I arrive outside the Amazon warehouse in Coventry around 6AM on a chilly Tuesday morning. It might be cold, but I’m feeling the warmth of the picket line. It was even colder last month when Amazon workers in Coventry made history by engaging in the UK’s first formal Amazon strike. This time the atmosphere is more jubilant. There is an air of confidence about the workers.
That nervousness was not unfounded; an anti-union drive in the warehouse in the weeks leading up to the strike and the presence of private security recording their actions on the day meant many workers felt a sense of intimidation. But despite management’s tactics, workers are taking the lead.
Growing in Confidence
‘I didn’t sleep last night,’ says Darren Westwood, an Amazon worker at the site in Coventry. ‘I tried to go to bed and got up by two o’clock in the morning. I just sat on the sofa. I was worried that we wouldn’t have the impact we had before. We’ve actually had more of an impact. Today, I can sit back and just enjoy this show.’
Darren has spoken to Tribune twice in the past under a pseudonym. He’s now come out publicly, talking to media outlets on camera about the experiences of himself and his fellow workers. Last week, Darren joined a fellow worker, Connor, to speak on a panel in London alongside the President of the Amazon Labour Union, Chris Smalls, from the United States—a moment he describes as surreal.
‘It was such an honour to share a platform with Chris Smalls,’ says Connor. ‘He’s an inspiration. We found out during that event that the Amazon employees in JFK now earn about $21 an hour, which is about £18, and we’re on £10.50. It’s an absolute disgrace. They can afford to pay us, but they’re choosing not to.’
In total, there are about 400 workers here taking strike action—something Connor and Darren never thought they’d ever see.
Darren is overjoyed with the energy displayed on the picket line today and says he sees it in the warehouse too. ‘People have the confidence to have those conversations out loud. When I am in the smoking shelter, people used to ask me questions about the union under their breath, and now it’s an open conversation.’
Building a Movement
Darren has certainly been a busy man, speaking to workers in other warehouses and helping to build the GMB union across the country. ‘The management inside realise they can’t beat us with sticks anymore. They’ve got to actually speak to us and try and get us back on site. And they can’t miss this noise and movement. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is a movement.’
As we speak, a lorry turns around at the vehicle entrance of the warehouse after workers convince the driver not to cross the picket line. The mood is jubilant, and workers cheer loudly as the lorry performs a U-turn. ‘You’ve just witnessed the first victory of the day,’ exclaims Stuart Richards, senior organiser at the GMB Union.
Stuart is in a very upbeat mood, beaming with a smile. ‘This is amazing. Absolutely brilliant. These are new people who’ve come through today with incredible energy. Amazon workers are so up for it. We are here to help, but they’re running the show themselves, which is brilliant.’ This wave of strike action, he says, is being led by Amazon workers who choose when to strike and for how long.
Since the last strike, there’s a growing sense of optimism and confidence. ‘Workers are saying, “we can take on this company, and they can’t do anything to us”. Things can move at pace because workers are determined to demand better. It’s been brilliant.’
Stuart describes this week’s two days of strikes as a bit of a test. ‘We want to see how far we can push and how many members we could gain.’ GMB has scheduled a further week of strike action from the 13th to the 17th of March.
‘We’re concentrating solely on getting more workers into the union on the first two days of the week to build up some strength,’ explains Richards. ‘On the last three days, we are going to use that to see if we can get some of these guys travelling to different Amazon warehouses in the region. We want to provoke a reaction across a number of Amazon warehouses where workers will turn and say, “right, let’s take some action like they’re doing in Coventry.”’
‘The first strike in January was almost a teething process,’ says GMB organiser Rachel Fagan. ‘The first strike day was new for everybody. A lot of the workers had never been on strike before and didn’t know what to do. Today, they’re in their element.’
Rachel has been working in the GMB organising team for over ten years. ‘We’ve been organising in Amazon fulfilment centres since they popped up. For ten years, we’ve been at it, and we have learned so much not just about the business but about the workforce themselves.’ As we speak, workers are walking up to the car line, stopping cars at the entrance and urging their colleagues to join them on the picket line.
The many languages being spoken reflects the diversity of the workforce here. ‘They know what they’re doing. They know who they’re talking to,’ Rachel says. ‘They can have conversations. It’s people they work with day in and day out. They’re getting their friends to turn around.’ A number of vehicles do, indeed, perform a U-turn. But what are the chances of the management following suit when it comes to pay?
‘I think they’ve realised they’re spending money on the wrong thing. Stop spending your money on hiring extra security on a strike day and spend your money on paying these workers a wage that’s liveable for them,’ says Rachel. ‘Every time we have more action, membership increases. I’ve seen people that didn’t come out on strike the first time because they were fearful. But they’ve watched all of their colleagues that did strike and have no action taken against them, and now they’ve joined them.’
The GMB union report that their membership at the Amazon warehouse since the last strike has more than doubled. ‘Last night it peaked again because workers were joining online,’ explains Rachel. ‘They were coming to me on the registration tent with their phones ready saying they’ve pre-registered, sharing their membership number.’
Amazon workers say they’ve already noticed a change in the Coventry warehouse. One Amazon worker, Emma, tells Tribune that many workers aren’t fully clued up on their rights and protections in the workplace and alleges that disciplinary processes are not always followed correctly. An adapt, the equivalent of a formal warning, is the first stage of the disciplinary process, with three adapts reportedly leading to dismissal.
‘Too many times I’ve seen people get released or put on an adapt for silly little things. The trouble is 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. If you have someone from the union, they are a lot savvier on legal work practices.’
Emma already sees 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 as the end of the night rather than having the union coming.’
Workers say the management is now conducting staff satisfaction surveys and have posters on the back of toilets encouraging workers with medical conditions to speak to them if they require a reasonable adjustment.
‘That’s not just happened in Coventry,’ emphasises Emma. ‘The impact of what we do here is far-reaching.’ When Amazon workers began balloting for strike action, the company awarded workers across the country a £500 bonus linked to attendance. ‘That was to stop us striking, but it meant Amazon workers across the country got money in their back pocket.’
Amazon Striking Back
The chances of Amazon management performing any U-turn on pay, however, remain slim, as the company insists this strike action has virtually no impact on them, saying it has no plan to negotiate to meet workers’ demands. The GMB Union estimates the combined cost of the eight days of industrial could be more than £2 million for Amazon.
‘All these low-paid workers want is a £4.50 rise—instead, Amazon’s refusal to negotiate is hitting shareholders in the pocket,’ says Amanda Gearing, senior organiser at the GMB. While certainly not causing the level of disruption rail strike cause or significantly denting Amazon’s colossal profits, the company’s reputation is taking a hit. And, in the age of mass information, exposing the exploitation Amazon workers face has the company worried.
There are a group of managers stationed yards ahead of the picket line. They’ve been here for over an hour. ‘It’s freezing cold, isn’t it?’ one manager says as I walk up to have a chat. ‘You must be taking this strike very seriously to be standing in this weather, monitoring workers,’ I respond. They refuse to speak to me any further, directing me instead to Amazon’s press office.
Amazon’s press release suggests that senior management is taking no notice of the strike. However, workers allege that the general manager of the Coventry warehouse has been taking pictures of workers on the picket line and that workers have been recorded throughout the strike. One worker claims a manager asked for his login details, which he refused to provide. When questioned, the manager admitted that photos were taken but strongly denies intimidating workers, claiming they were solely for documenting road blockages.
I head back to the picket line later in the evening, around 6PM. Usually, this is a busy time for Amazon workers, with day shift staff leaving and night shift staff arriving. Ten minutes away from the picket line, vehicles have come to a standstill, and the siren of a police van can be heard in the distance. It’s loud and angry on the picket line. Amazon workers chant in unison, ‘What do we want? £15. When do we want it? Now!’
Marian has worked at the Amazon warehouse for over four years. ‘I came to this country from Romania in 2018 in the hope of a better life. I don’t expect to get rich, but I expect to be able to live a normal life. We shouldn’t have to be forced to work six days to get overtime so we can pay our debts.’
Marian has been feeling the pinch. ‘Gas, electricity, everything went up. Inflation went very high. We as workers are struggling with the pay they’re offering us £10.50 an hour.’ Marian took part in wildcat strikes last summer and has now joined the GMB. ‘We’ve got different people from different cultures and different countries. Pakistan, Romania, Latvia. My English is not great, but it’s easy to get people to understand what is common sense. I convinced many of my colleagues to join us.’
Marian works six days a week, and then spends his days off sleeping and recovering from the gruelling workload. The work is physically demanding, and Marian finds himself in constant pain.
‘We are often lifting very heavy loads. They say the maximum weight is 15kg, but that’s not really true. You can find a lot of boxes here that weigh more than 20 kilos. If you work near the lorries, you’re lifting even heavier boxes. My colleague was complaining about the pain he feels unloading the lorries every day, and he asked for a rotation to a different part of the warehouse, but the management didn’t accept it. That happens often.’
In her time organising in Coventry, Rachel has heard shocking stories of workplace accidents at the Amazon warehouse. ‘There was a lady that pulled a tote, which is the little boxes, from a stack. As she pulled it off the stack, it hit her in the chest, and she had a heart attack. Straight there. You couldn’t call an ambulance straight away; you’d have to go and ask a team leader to phone an ambulance, so you spend 5 minutes looking for somebody while someone is on the floor dying from a heart attack.’
Rachel tells me that the Amazon warehouse in Coventry isn’t an old building, but it’s been under so much strain from the amount of work going through it that it’s falling apart. ‘A massive bracket chunk of metal fell off the ceiling and landed on this lady’s head. It nearly split this lady’s head in half. She survived, but the trauma and pain that she must have gone through and the scars that she slept with, not just physically but emotionally and mentally as well—it’s just atrocious. And the amount of time that she had to take off work as a result of it is just terrible.’
I return to the picket line on a Thursday morning. At the GMB tent, more workers are signing up to join the union. Back at the GMB registration tent, Amanda Gearing, senior organiser at the GMB, says turnout is higher today than Tuesday. ‘We have had people contact us from other warehouses. We’ll start to see this spread soon.’
The Amazon warehouse in Tilbury, Essex is being touted as the next warehouse to engage in strike action—this was the first warehouse where wildcat strikes occurred last year over a measly 35p pay rise. Rachel Fagan tells Tribune that the Amazon warehouse in Mansfield has also seen an increase in union membership. ‘There’s a strong core of leaders that are coming out. We met with them last night. Every time we do something like this, more people reach out to the union and say we want to do this too. We’ll continue to grow—and we’ll continue to fight.’ ‘I know my colleagues in the London region are looking at Tilbury for us,’ says Stuart Richards. ‘We’re going to be looking at a few sites in the Midlands; we’ve got three listed that we’re targeting and building a core group of natural leaders.’
Solidarity has also poured in internationally, with the Amazon Labour Union from the United States sharing statements of support. ‘We’ve got an online meeting between Chris Smalls and some of our members on Friday. We’re hoping at some point we can get some of the ALU guys down to the picket lines,’ says Stuart Richards.
‘The name of the game is actually tackling Amazon as an employer. We can only do that by working in solidarity, not just in the UK but across the globe. If we can do that, then we’re winning the battle.’ Rachel concurs; ‘The plan is to get some industrial action that brings us together globally. Because the exploitation of Amazon workers is a global problem. Before you know it, we’ll have recognition popping up all over the place across the UK, and that’s the dream. And it’s not the dream for me. It’s their dream for them. That’s what they want as workers.’