Organising Amazon

In recent months the GMB has waged a guerrilla campaign to help workers in one of the richest companies in the world fight appalling conditions.

Amazon workers in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire prepare for Black Friday in November 2015. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images.)

This summer, industrial organisers have been waging what some workers have called a ‘guerrilla war’ against Amazon. Since 1994, the company’s boss Jeff Bezos — now the richest man in history — has crushed every attempt of his workers to unionise. However, as Amazon employees in Germany, Poland, and Spain go on strike for improved working conditions, Britain’s GMB has been applying the pressure to Bezos on these shores.

At Rugeley in the West Midlands, Amazon employs approximately 3,000 workers at a large warehouse. Of these, 1,500 are directly employed, while the other half are agency staff. A large number of these workers hail from Romania, Lithuania, and Poland, with Romanians comprising the largest group. Wages are low; most can’t afford to live in Rugeley and are transported in by company buses from neighbouring towns such as Wolverhampton and Telford.

Like Amazon workers abroad, the workers at Rugeley report dreadful conditions. Amanda Gearing, a GMB organiser working the site, says that she has been told of staff urinating in bottles, fearful that their pay would be affected by the ‘time off’ taken to walk through the large warehouse to one of the few toilets in the building. In this environment, heavily pregnant women have been refused permission to sit down briefly during twelve hour shifts, and the union has represented members who are developing skeletal issues as a result of the repetitive, straining nature of their work.

Just a few miles away, at a Tesco warehouse, ambulance staff had made eight trips to assist injured workers in the past three years. However, in Rugeley, there have been 115 emergency callouts for Amazon staff, with paramedics tending to a litany of complaints from workers being electrocuted because of faulty machinery, to slipping on water caused by leaking pipes, and being knocked unconscious by falling items. Many simply become sick on the job due to the enormous physical stress it entails.

To cover up growing discontent, GMB activists say that a ‘whipping dog’ approach is preferred by management. Here, a team and section leaders are selected from a predominant national group and encouraged to instil fear in people from their own countries in order to drive them to working longer without rest. When GMB members raise complaints and are allowed formal representation in a negotiation, the management respond with aggression. A recent example included using the store’s 24-hour nature to call disciplinaries at 2 AM with 24 hours’ notice.

This hasn’t stopped the GMB from pushing hard to recruit new members. Amazon has consistently denied the union access to the workplace, resisting formal and informal negotiations with its representatives. To counter this, 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.

In the weeks after the GMB developed this tactic, workers returning from shifts told union members that security guards took recruitment forms from them upon entering the workplace, telling them that they couldn’t join a union. Furthermore, the shift times, once fairly steady, began changing as more workers joined the union — particularly during Christmas, when work was heavy and the GMB struck a chord with leafleting outside the warehouse, dressed as robots, and decrying the inhumane nature of the graft. Now, in Gearing’s words, there is ‘no rhyme nor reason’ to shift patterns, with some finishing work at 4.15 AM, when no public transport is available.

Now, the members say, the war is one of attrition. The union tries to get as many recruitment forms on windshields before security catches them and turfs them off the premises. Management propaganda litters the warehouses, but turnout at the union’s pop-up schools in local pubs and miners’ welfare halls is on the increase. Cracking the bulk of the workforce is difficult, but the GMB are now representing members in disciplinaries three or four times a week.

As more members join the union, problems are collected that the union can use in formal recognition agreements. The GMB are increasingly confident that Amazon can be organised. ‘I would never say definitely in these situations,’ Gearing said, ‘but we’re in a really strong position.’ This sense of possibility is reflected in the union’s plan to step up to weekly union recruitment drives. Soon, they hope, they will gain the formal density required by law to seek recognition. If they do, it will be a huge step forward for the workers’ movement in one of the most powerful corporations in the world.