But the union’s success in overcoming this bureaucracy 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 mission to internationalize the company’s labor movement. “I know what they are watching,” Westwood says, adding that he has received messages of support from France and Germany.
Workers in these countries know they are more likely to bring Amazon to the negotiating table if unions from multiple countries can strike at the same time. “Amazon is a global company and they are responding to strikes in one country by relying on fulfillment centers in another,” says Andre Scheer, secretary of the German trade union Verdi. When Amazon workers go on strike in Germany, customer packages seep into the country from neighboring Poland or the Czech Republic instead.
The strike in Coventry is taking place the same week as Amazon workers from Germany, Poland, Canada, the US, France and Spain. convened in Geneva to plan further protests. According to UNI Global, the international union involved in the #MakeAmazonPay campaign, the unions are now looking to build on the success of the coordinated anti-Amazon Black Friday protests in November that swept over 30 countries from Costa Rica to Luxembourg.
The strike in Coventry is not the first time UK Amazon workers have publicly complained about pay and working conditions. In August, warehouse employees across the country held informal 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 have been on strike for ten years, and the Staten Island warehouse became the first American business to unionize in April 2022.
Warehouse workers in Coventry now earn around £10.50 ($13) an hour. But their union, the GMB, is calling for that figure to be raised to £15 an hour, making British workers the equivalent of the $18 hourly rate their American counterparts receive. Amazon’s local regional director, Neil Travis, describes wages at the company as competitive—either on par with or better than similar jobs locally. However, many employees here have weathered the pandemic — a period in which Amazon tripled its quarterly earnings — and claim they deserve the pay raise.
Even on the other side of the pandemic, the long days are still taking their toll on Westwood. 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 businessman is also concerned about the management culture within Amazon. “The way management treats people is just shocking.” He says he was recently reprimanded for leaning against a wall and holding his breath. When he objected – “This is not an army!” – he said that his manager told him that the conversation was “recorded”; immortalized in his record.
For others, this style of management is embodied in surveillance software that Amazon says is used to monitor their performance. Garfield Hilton, also a member of the GMB union, describes his day at Amazon as haunted by numbers; what he calls his “assessment”. 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.