Sitting on the banks of the River Trent, the market town of Rugeley in Staffordshire has a rich industrial history. In 1777, it benefited from the construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal, which enabled the smooth transportation of fragile potteries and created a thriving industry. Cooling water from the mighty Trent later made it an ideal location for the construction of power stations.
In 1960, the National Coal Board opened the Lea Hall Colliery, a deep shaft coal mine — the biggest colliery of its type in Europe. The pit was a powerhouse, breaking records for coal production and supporting two power stations, providing thousands of jobs and leading to the town’s rapid expansion.
More than anything else, Rugeley’s coal heritage underpinned its community and shaped the lives of everyone in the town. A great family tradition existed of sons following their fathers into the mines. But that industry is no more. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Lea Hall Colliery was the site of numerous battles as the National Union of Mineworkers fought for better pay and conditions and later to save the coal industry itself.
The most recent battle, the 1984 miners’ strike, left deep scars. The final pit closed in 1991, and with it disappeared the livelihoods of thousands of coal miners. “My dad was part of that strike. He was part of the miners’ union back in the day,” says Ian, with a sense of pride. “They weren’t successful in the end, but they did take a stand.”
We’re on a picket line on top of the former mining pit on Power Station Road. Ian, an Amazon worker in his thirties, never imagined workers like him would be on strike in the same spot his father stood forty years ago. Just a few years ago, a cooling tower dominated Rugeley’s skyline. Now, all we can see is an enormous Amazon fulfilment center — the size of eleven football pitches.
Ian has worked at this site since it opened. Half of that time was through an agency on a zero-hour contract — a form of employment that has increasingly replaced the secure unionized jobs that former industrial towns once provided.
The site opened in 2011 to great excitement from a community suffering high unemployment and social deprivation, but the enthusiasm wasn’t to last. Emma began working at the Rugeley site in 2014, initially through an agency rather than directly contracted by Amazon. She would commute two hours each way to get to work. Like most workers at the site, she came from neighboring towns and cities where rent was cheaper. “We used to get local English people coming in and saying, ‘This isn’t a job for us. This is slave labor. Let the foreigners do it. They’re desperate. This is beneath us.’”
The work is long, monotonous, and physically demanding. But the luxury of choice is a privilege few in a town like Rugeley can afford. Even with its high staff turnover, the site provides employment to hundreds of people locally.
“The coal mine used to be down below here, and they used to provide coal to the surrounding areas. A lot of the older people in Rugeley used to work here,” explains Ian. “We’re proud of our heritage.” He points me in the direction of the Lea Hall Miners’ Welfare and Social Club. A tribute to the miners is on display at the memorial wall outside. Another memorial stands on the Globe Island roundabout in the center of the town, where four towering statues of miners with pickaxes greet passing motorists. “The union was embedded in the community. There was a sense that if one of you needs help, you all need help.”
At the Coalface
For over ten years, the GMB union has attempted to reignite that fighting spirit here at the Amazon site, with limited success. Amazon, a notoriously anti-union company, is one of the most challenging places to organize. Staff turnover is high, insecure contracts are the norm, and the tech behemoth invests millions in anti-union campaigns every year.
Five years ago, GMB organizer Amanda Gearing detailed some of those efforts in Tribune. Denied access to the workplace, the union got its hands on the company’s various shift times and patterns and began recruiting by riding the buses into Rugeley with Amazon workers. GMB would attempt to place as many recruitment forms as possible on windshields before being turfed out of the car park by security. Union-organizing workshops were held in local pubs and miners’ welfare halls. Organizers like Amanda always knew it was a marathon, not a sprint. But they were determined to put in the legwork.
The union’s message resonated with many at the Rugeley site. Reports had emerged of workers urinating in bottles for fear of being penalized by Amazon’s “time off” surveillance and control system. Ambulance calls out were significantly higher than the Tesco warehouse a few miles away. Chris, who joined Amazon in 2014, was among the first on the site to join the union. “We used to get performance bonuses. They scrapped that. And pay doesn’t keep up with the cost of living. I’m doing additional hours now to catch up with the damage of last year when I didn’t do overtime. I’m trying to clear that mountain of debt.”
Sick of being routinely mistreated, Emma joined the union early on in her time at Amazon and doesn’t hold back as to why. “The Big Brother surveillance, the total disregard for the fact that we are human beings. We’re not robots. We can’t work at 200 percent all the time.”
Once a worker picks up a scanner here, they’re tracked every single minute. Workers are sent warnings for idle time. Warnings lead to disciplinaries. And three disciplinaries lead to termination.
“There’s more security cameras than an airport,” says Chris. “The surveillance is really because they’re obsessed with metrics and data. They worship it.” Idle time could be anything from taking longer than two minutes to walk one from one side of the enormous building to the other to time spent restocking cardboard boxes to pack items into. “Do you think restocking your workstation is idle and unproductive? Because Amazon thinks it is,” says Chris.
Emma’s life was particularly difficult in the years she worked at Amazon through an agency, affording her even less security than regular staff. She received a letter after one shift telling her not to come back the next day. “People have lives. People have families. People have children. They need to be able to plan. Just to be dropped like that? It’s not fair.”
Despite an array of problems, most workers have steered clear of the union. For migrant workers, job insecurity and unfamiliarity with British trade unions play a role. But English workers like Ian present a more complex picture. In his experience, many English workers had simply become apathetic. “People had lost hope,” he says. Unions were seen as a relic of a bygone age, crushed by Thatcher and unable to command the power they once had.
But things started to change in the summer of 2022. It was the biggest wave of strikes in decades. From postal workers to paramedics, bus drivers to the border force, it was easier to ask who wasn’t on strike. And Amazon workers were paying attention — both to events in the UK and events overseas where the Amazon Labor Union’s organizing efforts in New York made headlines.
Amid a cost-of-living crisis, spontaneous uprisings took place across several Amazon sites in response to a measly thirty-five-pence pay offer. Canteen walkouts were coordinated through Telegram chats, and protests were loud and animated. Most of these workers weren’t in a union — but they were angry. In response, the GMB sought to expand its small presence at the Rugeley site and convert that anger into action. The union increased its presence at the gates. A team of half a dozen organizers would visit the site up to three days a week to leaflet the workforce.
Maria, a Romanian migrant, joined Amazon at the height of the pandemic. It wasn’t long before she raised serious health and safety concerns at the site. “Items were being stored on the top shelves. There were boxes on top of boxes that could fall and hit you on the head.” Her concerns were ignored. This was part of a broader pattern of neglect that Maria would become sick and tired of. “Most of them [managers] don’t know what it’s like to do what we do. They are graduates from outside the building. They act like they are superior to us.”
Initially hesitant to join the union, Maria saw it as an avenue to air her grievances. “I was seeing the place getting worse and worse. Nobody listened to our voices. I heard stories of people being treated horribly in disciplinary meetings. I didn’t want to be treated the same.” It wasn’t long before Maria herself found herself in a disciplinary meeting. Her crime? Calling in sick due to mental health issues. “I joined the union and they were very helpful. The adapt [disciplinary] was quashed because the union was there.” For Maria, more than pay, it was a strike about basic human dignity.
Workers have been spurred on by earlier successes in neighboring Coventry, which had Britain’s first-ever formal Amazon strike in January. Tribune has covered the waves of strike action, which have grown over the past year. And workers in Rugeley have also been watching with great interest. Union membership at the Coventry warehouse increased from twenty to one thousand in the space of a year. During their strike in March, workers from Coventry took a minibus to other sites in the region, including Rugeley, to engage with workers.
In Rugeley, Amazon has sought to downplay successes in the neighboring Midlands motoring town and deployed numerous anti-union tactics over the past few months. “We’re regularly briefed by managers who discourage us from joining the union,” explains Maria. “They even have posters in the toilets saying speak for yourself. You don’t have to join the union.”
Maria points to barriers surrounding the site. “The union came at some point to give flyers and posters. After this, all these barriers came up.” Chris echoes these concerns. “They have digital displays which say Amazon wants to speak to you; the union wants to speak for you.” He believes this anti-union messaging has been copied from the nearby Coventry site and brought here.
Amazon has now announced plans to close the Rugeley site in March 2024. And despite the promise of jobs in a new site in Sutton Coldfield, not everyone is able to make the move.
Chris, who lives in nearby Stafford, is deeply worried. “They are forcing us to relocate over thirty miles away. It’s too far out. I’m going to have to find something local,” he says. “Something better than this.” Maria agrees. “I wouldn’t go to Birmingham. It’s too far, and the job is too toxic. I don’t need that extra stress.”
The experience of Amazon workers in Rugeley typifies the effects of decades of deindustrialization and the decline of trade unions in towns and cities across Britain. The Lea Hall Colliery was a pillar of its community, and the miners who organized there won secure work that could provide for a family and pay a mortgage. There was a sense of pride.
The Amazon fulfilment center, by contrast, brought only exploitative and low-paid employment and a struggle for the most basic security and dignity at work. There will be no memorials constructed to the Amazon site once it closes.
Amazon has no plans to provide transportation from Rugeley to the new site in Sutton Coldfield. But some workers intend to move to the new site and continue their organizing efforts. The late Tony Benn, who addressed miners’ rallies that Ian’s father would have attended, said that every generation must fight the same battles again and again. “There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat.” The struggle of workers in Rugeley exemplifies these words.