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‘Amazon Doesn’t Own Us’: Behind the Historic UK Strikes

Taj Ali

This week, Amazon workers in Britain are taking part in their biggest strike yet against the corporate giant. Their groundbreaking organising campaign shows that workers can fight back against injustice – even in the most hostile of environments.

Amazon workers strike outside the Amazon warehouse in Coventry, England. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

Jeff Bezos is one of the celebrity capitalists of the twenty-first century. Alongside Elon Musk, he is arguably as well known in the public sphere for his yacht collection and his contributions to the billionaire space race. With a net worth of over £104 billion as of February 2023, he’s the third wealthiest person in existence; and his company, Amazon, is the largest online retailer on the planet. But along with his growing fortune have come yearly stories about mistreatment of the workers whose labour makes the profits.

After many years of reports about warehouse staff pissing in bottles and delivery drivers relieving themselves in the back of vans, last year saw historic progress for the labour movement inside the corporate giant. Workers in Staten Island, New York, voted in favour of joining the Amazon Labour Union led by former employee Chris Small, who mounted high-profile protests against safety conditions at the retailer’s local warehouse. In 2023, those efforts had their first major breakthrough in Britain.

Five years ago, in the first relaunched issue of Tribune, we wrote about the GMB union’s efforts to organise in Amazon. Organisers talked about 115 emergency call-outs in a single year at a local warehouse, 2 AM disciplinary meetings, and pregnant workers being denied the right to sit down during twelve-hour shifts. These had resulted in the first signs of serious backlash from workers against the company and early shoots of unionisation. ‘I would never say definitely in these situations,’ the union organiser said at the time, ‘but we’re in a strong position.’

On 25 January 2023, that prediction proved correct. In a development reported around the world, workers at the Coventry warehouse staged Amazon’s first-ever strike in Britain. Under the banner ‘Fight for £15’ — which echoed the organising effort in the United States — hundreds of staff downed tools in opposition to the companies meagre pay rise. But for those behind the organising effort, the path to that first strike was anything but straightforward.

Dismal Conditions

This latest wave of activity began in August 2022 when, amidst a cost-of-living crisis, Amazon made offers to workers to increase pay by between 35 and 50 pence an hour. Unofficial strike action began at the Amazon site in Tilbury, Essex, then spread across the country: from Rugby to Rugeley, and Doncaster to Bristol. These workers weren’t unionised and these strikes weren’t official, but they demonstrated the strength of feeling amongst an exploited workforce.

Without formal union organisation, the strikes were coordinated through Telegram groups. Much of the initial interest came after videos of workers holding sit-ins in canteens went viral on TikTok. But the strikes hadn’t come from nowhere — there had been years of pent-up frustrations and efforts to channel them into action.

Before moving to the Coventry warehouse in 2018, Emma had worked for four years at the warehouse in Rugeley, Staffordshire. The warehouse is an old building with four floors, with the only toilets located on the first floor. If a worker needs to use the bathroom, they drop their crate off, leave their cart somewhere and often find themselves sprinting down four flights of stairs. When they return, it’s unlikely they’ll have a cart as there are more workers than carts.

‘As soon as you get to the toilets, you’ll get a message demanding you come to the desk and explain the situation. Then you go back spending another ten minutes finding another cart and you’re getting another message asking you what you’re doing,’ she explains. ‘Once you’ve got that scanner in your hand, they’re tracking you every single minute.’

The Amazon warehouse in Rugeley covers an area the size of eleven football pitches; workers are often required to walk from one side of the building to the other in a mere two minutes.

The company has total disregard for the fact that we are human beings and not robots. We can’t work at 200 percent all night. People do need to go for bathroom breaks. People can have something happen in their personal lives and not be quite 100 percent at work.

Emma alleges that workers are routinely mistreated. Within the warehouses, too, discussion regarding unionisation is frowned upon and can get workers classified as something known as an ‘adapt’. This status, lasting six months, is the equivalent of being put on a report for bad behaviour at school. It is also given to workers who happen to be in the bottom 5 percent of productivity on a shift. ‘You can be in the bottom 5 percent and still be over target,’ Emma says. She describes the system as a tool of fear and control. ‘If they decide to give you an adapt, they’re constantly watching your back. It stops you from getting a promotion, transferring, or moving to a different department.’

This contributes to a toxic workplace for anyone that managers take a dislike to. ‘If they decide to give you an adapt, you’re trapped. From that moment, they’re determined to get rid of you and you know it and feel it.’ Emma herself struggles with mental health issues and has taken leaves of absence as ‘a result. ‘If I miss a day of work for health reasons, they record it and threaten me if I have another [day off sick].’ As a result, workers like Emma often drag themselves into work with all sorts of illnesses and health complications for fear of losing their jobs.

Emma also suffers from a bad back, arthritis, and wrist pain — and the physically demanding nature of the job makes it anything but easy. ‘You’re on your feet the whole shift, lifting heavy boxes and totes with anything up to 50 kilos.’ Workers are expected to scan items every few minutes. If they end up with back problems, they may be put on lighter duties, but Emma says this is incredibly rare. ‘They’ll usually say, “Get on with it or there’s the door.”’

Road to Unionisation

Ahmed has worked at the Amazon warehouse in Coventry for nearly four years and played a key role in organising the wildcat strikes. ‘We pointed to other companies who Amazon could buy over a thousand times and asked why their dayshift rates were higher than what we receive on nightshift. I had never imagined that so many of us were prepared to sit in the canteen and fight back.’

Those initial wildcat strikes set a tone. Over the weeks that followed, there was a steady trickle of worker engagement with the GMB and its organising efforts in Amazon. ‘We’ve done a lot of solid work in Coventry,’ says Rachel Fagan, one of the union’s organisers in the Midlands. ‘We had members who moved there when that site first opened.’ After the pitiful pay offer, Rachel received phone calls from workers saying they were planning demonstrations in factories. They also planned to take their protest to Coventry city centre to get the message across to the public.

Along with other GMB organisers, Rachel met a new section of workers who were interested in the union but hadn’t joined yet. ‘We started to build up a relationship with some of those natural leaders in the workplace,’ she says, explaining how she took a book and pen, jotting down details to create WhatsApp groups. ‘We had so much interest that we had to create a second WhatsApp group. Pretty quickly, we had 700 workers in them.’

Emma is another worker in Coventry who joined the GMB only recently. ‘I’ve been here eight years and I’ve seen the GMB trying to organise in Amazon since day one. I always make the joke that they used to jump out of the bushes at us and say, “Join!”’ Interestingly, Emma wasn’t always fond of trade unions. When she was growing up, her father worked at British Leyland and was an opponent of union leader Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson. Emma herself felt trade unions were a relic of the past and no use to workers in the present. That view has slowly but significantly changed.

‘Too many times I’ve seen people get released or put on an adapt for silly little things. You go into these meetings on your own and you’re sat in front of two or three people that bamboozle you with all this jargon,’ she recalls. ‘If you have someone from the union, they are a lot more savvy on the legalities.’ She’s already seeing the difference at the warehouse in Coventry with workers getting the union involved and saving people’s jobs and livelihoods. ‘The union can come in for grievance meetings and you tend to see as soon as you say you’ll speak to the union, the management will change tack. That adapt is quashed rather than having the union coming.’

Overcoming Obstacles

In addition to workplace authoritarianism, the financial pressures facing many workers was initially a barrier to trade union organising. Many felt that the risk of losing their job — often the only source of income — was too high. But that changed with the latest pay offer. ‘I am now in credit card debt,’ Ahmed says. ‘I try to pay it on time to avoid interest, but as soon as my statement is cleared, I re-use the card to pay for basic living needs.’ With three kids to care for and bills skyrocketing, a 35p increase wasn’t even possible to live on.

He also points out that the majority of staff do not speak English as a first language. This is a familiar story in unionisation campaigns in recent years, with the RMT union famously describing its recent Churchill cleaner campaign as ‘the United Nations on a picket line’. In Ahmed’s case, the company tried to exploit this at first — assuming that non-national workers aren’t fully clued-up on their rights. ‘Many workers go through disciplinary processes which are not followed correctly and are unaware they can take Amazon to an employment tribunal.’ Ahmed himself says he has reviewed the disciplinary process for fellow workers and found many breaches of the ACAS code of practice.

Emma says there are twelve leaders in the workplace from different nationalities that have been bringing people into the union. ‘There are Eastern Europeans, Pakistanis, Somalis. We can talk to a wide variety of people across the board and get positive feedback.’ One example of a challenge is that trade unions are sometimes seen negatively in workers’ home countries. This was initially a hurdle with Romanian workers; but, now, there are two in leadership. ‘What’s good about us is we’re well known in the building,’ Emma says. ‘We’re all in different departments. We all get on; we concentrate on our little areas.’

Organising in Amazon hasn’t come without its challenges, with workers and GMB organisers alike adamant that the corporation is trying to quash dissent. That was evident on the picket line in January — there were hired private security guards on foot and parked in vehicles just yards away. Workers were surprised by this level of security, something they’d never seen before. In recent months, there has been an increase in fencing, CCTV cameras, and security personnel.

Stuart Richards, a GMB organiser, pointed me towards a former public pathway that has now been closed off to the general public. The pathway leads to the Amazon warehouse and was a short distance from the picket line. A new yellow line has been painted and a new CCTV camera installed. ‘They’re so scared about people like us on the outside, not knowing we’re already there on the inside,’ he chuckles. Organising continues apace on buses on the way to work and in the smoking areas.


January’s strike is widely seen as a success by the union and the workers involved. In the aftermath, more of their colleagues have joined and expressed support. Many who didn’t were also pleased at the pressure applied to the corporate giant by media coverage. Messages of support flowed in from other Amazon warehouses in Doncaster, Bristol, and Swindon, and new instant messaging channels were created.

Amazon workers in Britain are now part of a global fight for justice. Last November, workers took coordinated action in more than thirty countries to coincide with Black Friday — from India to Germany and Japan. In the US, protests took place in more than ten cities, including at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle and outside Jeff Bezos’ penthouse in New York City. The Amazon Labor Union made sure to send its support to the Coventry strike.

Back in the warehouse, industrial action has already escalated. Further strikes took place on the 28th February and the 1st of March, with a week-long strike between the 13th to 17th March. It appears the Amazon warehouse in Tilbury, Essex could be next to follow suit. Valerie, a worker from Mansfield, visited the picket line during the recent strike and addressed her co-workers at a rally that evening. She says unionising her warehouse is an uphill battle but one she’s determined to win. ‘Most of my colleagues are frightened. They’re frightened they’ll lose the respect of management and they’re frightened that they will lose their jobs.’

But, she asks, if workers don’t stand up now, when will they stand up for themselves?

Amazon doesn’t own us. Nurses can do it. Railway workers can do it. Maybe I’m being idealistic, but I think we can do it too.