The Rebellion Amazon Can No Longer Ignore

The Rebellion Amazon Can No Longer Ignore

Last time Amazon employee Darren Westwood was on strike, Amazon didn’t exist. He was working as a train guard and it was the 1980s—the only other time in recent British history when inflation surged past 9 percent.  

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, he's on the picket line again outside Amazon’s giant Coventry warehouse, where he gets paid £10.46 ($12.90) per hour to work alongside a fleet of robots. Westwood, a member of the UK’s GMB Union, is here to campaign for higher pay. “When we started this protest, I think inflation was at 6 percent. Now we’re at 10.5 percent and people can't cope,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel fair. We’re doing 40 hours a week, stood up for 10 hours a day. And I'm still struggling to pay my bills.” 

Westwood is among a group of Amazon day shift employees, union representatives and TV cameras, waiting in nervous silence to see if workers on the night shift will be bold enough to walk away from their workstations. A few minutes after midnight, four figures emerge from the mist and the crowd waiting for them erupts into cheers and applause. Others follow, walking in small groups. These are the first Amazon workers to officially go on strike in the UK. Among them is Mal (who declines to give his surname). “We are trying to fight for a pay rise,” he says. Thaddeus, who has worked at Amazon for three years, agrees. 

“Hopefully this strike will have a domino effect,” says Westwood, who is hoping other warehouses will follow Coventry’s example. The Coventry strike is expected to last for 24 hours, but organizers could announce further dates. 

Getting to this point has been a slog: Employees in the UK can’t just walk off the job—first a union has to mail ballots to workers’ homes then persuade a majority to return them, voting in favor of a strike. 

But the union's success overcoming this bureaucracy in Coventry has piqued the interest of Amazon workers around the world, who are trying to organize a global movement to challenge the company. As Amazon’s third largest market (after the US and Germany), unions consider the UK as a critical cog in the mission to internationalize the company’s workers movement. “I know they’re watching,” says Westwood, adding he has received messages of support from France and Germany. 

Workers in those countries know they are more likely to force Amazon to the negotiating table if unions in multiple countries can strike at once. “Amazon is an international company and they react to strikes in one country by relying on fulfillment centers in another,” says André Scheer, secretary at German union Verdi. When Amazon workers strike in Germany, customers’ packages filter into the country from next door Poland or the Czech Republic instead. 

The Coventry strike takes place the same week that Amazon workers from Germany, Poland, Canada, the US, France and Spain convened in Geneva to plan further protests. Unions now are looking to build on the success of coordinated Black Friday protests against Amazon in November, which rippled through more than 30 countries from Costa Rica to Luxembourg, according to UNI Global, an international union involved in the #MakeAmazonPay campaign. 

The Coventry strike is not the first time UK Amazon workers have publicly complained about pay and working conditions. In August, employees at warehouses across the country held unofficial protests in warehouse canteens. But compared to other countries, the UK organizing efforts have had a slow start. Amazon workers in central Germany have been striking on and off for a decade, while a Staten Island warehouse became the first US site to unionize in April 2022. 

Employees in the Coventry warehouse right now receive around £10.50 ($13) an hour. But the union representing them, GMB, is calling for that figure to rise to £15 per hour, which would make UK workers’ wages equivalent to the $18 hourly rate their US colleagues receive. Amazon’s local regional director, Neil Travis, describes the company’s pay as competitive—either inline with or higher than similar jobs locally. Yet many staff here worked through the pandemic—a period during which Amazon saw quarterly profits triple—and argue they have earned that pay rise. 

Even on the other side of the pandemic, long days are still taking their toll on Westwood. He says his shoulder aches at night, after more than three years moving pallets inside the Coventry warehouse. But the 57-year-old is also concerned about the management culture inside Amazon. “How the management treats people is shocking.” He says he was recently told off for leaning against a wall and catching his breath. When he objected—”This isn’t the army!”—he says he was told by his manager the conversation had been “logged”; immortalized on his record. 

For others, that management style is epitomized by the surveillance software workers say Amazon uses to track their performance. Garfield Hylton, also a GMB union member, describes his working day at Amazon as haunted by a number; what he calls his “rate”. Every morning, and again in the afternoon, a manager walks up to him to tell him how productive he has been according to the company’s algorithms. 

Usually he gets a 60 or 70 percent productivity rate. Sometimes it sinks lower. He doesn't know how the system works, but he claims it doesn't care if he's sick or if the supermarket-style hand scanner he uses malfunctions. He says his productivity is assessed relative to his colleagues and if he ranks among the bottom 25 percent, he will receive a verbal warning from management. Workers who receive three of these warnings in a six-week period must have a formal one-to-one with managers. That's why he never works a shift without taking detailed notes. He has a red and white spiral-bound notebook, which he uses to write down the IT glitches or other problems that might affect his productivity—so he can defend himself in these sessions.

“Like most companies, we have a system at Amazon that recognises great performance and also encourages coaching to help employees improve if they are not meeting their performance goals,” says Amazon’s Travis. “Performance metrics are regularly evaluated and built on benchmarks based on actual attainable employee performance history.” Employees would not be coached for having a single tough day and they are free to log out of the system at any time, which would pause the performance management tool, he adds. 

Foxglove, a UK-based tech workers advocacy group, has complained to the country’s parliament about the failure of Amazon to be transparent about this system. The group is hoping to replicate the success of German Amazon workers at a warehouse in Winsen, Lower Saxony, whose campaign against productivity tracking software resulted in the state commissioner for data protection prohibiting the site from “continuously collecting and using up-to-the-minute quantity and quality performance data from its employees.” 

Trade union leaders claim that Amazon does not negotiate with trade unions in markets across Europe—something Stuart Richards, senior organizer with GMB Midlands, describes as extremely unusual. Scheer, of the German union Verdi, says the same, even though Amazon workers in the country have been striking on and off since 2013. Another similarity is how unions say Amazon tries to undermine strike efforts. Scheer says German workers on temporary contracts were let go by the company, while in Coventry Westwood claims four of the union’s most-active members were offered promotions soon after the strike was announced. “Employees are free to join a union—they always have been,” says Travis. 

Despite the fanfare surrounding the strike, Amazon lorries stream undeterred up and down the road connecting the Coventry warehouse to the rest of the UK. But the Amazon workers here are hoping that this is only the beginning and the rage motivating them to strike will spread across the country and then further, creating an international movement that Amazon is forced to listen to. GMB’s Richards believe this is crucial to get what they are asking for. “Because Amazon is a huge global, multinational company, the only way we’re going to be successful is when we're able to get organized workers in every Amazon fulfillment center,” he says.

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