Amazon workers at a major depot in Coventry will stage a historic strike on Wednesday – the first time the delivery giant’s UK operations have been hit by industrial action.
The immediate cause of the row was a 50p-an-hour pay rise offered to warehouse workers over the summer, which many felt was insulting – especially after they had worked through the Covid pandemic.
But the staff also complain about exhausting 24-hour shifts and constant monitoring by management.
A worker recently told Guardian that it was impossible to make ends meet without signing up for a 60-hour week. “I don’t want Jeff Bezos’ 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 around the world, including in the US, where there have been some notable recent successes in winning union recognition.
Derrick Palmer, a vice president of the American Amazon Labor Union, who recently won a recognition battle at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, has endorsed this week’s action in Coventry.
Local Labor MP Taiwo Owatemi is also supportive, after listening to the experiences of workers at the warehouse, which is on a site formerly occupied by car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover.
The company claims to be relaxed about the stoppage, insisting that the strikers represent a small proportion of the workforce in Coventry and that their action will have little or no impact on operations. It also points to a £500 living expenses payment offered to all staff over the busy Christmas period.
Amazon is right about the numbers: the GMB union has registered around 300 members on the Coventry site, and estimates the total number of employees to be 1,400 or more.
But the union still sees Wednesday’s action as a historic step in a 10-year battle to organize inside Amazon warehouses across the UK, in the face of the company’s well-documented hostility to unions.
GMB’s £15 an hour wage claim seems hefty to say the least. It says members are currently paid £10.50 an hour, so that would represent a 45% increase. And unlike thousands of nurses, doctors, teachers or train drivers, industrial action by these 300 warehouse workers is unlikely to have an impact that affects anyone’s daily life.
The economic backdrop has also darkened since the union first began organizing last summer: retail sales fell 1% in volume in December, underscoring 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 GMB members hope they can draw the public’s attention to the conditions facing some of those whose work lies behind the brown cardboard parcels that arrive at doors up and down the UK every day.
Stuart Richards, the GMB’s organizer for the West Midlands, says that since the results of the Coventry strike were announced in December, the union has heard from a growing number of frustrated workers at other Amazon sites who are keen to make their voices heard.
He highlights the lengths the company appears to have gone to to frustrate efforts to organize its staff, saying the Coventry depot has been turned into a “mini-fortress”, compared to other facilities, with CCTV and security guards. The company says this is standard security and that all visitors to Amazon’s sites must be escorted.
“I’ve been involved with the union now for about 25 years, and I’ve never met an employer that just refuses to engage in any kind of involvement at all,” he says. “At the end of the day, the real goal is just to get one step closer to dragging Amazon executives, kicking and screaming, to talk to us.”