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The rebellion that Amazon can no longer ignore

Early Wednesday morning, he’s back on the picket line outside Amazon’s giant Coventry warehouse, where he’s being paid £10.46 ($12.90) an 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 6%. Now we are at 10.5% and people are not making it,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel right. We’re doing 40 hours a week, we’re on our feet 10 hours a day. And I’m still struggling to pay my bills.

Westwood is one of a group of Amazon day shift workers, union representatives and television cameras, waiting in nervous silence to see if the night shift workers will be brave enough to step away from their workstations. A few minutes after midnight, four figures emerge from the mist and the crowd awaiting them erupts in cheers and cheers. 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 refuses to give his surname). “We’re trying to fight for a pay raise,” he says. Thaddeus, who worked at Amazon for three years, agrees.

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

Getting to this point was a slogan: employees in the UK can’t just walk away from their jobs: first a union must mail ballots to workers’ homes, then get the majority to return them, voting for a strike.

But the union’s success in overcoming this red tape 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 see the UK as a key cog in the company’s mission to internationalize the labor movement. “I know they’re watching,” Westwood says, adding that 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 the same time. “Amazon is an international company and reacts to strikes in one country by relying on fulfillment centers in another,” says André Scheer, secretary of the German trade union Verdi. When Amazon workers go on strike in Germany, customers’ packages filter into the country from neighboring Poland or the Czech Republic.

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

The Coventry strike isn’t the first time Amazon workers in the UK have publicly complained about pay and working conditions. In August, warehouse employees across the country held unofficial protests in warehouse canteens. But compared to other countries, the UK’s organizing efforts got off to a slow start. Amazon workers in central Germany they struck off and on for a decade, while a Staten Island warehouse became the first site in the United States to do so unionize in April 2022.

Employees at the Coventry warehouse right now receive around £10.50 ($13) an hour. But their union, GMB, is calling for that figure to be raised to £15 an hour, which would make UK workers’ wages equivalent to the $18 hourly rate their US colleagues receive. Amazon’s local regional manager, Neil Travis, describes the company’s pay as competitive, in line with or above similar jobs locally. Yet many employees here worked during the pandemic, a time during which Amazon saw quarterly profits triple, and they claim they earned that pay raise.

Even on the other side of the pandemic, the long days still take their toll on Westwood. He says his shoulder hurts at night after more than three years moving pallets around the Coventry warehouse. But the 57-year-old is also concerned about the management culture within Amazon. “The way management treats people is shocking.” He says he was recently yelled at for leaning against a wall and catching his breath. When he objected-“This is not the army!” -he says he was told by his manager that the conversation was “taped”; immortalized in his record.

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

He usually gets a productivity rate of 60 or 70%. Sometimes it sinks lower. He doesn’t know how the system works, but claims he doesn’t care if he’s sick or if the supermarket-style hand scanner he uses isn’t working properly. He says his productivity is rated relative to his peers and if he’s in the bottom 25 percent, he’ll get a verbal warning from management. Workers who receive three such warnings in a six-week period are required to have a formal interview with management. That’s why he never takes a shift without taking detailed notes. He has a red and white spiral-bound notebook, which he uses to write down computer problems or other issues that might affect his productivity, so he can defend himself in these sessions.

“Like most companies, we have a system at Amazon that recognizes great performance and also encourages coaching to help employees improve if they don’t meet their performance goals,” says Amazon’s Travis. “Performance metrics are regularly evaluated and built upon benchmarks based on employees’ actual attainable performance history.” Employees wouldn’t be educated to have a single difficult day and are free to log out of the system at any time, which would pause the performance management tool, he adds.

Foxglove, a UK-based advocacy group for tech workers, has complained to the country’s parliament over Amazon’s failure to be transparent about this system. The group hopes to replicate the success of German Amazon workers at a warehouse in Winsen, Lower Saxony, whose campaign against productivity-tracking software has led to the state data protection commissioner banning the site from the “continuous collection and use of data on quantity and quality performance updated by its employees”.

Union leaders say Amazon does not negotiate with unions in markets across Europe, something GMB Midlands senior organizer Stuart Richards describes as highly unusual. Scheer, of German union Verdi, says the same thing, even though Amazon workers in the country have been on strike since 2013. Another similarity is the way unions say Amazon seeks to undermine strike efforts. Scheer says German workers on temporary contracts have been fired from the company, while in Coventry, Westwood says 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 trucks are scurrying up and down the road that connects the Coventry warehouse to the rest of the UK. But Amazon workers here are hoping that this is just the beginning and that the anger that motivates them to strike will spread across the country and then beyond, creating an international movement that Amazon is forced to listen to. GMB’s Richards believes this is critical to getting what they’re asking for. “Because Amazon is a huge global, multinational company, the only way we can be successful is when we are able to organize workers in every Amazon fulfillment center,” he says.