The Guardian

Black Friday strike could mark the beginning of the end for Amazon’s war on unionisation

More GMB members, cross-border action and a probable Labour government may bring better times for staff, says Heather Stewart

Ten months after their first historic walkout, GMB members at Amazon’s huge Coventry warehouse are staging a 28th day of strike action this week, to coincide with Black Friday.

The seeds of the dispute were sown in the summer of 2022, when some staff reacted furiously to being told their pay would rise by 50p an hour, taking the basic rate to £10.50.

Since then, as they honed their tactics at a string of “strike schools” run by the union, the Amazon workers have won the support of local MP Taiwo Owateme and former US presidential contender Bernie Sanders.

On Friday, they will be joined by Amazon workers from Germany, Italy and the US, a move designed to underline unions’ growing belief that confronting the global tech giant takes cross-border collaboration.

An international campaign, called Make Amazon Pay, has brought together activists from many countries to make the case for better conditions inside the company’s vast warehouses, and to highlight its practices in other areas, such as tax and competition.

“Workers know that it doesn’t matter what country you’re in or what your job title is, we are all united in the fight for wages with dignity and a voice on the job. That’s what workers in Coventry are striking for, and that is why workers around the world are standing up to Make Amazon Pay,” said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of the UNI global union.

So far the coalition has taken action in 130 countries, with 80 unions involved.

The Coventry staff have asked for pay of £15 an hour and a seat at the management table. They have not achieved either, though after several pay rises since their crusade began, the minimum rate is now £11.80.

But union membership within Amazon has continued to grow. Local GMB organisers have been heartened by the spirit of solidarity that has sprung up within a previously atomised workforce that spans many languages and cultures.

“We’ve started to grow, not just in Coventry but in lots of other areas,” says GMB regional organiser Stuart Richards. “When they get together it’s amazing, because the conversations just take off. It’s that recognition: it’s not just us.”

The union recently announced that its members at BHX4 – as Amazon’s huge Coventry warehouse is known – now number 1,000, five times what it had before the first UK Amazon strike, in January. The GMB made a bid for formal recognition at the plant in May, believing it represented well over the 50% of staff necessary for the independent Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) to support the request.

It had to withdraw the application, however, after the CAC was understood to have accepted Amazon’s claim that there were as many as 2,700 workers on the payroll.

The GMB accused Amazon of going on a concerted hiring spree to “bust the union” – a claim the company firmly denied, insisting any recruitment was due to normal business requirements.

Union organisers have not ruled out making another attempt to win recognition at some future date, if they believe they have reached the 50% threshold.

Amazon has consistently insisted that the rolling programme of strikes has little impact on its Coventry operations – rather than being a fulfilment centre, dispatching goods directly to consumers’ doorsteps, BHX4 supplies the company’s other warehouses.

Amazon insists it does not need to recognise a union to treat its staff well. “We always strive to be better, and while we know we’ve got more work to do, we’re proud of the progress we’ve made,” a spokesperson said recently.

“We offer great pay and benefi and provide a modern and safe working environment, which anyone is welcome to see by taking a tour of one of our buildings.”

But if next year’s general election result is anything close to what present polling would suggest, Amazon may be on borrowed time in holding out against union representation.

Labour is promising new proworker legislation within 100 days of coming to power – including making it easier for unions to organise.

The party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, named and shamed Amazon directly when she told the TUC’s annual congress in Liverpool that a Labour government would change the rules to make recognition more straightforward.

“As we have seen with Amazon, a small minority of employers are taking advantage of the lack of regulations to frustrate the process,” she told trade unionists in September.

For the time being though, Richards and the hundreds of Amazon workers preparing to go on strike will be out in the cold and dark next Friday morning – still demanding better pay, and a seat around the table.

Business & Cash