working class” imagery that persists in the cultural imaginary of uninformed so-called supporters of the labor movement. This demographic shift has not been lost on the GMB, who have been teaching and training the leaders at the fulfillment center, moving toward an organizing model of industrial relations.

Dark Satanic Fills

Amazon’s control over its workforce relies on its use of algorithmic tracking systems. Such highly Taylorized systems make it difficult for employees to organize because they are denied any explanation of how the technology works. Managers control information about packing rates, numbers of boxes, objects sorted, and other tasks that comprise the logistics labor process. The only information that management shares with workers is their relative intensity of performance in comparison to their colleagues. Such an opaque system renders discussions regarding working conditions and the firm’s mistreatment of its workforce very difficult.

The role of a picker, whose duty entails collecting goods from arbitrarily stored shelf stacks, exemplifies this problem. The picker is provided directions via a portable radio data terminal, and the scanner can exhibit a timer indicating the period that the worker must devote to locating and scanning each item. The algorithmic system’s optimal scenario is one in which employees never cross paths or impede each other’s progress. Consequently, Amazon’s employees are thrust into a solitary and disconnected work environment, completing a series of seconds-long tasks throughout their shifts, striving to attain performance targets that are unsustainable.

The labor scholar Michael Burawoy coined the term “making out” to describe how workers in manufacturing used to coordinate to adjust their effort and game piece-rate pay systems. However, Amazon’s system destroys any capacity for workers to control or mediate their effort according to their needs. The algorithm and target rate varies by the size of the item. Workers have to maintain their rate over a ten-hour period and are under constant threat of warnings if they fall below 10 percent of what other workers are doing. According to Mick, a seasoned Amazon worker and GMB member who preferred not to give his real name:

Managers come around with sheets in the morning and afternoon that give you a rough rate per day. It will tell me what percentile I’m in compared to other workers, say 60-70 percent, but it doesn’t show me where I am in the order or any absolute numbers for the day that others did. Sixty to seventy percent is meaningless unless you know what 100 percent is. They never really tell you. The target changes daily because the algorithm changes, and they’ve never really told us what that algorithm is.

In theory, workers could break the algorithm by slowing down, but the weighting of different items makes it difficult. Without a union to bargain for information about the company’s processes and metrics, workers have limited leverage. A collective bargaining agreement would give them the power to take back control over their labor process and break the hold of the algorithm over their time. This would help make the work more sustainable, but also militate against the high rates of injury on the job.

While it’s no secret that Amazon’s attitude toward workers and their safety is notoriously poor, stories from workers themselves are nevertheless shocking. Amazon simply doesn’t seem to care about the health of their labor force. Ambulance visits to the site are so frequent that the paramedics know workers by name. Management accused Mick, who suffered from cancer, of fraud and refused him pay, despite the fact that he was “on his deathbed” when out of work for surgery. Amazon’s automated HR system rejected a letter from the hospital explaining his circumstances because it was programmed to only allow letters from a GP that had a return date to work, which he couldn’t provide due to his cancer treatment.

A worker sorts out packages in the outbound dock at Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale, California, on Tuesday, August 31, 2021. (Watchara Phomicinda / MediaNews Group / The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

Such brazen disregard for worker welfare is common. Mick said that “there’s all their quotas that they literally say is Amazon policy, but it’s just a tick box system,” that many managers are “fresh out of university, never dealt with any of this stuff in the past,” and that they “don’t want to think” and just “follow the computer.” More than a few workers mentioned that “management keeps trying to pin things on you to get you in trouble.”

However, the tide has been turning as the union gains strength. Workers have the legal right to bring a GMB representative to any meeting with management and feel more confident standing up for themselves to say “no, this is not allowed — you’re breaking all sorts of laws here.”

The Union Strikes Back in the Black Country

As the UK cost-of-living crisis pushed working-class people to the breaking point during the second half of 2022 and into 2023, Amazon offered pennies on the pound, despite record profits. According to Rachel, a GMB union organizer, “it was just the perfect storm.” Amazon workers had been highly productive, meeting and exceeding their targets, and even receiving bonuses as a result. However, workers felt that they deserved more pay than what was offered to them, especially in the context of rising UK inflation — for food, gas, and electricity, the inflation figures are 19, 28.1, and 18.8 percent, respectively. Despite Amazon’s record-breaking profits and Jeff Bezos being one of the richest men in the world, the pay rise offered to the workers was woefully inadequate.

The Amazon site in Tilbury, Essex, saw unofficial strike action first, before the unrest spread across the country through Rugby, Rugeley, Doncaster, Bristol, and now most forcefully, Coventry. At Coventry, pay was the main pressure point that led to the walk out of workers in August 2022. The company had offered workers small pay rises of between 20 and 40 pence ($0.25 and $0.50) every April in previous years, but in 2022, there was no pay rise — only a promise of a review in October.

When the company finally offered a paltry pay rise of 50p ($0.63) in August, workers decided they had had enough. Mick and his colleagues found this offer particularly offensive because, “prices are through the roof! Everything, interest rates, petrol prices, food prices, everything’s gone up. You’re killing us on cost of living here!” In response, warehouse workers went to canteen, rallied their colleagues and walked out. As Rachel, a GMB organizer said:

Workers just decided to hold these kind of wildcat strikes. And then, via social media, that just spreads across lots of different fulfillment centers and across the UK — we had a period of a couple of days in August 2022 where people were just, you know, walking out and holding protests. And what happened was there were members there that reached out to us.

Before the wildcat, only around twenty to thirty workers had already joined the GMB union and reached out to the union for support in addressing the pay issue. The wildcat strike didn’t last, however, since workers couldn’t afford to take the cut in pay. The union then stepped in to offer workers money from the strike fund and, as Mick told me, “From that point onward, the numbers have grown.”

When the GMB called the first official strike, they only had a couple hundred members, but they’ve since more than doubled to over 700 workers out of roughly 1,250 at the Browns Lane site. Most workers were recruited on the picket line, stopping cars in the middle of the access road and signing them up with the GMB’s membership app to provide strike pay directly, which contrasts to the US system that requires mediation through the employer’s payroll.

“People would say you can’t strike in an unrecognized workplace,” Rachel says. “But you can.” The GMB is filing for statutory recognition and will likely get it, which builds momentum as part of a broader wave of unionization across the country. Amazon workers at the JFK8 Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island won a vote to unionize through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on April 1, 2022. Europe has seen strikes for over a decade in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, and Spain. Despite the concerted efforts of management prevent it for years, thirty-five employee representatives across Europe and Amazon management finally established a European Works Council on May 12, 2022.

The unionization of Amazon warehouses on both sides of the Atlantic defies the defeatist arguments that insist that secular economic decline makes impossible victories for workers. The productivity gains from Amazon logistics service are plain to see and through the strength of organized labor, they can be redistributed to benefit workers.