But the union’s success in overcoming that red tape in Coventry has sparked 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 see the UK as a critical cog in the company’s mission to internationalize its workforce. “I know they’re watching,” Westwood says, adding that he has received messages of support from France and Germany.
Workers in these countries know that they are more likely to force Amazon to the bargaining table if unions in multiple countries can strike at the same time. “Amazon is an international company and they respond to strikes in one country by relying on fulfillment centers in another,” says Andre Scheer, secretary of Germany’s Verdi union. When Amazon workers go on strike in Germany, customer packages arrive in the country from neighboring Poland or the Czech Republic.
The Coventry strike comes in the same week as Amazon workers from Germany, Poland, Canada, the US, France and Spain. convened in Geneva to plan further protests. Unions are now looking to build on the success of the coordinated Black Friday protests against Amazon in November, which reached more than 30 countries from Costa Rica to Luxembourg, according to UNI Global, the international union involved in the #MakeAmazonPay campaign.
The strike in Coventry is not the first time British Amazon workers have publicly complained about pay and working conditions. In August, warehouse workers across the country held unofficial protests in warehouse canteens. But compared to other countries, Britain started slowly. Amazon workers in central Germany have been on strike and locked out for a decade, and the Staten Island warehouse became the first U.S. facility to unionize in April 2022.
Warehouse workers in Coventry currently earn around £10.50 ($13) an hour. But the union that represents them, the GMB, is calling for the figure to be increased to £15 an hour, which would put British workers on the equivalent of the $18 an hour earned by their American counterparts. Amazon’s local regional director, Neil Travis, describes the company’s pay as competitive – either matching or exceeding similar jobs locally. However, many employees here have worked through the pandemic — a period during which Amazon’s quarterly profits tripled — and claim they have earned that pay raise.
Even on the other side of the pandemic, the long days are still taking their toll. He says his shoulder hurts at night after more than three years of moving pallets in a warehouse in Coventry. But the 57-year-old is also concerned about the management culture inside Amazon. “The way 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 is not the army!” — he says his manager said the conversation was “recorded”; immortalized on his record.
For others, this management style is embodied in the surveillance software that Amazon uses to track their performance. Garfield Hilton, also a member of the GMB union, describes his working day at Amazon as haunted by numbers; what he calls his “bet.” Every morning and afternoon, a manager approaches him to tell him how productive he has been according to the company’s algorithms.