Last summer, as Britain’s inflation rate reached 10 percent, Amazon gave its workers there a pay raise. At a warehouse in Coventry, in the Midlands of England, the offer was for an extra 50 pence (about 63 cents) an hour, or about 5 percent.
If the increase was designed to relieve employees’ concerns about surging prices and household bills, it backfired. Insulted by the size of the raise, Amazon workers at several fulfillment centers and warehouses stopped working in protest, sharing videos on TikTok of sit-ins in staff canteens.
In Coventry, workers have gone further: Hundreds of them have joined a nationwide union, held formal strikes and pushed to have Amazon recognize the union so they can take part in collective bargaining. If this effort succeeds, it will be the first recognized union at an Amazon facility in Britain.
“I don’t think anyone thought it would get to this,” Marie Grimmett said in late May, on the day of the 16th strike action this year outside the Coventry warehouse, where she has worked for more than four years. The 50-pence pay increase was the catalyst, she said, adding, “They expected us to be really grateful.”
But union organizing efforts can take years, and the campaign in Coventry suffered a major setback last week when the union withdrew its application for recognition just weeks after it was submitted. It accused Amazon of “dirty tricks” by hiring over 1,000 new employees, a move that significantly shrank the share of union members at that site to under 50 percent, a crucial threshold.
Amazon firmly rejected this claim, implying that the union misjudged how many people work at the warehouse. The union said it would continue adding workers to its rolls and resubmit the application as soon as it could.
Unionization efforts have been going on for years in Amazon workplaces, particularly in the United States, driven by complaints about safety and low pay for long hours. Amazon has fiercely resisted these campaigns, arguing that it already offers competitive pay and benefits, including health care coverage. A warehouse on Staten Island, N.Y., remains its only unionized facility in the United States. A labor union in Germany has been trying to get collective bargaining powers for 10 years.
Amazon has about 75,000 workers in Britain. The workers in Coventry aren’t just up against a powerful and rich company with a long history of successfully opposing unionization, but are organizing while the government is showing more hostility to unions and is trying to curb strikes with new legislation. Last year, the country recorded the most working days lost to strikes in more than 30 years.
At the Coventry warehouse, where workers break down large shipments to be sent to other fulfillment centers, employees have joined the GMB Union, a 130-year-old organization that has more than 500,000 members in a variety of occupations. (Its name comes from early initials for its membership: General, Municipal, Boilermakers.) They went on strike for the first time in January after members approved the action through a mail-in ballot late last year, after an earlier ballot failed.
Their chief demand: 15 pounds, about $18.60, an hour. (Amazon’s starting salaries in Britain are £11 to £12 an hour, depending on location, up from £10 to £11 last summer.)
The workers’ other, more recent goal is forcing Amazon to negotiate with the union.
After more than 700 employees joined GMB, the union submitted a request to Amazon for voluntary recognition in late April, believing that its members represented at least half the work force, which had been reported last year as about 1,400. Recognition would allow the union to collectively negotiate on pay, holidays and other working conditions for all employees at the warehouse.
Amazon rejected the request, and the application was submitted to the Central Arbitration Committee, a government body, in early May to determine if the workers had met the conditions for union recognition.
But on Thursday, the GMB abruptly said it had withdrawn its bid because Amazon reported to the arbitration committee that it had 2,700 workers, putting the union membership closer to 25 percent. Rather than risk the bid’s failing, the union withdrew it.
Amanda Gearing, an organizer for GMB, said the application would be resubmitted when it had the right number of union members.
“People still have the same energy about the dispute,” she said, adding that the group would proceed as quickly as possible. The union said 30 more workers joined on Monday.
Amazon said reports that it had 1,400 workers in Coventry hadn’t originated with the company, and it rejected the claim that it had hired workers in recent months to thwart the union’s bid.
“We regularly recruit new team members across the country and across the year, providing great new career opportunities for thousands of people and to meet customer demand,” said Tim Hobden, a spokesman for Amazon. “This year is no different.”
Amazon respects “our employees’ rights to join, or not to join, a union,” he said. “We offer competitive pay, comprehensive benefits, opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment.”
In the past nine months, he said, Amazon has raised its minimum pay 10 percent, with increases in August and March.
While the union recognition bid has stalled, the strikes in Coventry continued this week.
At an earlier strike action, about two weeks ago, warehouse workers started gathering outside the gate before 6:30 a.m. Over the next two hours, union members encouraged colleagues driving into the warehouse to slow down, open their windows and take leaflets — or, preferably, to stop their cars, get out and register to join on the spot. Reflecting the warehouse’s diverse and large migrant work force, the leaflets provide information in eight languages, including Polish, Somali, Romanian and Hindi.
“They expect from us more, more, more but give us nothing,” said Kasia, one of the warehouse workers handing out leaflets. She asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisal from Amazon management. She said she had joined the union last year after she had an issue with her manager and was unhappy with how it was handled.
On the picket line, many workers said the same thing: “We work hard.” They said their effort — especially during the worst of the Covid pandemic, when demand for Amazon’s services soared — hadn’t been properly rewarded. Instead, there is a strict focus on productivity, employees said, and absences for injuries are dealt with by rigid policies that include management warnings rather than with compassion.
The organizing effort in Coventry comes despite a fall in union membership in Britain, which stood at 6.25 million last year, the lowest since 2017. Membership is below half the peak of 13.2 million in 1979. But since last summer, there has been more industrial action across Britain than at any time in the past three decades and noticeable disruption to public services from nurses, doctors, rail workers, teachers and others walking off the job.
“It makes a difference when workers see other groups of workers beyond themselves taking industrial action,” said Jane Holgate, professor of work and employment relations at the University of Leeds. It provides “a broader sense of solidarity with workers who are suffering the same way that they are.” And with inflation rising much faster than pay, many workers have made the calculation that they’ve “not got much to lose,” she added.
Still, union action can be a tough sell. Ballots to approve strikes at Amazon sites in Rugeley and Mansfield, both in the Midlands like Coventry, failed last week. The GMB union started organizing in Rugeley a decade ago.
In Coventry, the Amazon workers have taken their organizing efforts in Britain the furthest of any company site, but they may still have a long way to go.
Besides higher pay, some of the workers on strike in Coventry last month said they wanted health and safety procedures to be improved, given that the work involves moving quickly to sort and lift packages.
“They talk about safety being No. 1; it’s not,” said Nick Henderson, who started working at Amazon six years ago and joined GMB in January, after he complained about a manager and felt the company didn’t take it seriously. “Productivity is No. 1.”