Today marks the first ever official strike at Amazon in the UK, it started at one minute past midnight and will run for the entirety of the day. GMB, after falling short by three votes in September, has secured a mandate for strike action, valid until the middle of June. Nominally, the strike is a pay dispute, calling for a wage of £15 an hour, though there is more than just pay driving this dispute. It is worth considering what led to this strike and what may happen during the future.

Although the spark for action comes from Amazon offering its employees a pay rise of only an additional 50p an hour (Amazon’s stock response to media inquiries is that their pay starts at £10.50, from the 1st of April minimum wage will be £10.42) that is only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Amanda Gearing, one of the GMB organisers responsible for Coventry Amazon said that the seeds of this dispute were sown primarily during and after the Covid lockdowns. Gearing admitted GMB had been trying to organise in Amazon for the best part of the last decade but had experienced little success. According to GMB, despite notice of industrial action, Amazon still refuses to go to ACAS as part of this dispute and has not responded to their written communications. The pandemic shifted attitudes among Amazon workers, if not the company itself, demand increased during the pandemic and the reward for working was as minuscule as before. The workplace culture at Amazon was already infamous, but an increasingly aggravated post-lockdown workforce drove unofficial action across different sites in the Summer when Amazon told its workers they would only receive a 50p-per-hour pay rise.

This account is supported by workers at Amazon, much of it has been detailed before, but is worth repeating. Darren, a worker at Amazon Coventry and a GMB member, said that he believed that ‘Adapts’ (a disciplinary measure at Amazon that is a verbal warning that lasts for six weeks) were being used by Amazon managers to unfairly target and bully workers who are often on their feet for ten hours a day. Another Amazon worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said that they too felt there “was a culture of bullying”, and thinks that a lot of the workers at the site do not know their legal employment rights and that this is taken advantage of and that the “safety in the building is awful”. They added that they think being part of the union has made them “more of a target” but they believe that it is worth the risk. Both the workers agreed that working conditions were better at the Coventry site when they started, and both think if Amazon had offered a pay rise of £12 to £12.50 an hour minimum (as it did briefly in 2020 as it responded to pandemic demands) it would not have provoked the same backlash from the staff.

Spotting an opportunity, GMB made sure to increase its efforts to be visible outside Amazon sites. Consequently, GMB membership at the Coventry site has rapidly grown (it was only around thirty workers in July) and now accounts for approximately a quarter of the workforce. Gearing did explain that the number of workers employed at the site varies because of the use of fixed-term contracts, and GMB do not precisely know how many employees there currently are. However, Gearing said GMB now has workplace leaders numbering in double digits who, between them, represent different nationalities and speak multiple languages. This is a positive sign as increased membership is pointless without shopfloor leaders. The presence of a successful industrial action ballot means that even workers who are not union members can partake in industrial action with GMB members and are afforded the same statutory immunities granted to them. 

GMB’s recent change in fortunes is not to say that membership growth and passing the ballot threshold of fifty percent was easy. Many Amazon workers live in shared accommodation meaning that the legally mandated postal ballot is not the best way of reaching them and the multicultural nature of Amazon’s workforce means that many of the employees speak different languages and have different views of unions (with some having immigrated from countries where unions are not independent and are controlled by the state). One method that helped increase turnout was members posting in a mass WhatsApp chat whenever one of them posted their ballot (suitably anonymised) to show they had voted and to encourage others to do so. Another was that GMB made sure the balloting envelope was bright orange so it would stand out in the rest of the post. While measures such as these helped, there was no silver-bullet, and most measures were not revolutionary, the main driver of the ballots in favour of action were the conditions and people on the shopfloor. 

The main purpose of the action today is to promote the union’s presence and demonstrate to Amazon and its workers (at Coventry and the rest of the UK) that the union is, and will continue to be, present and in a strong position to support workers. GMB will hope it encourages more Amazon employees to join them as members. As well as this, the strike will also cause reputational damage to Amazon, which may be useful later in the dispute. Gearing says that the action will be taking place in spite of what GMB consider to be “union busting” efforts by Amazon. GMB say that this included Amazon offering staff a £500 incentive, with £250 of this linked to attending work during strike days. Gearing adds that GMB would not be surprised if Amazon attempted to do this again. If GMB reaches 50% membership at the Coventry site then it will be in a strong position to pursue the arduous process of statutory recognition, although this may be complicated by the fact that it is unclear just how many workers constitute the Coventry bargaining unit due to the number of fixed-term contracts. 

In the long term, action will be more about having a tangible impact on Amazon’s output. Another GMB member at Amazon said that they felt this would only be possible with prolonged action of at least a week for it to impact Amazon’s capacity to distribute goods. In this sense the dispute more closely resembles those from pre-deindustrialised Britain: the employer wants to get material goods out of its factory, the union wants to stop this happening. Thus, the action will focus on trying to target specific days in the calendar. For instance, if the September ballot had been successful then action would have occurred on Black Friday in December. However, anti-union legislation does pose an obstacle, as GMB will have to give Amazon two weeks’ notice of any action. This gives Amazon time to move production to another site, as it did in September (Amazon mistakenly thought that a strike could occur as soon as the ballot closed, demonstrating an impressive level of ignorance) when it moved goods to the Doncaster site, albeit with mixed results.

The Coventry and Doncaster sites (BHX4 and LBA4) are particularly important in any prolonged dispute. Darren explained that these are cross-dock sites (at the time of the interview there were the only two in the UK), meaning goods go to them before being prepared and sent to other Amazon fulfilment centres. There are not many of these in Europe, Darren stated that, as far as he knew, the only one in Europe outside the UK is in Dortmund, Germany (demonstrating the need for internationalism in the Labour movement). Even if the precise number of cross-dock sites is unclear, what is clear is that they are Amazon’s distributive choke points. Interestingly, since Darren’s comments, Amazon has announced the opening of a new cross-dock site in Stockton, meaning that there are now three in the UK. If ballots can be secured at the other cross-dock sites, then Amazon will experience substantial disruption that it will have to navigate. 

GMB have done well to achieve a successful ballot and have given the already present worker activism an official outlet. In doing so they have overcome the obstacles of an insecure and diverse workforce, anti-union legislation, and a hostile, agile employer. However, the dispute is far from over. The main challenges for GMB in the future will be increasing worker participation at Coventry, and successfully balloting at other cross-dock sites. This is the beginning of a long dispute that will probably require a reballot to secure a mandate for another 6 months of action. The current unknown is how Amazon will respond in the future; as demonstrated by the situation in the US, a response is unavoidable. Up until this point, Amazon, in the UK at least, has only had to contend with employees attempting to form unions. Now, like many employers, it is having to engage in industrial disputes with unions for the first time, whether this inexperience makes it vulnerable or dangerous remains to be seen.  

Amazon were approached for comment.