Coventry was once known as the Midlands Motor City. Home to Daimler, the UK’s first car maker and later Jaguar, the city thrived in post-war Britain. But the boom wasn’t to last. From the 1970s, car production significantly declined and unemployment rose. Today, Coventry’s great motoring marques are no more. The closure of the Jaguar plant in 2004, and with it the loss of 2,000 jobs, was the final nail in the coffin.
In many ways, Coventry is a microcosm of Britain’s deindustrialisation. Where there was once strongly unionised, well-paid and stable employment, there are now low-paid, insecure jobs. Browns Lane, once the home of the city’s Jaguar plant, epitomises this shift. In 2018, Amazon opened a warehouse at the site with a floorspace the size of twenty-four football pitches. The assembly lines that once carried bodies, engines and other car components now carry large volumes of goods. The work is fast-paced, with nearly 1,400 workers handling tens of thousands of goods across nine miles of conveyor belts.
Amazon is the largest online retailer in the world and one of the largest and richest employers in the UK. Its employees, by contrast, undertake physically demanding work for pitifully low pay. That’s why in August last year, its workers took a stand. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, Amazon workers coordinated wildcat strikes across a number of sites through telegram chats. It all started in Tilbury, Essex, when workers rejected an insulting 35p pay rise, before spreading to sites including Rugby, Rugeley, Doncaster, Bristol and, of course, Coventry.
The strikes weren’t to last longer than a few weeks, but they demonstrated the strength and feeling of Amazon workers across the country. While organising dissipated at other sites, in Coventry, things were only getting started.
The GMB has been organising at Amazon warehouses for over ten years. With a high staff turnover and an inherent anti-union culture, this is no easy feat. In Coventry, the union had around twenty members during the wildcat strikes, who organised a demonstration in Coventry city centre, attended by GMB organisers like Amanda Gearing.
‘We were able to move quickly. Get down there, find the natural workplace leaders, do strike schools and get to the point where we have the numbers for an official strike.‘ There was so much interest in joining the union that organisers had to create a second WhatsApp group. During training sessions, workers mapped the site with union organisers. They discussed the importance of engaging workers from different communities and identifying workplace leaders who reflect the diversity of the workforce.
Strike while the iron is hot was the thinking. And strike they did. In January 2023, after months of solid organising in and outside the Coventry warehouse, workers took part in the UK’s first-ever formal Amazon strike. It was a historic moment for the British labour movement.
‘The key thing we’ve done is have a fight about an issue. We haven’t said to the employer, “Please, please recognise us; we’re nice!” Or “Join the union because if you get in trouble, we can look after you.” It’s been a collective fight on pay,’ says Tom, a GMB organiser in the West Midlands. Tom describes an organising approach that has been sorely lacking in many other sectors but one that has led to a more than 2,000 percent increase in union density at the Amazon warehouse in Coventry in less than a year. When the first formal Amazon strike in British history took place in January, GMB recruited hundreds of Amazon workers. During subsequent waves of strikes, members have been recruited on the picket lines, and the union has significantly bolstered its ranks, more than doubling its membership.
Tribune covered the second formal strike in March, where picket lines were louder and an increasingly confident workforce took the lead.
‘I’ve never been on the picket line in my sixteen years as a trade union organiser where we’ve had this amount of people joining the union’ says Amanda. It is now workers who take the initiative on the picket lines. ‘We have at least 200 people on the pickets,’ says Darren Westwood, an Amazon worker at the site. ‘They’ll grab a flag or banner and literally march on the street, stopping every car and getting their friends to join up.’
The organising approach taken by the GMB Midlands team has proven successful in the past. ‘Just before Christmas, we did a small version of what we’re doing at Amazon at CNC Speedwell, a manufacturing place in the Black country,’ explains Tom. The workforce consisted mainly of Polish and South Asian workers who were paid £3 an hour less than those working for the same company doing similar work at a site on the other side of the road.
Instead of making an equal pay claim that could take several years, the union launched a campaign for a £3 pay rise. In the end, the workers won an additional £2 an hour—equivalent to a 20 percent pay rise—and the union was recognised. ‘Things have clicked with us. You get a fight started and you build the recognition around the fight, not around the general abstract idea of having a union. It has to be concrete and focused on something.’
Today, after sixteen days of strike action, the GMB union has over 700 members at Amazon’s Coventry site and is on the brink of historic union recognition. More than half the workforce are now members of the union—above the 50 percent threshold required for recognition. GMB has started the statutory process for recognition through the Central Arbitration Committee, paving the way for collective bargaining over pay, terms and conditions.
The ground-breaking campaign, however, is not ending there. Further strikes have been called in Coventry for mid-June, while Amazon workers in Rugeley and Mansfield are being balloted on strike action for the first time.
The significance of this organising effort should not be understated. By making inroads into one of the world’s most notorious anti-union companies, workers are showing that it is possible to expand union power even in the most hostile of environments. The organising at Amazon is also bucking a national wider trend of declining trade union membership—down from 13 million in 1979 to just 6.2 million today, with the fall most severe in the private sector—demonstrating why the battle to unionise Amazon is so significant for the future of the British trade union movement.
The Battle Ahead
During strikes in March, Amazon workers took a minibus to other sites in the region to engage with workers. Darren went to a site in Coalville. Engaging with workers was quite easy, although security arrived straight away, and a new ‘no trespassing’ sign was put up just in time for their arrival. It was, of course, no surprise to Darren and his colleagues, who’d seen these tactics deployed at their own warehouse.
‘The workers were asking so many questions. They were so intrigued,’ recalls Darren. ‘We had people asking questions about what we were doing and how we were being treated. And I said, “Overall, it’s the same. Managers tend to go quiet after a while.”’
Every six months, Amazon workers at various sites have an all-hands meeting. The floor used to be open for questions, but since organising efforts in Coventry, questions can only be submitted in advance and pay can’t be discussed. ‘In Coalville, they told us they were only allowed to discuss questions that didn’t include pay or Coventry,’ he chuckles. ‘They want Coventry off the map because they don’t want our story getting out.’
When Darren attempted to organise workers in November and December last year, he says managers constantly followed him around. Every day he felt his job was at risk and would only speak to the press under a pseudonym. Now, he says, things are changing. Managers will simply avoid eye contact with him. ‘I’m not scared anymore. We’ve got hundreds of people behind us and we’re the majority in the building. Even if they get rid of me, there are others willing to pick up the baton.’
At times, trade unions have pursued what is described as a ‘service-model approach’, where employers agree to recognise a workplace union and make some concessions in return for the union dropping some of its demands and maintaining a friendlier, less adversarial relationship with bosses—often attracting criticism from rank-and-file members.
Amanda recognises this concern but emphasises that organising at Amazon is and will continue to be member-led. ‘The most important thing is listening to our members about what they really want. They’re going to elect whoever they want in those positions. It won’t be me. It will be they who decide where we go next. They’ll be doing the negotiations. They’ll be doing the representations day-to-day. They’ll be setting up the health and safety committees.’ Darren concurs, ‘The GMB organisers are there to support us to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, but, ultimately, we are the union.’
This approach, with workers taking the lead, has proved beneficial thus far. Workers choose strike dates and take the lead on picket lines. Workers like Darren have also received training and now represent their fellow colleagues when it comes to disciplinaries. He recently represented someone who was clocked out and sent home as punishment for raising a health and safety concern. He was later issued with a verbal warning and approached Darren to say he had a right to appeal. ‘I said damn right we’re going to appeal it. There’s no way this can be right. If someone says they don’t feel safe, you can’t send that person home and discipline them.’ With disciplinaries being quashed left, right and centre, union membership continues to grow as workers see the difference first-hand.
While the union has made significant progress, Darren acknowledges there is a long way to go. Some workers simply feel unable to join the union and get involved, however much they want a pay rise.
Darren had attempted to get a fellow worker to join the union for a very long time. On one occasion, they had a long chat where his predicament became clear. ‘He’s on a visa and has to prove he can maintain his wages. His wages can’t dip below a certain level. If he strikes, he won’t get paid for days off and he’s worried it could affect his citizenship application,’ explains Darren.
80 percent of workers at the warehouse are migrants and the workforce is incredibly diverse, with workers from Eritrea, Pakistan, Romania, Poland, and Nigeria, to name a few. One of the most positive changes Darren has noticed is the way workers from different backgrounds have become good friends through organising together. ‘Before, the Romanians would tend to stick to themselves and the Eritreans would have their own little group. You’d see canteen tables by nationality. Now, you see workers from different backgrounds shaking hands, having a laugh and having a coffee together. You see it even more on the picket lines. It’s amazing to see.’
The signs are promising but Amazon is determined to push back. Workers report that over 1,000 non-unionised workers, primarily from India, have been recruited in a bid to halt union recognition. They have allegedly been told not to engage with the union.
‘They are on student visas, contracted to work twenty hours a week, and they’ve been employed in Tilbury, Coventry, Mansfield and Coalville—anywhere there are dissenting voices,’ explains Darren. Darren attempted to engage with these workers during their induction day. ‘The instructor tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t speak to these workers. They’ve been warned not to speak to you,”’ he tells Tribune.
There has been no significant increase in demand and Amazon doesn’t usually take additional workers on before a peak season, instead opting for increased overtime. Amazon workers, therefore, see this as a cynical attempt to prevent unionisation—and it’s not the first time either. The company spent $14 million on anti-union consultants in 2022 alone, and, in 2001, Amazon fended off a union recognition bid by the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, which is now part of Unite, at a warehouse in Milton Keynes. At the time, the union reported the dismissal of union activists and the circulation of anti-union propaganda. The company had reportedly hired the US union-busting consultancy organisation Burke Group to assist in its efforts, according to a 2008 TUC study.
Workers and organisers alike always knew the battle to unionise Amazon would be an uphill struggle and hold no illusions about the scale of the challenge, but they’re determined to keep fighting. As Darren says, ‘We can’t walk away. This is a marathon, not a sprint—and it’s personal.’