Amazon workers picket warehouses in UK over long hours, low wages

By Jonathan Silberman
August 21, 2023

COVENTRY, England — Hundreds of workers picketed outside Amazon’s large BHX4 warehouse here Aug. 4. Dozens more picketed at a smaller facility in nearby Rugeley. Altogether over 1,000 workers took two days of strike action, marking the first anniversary of spontaneous sit-down strikes and protests at Amazon sites in Coventry, at Tilbury in London and elsewhere. Those actions came in response to boss attacks on their wages. 

“What do we want? 15 pounds! [US$19.20] When do we want it? Now!” the pickets chanted, and “We’re not stopping!” Over the last year the workers have taken 26 days of strike action, including a weeklong stoppage in March, steadily building their forces. 

“Long hours, low pay,” striker Valentina Avram replied after the Militant  asked what’s driving the actions. “Many of us have to work a 60-hour week,” Samuel Ijiyemi said. “We can’t survive on 40 hours. When my family moved from London rents were much cheaper here. Not anymore! Food prices in supermarkets are going up and up. Everything’s been going up. Even the price of the weekly Coventry bus pass has just been raised.”

Inflation in the U.K. officially stands at 10.7%. Food prices have risen 17.4%. 

“Sixty hours means no family time,” Umar Diaz said, a comment echoed by many workers. Diaz, who helped start up the union in the plant, was speaking from a megaphone at an end-of-picket rally.

Others spoke of brutal working conditions, where their every move is timed and computer logged to help in setting the pace of work. A number of pickets carried “I’m not a robot” signs. 

“We’ve proved that today, defending our dignity,” said Girmachew Tessema, who’s worked at Coventry for four years. “I feel very good about today’s action. It shows that we’re keeping up the momentum.”

The Coventry BHX4 plant is a “cross-dock” operation where large orders of goods are received, sorted and then distributed to 20 or so different fulfillment centers that prepare customer orders for delivery. Union action here has a big impact on the rest of Amazon’s operations — something the striking workers are keenly aware of. 

GMB regional organizer Ferdousara Uddin joined both the Rugeley and Coventry pickets. She reported that when a majority of the workers signed up for the union, the bosses expanded the workforce in an attempt to stave off the union’s application for recognition. Amazon also established an “associate forum,” an alternative to the union. 

“But their maneuvers are not succeeding,” Uddin said. “There are now just over 1,000 GMB members at Coventry out of a workforce of around 2,000.” 

Uddin encouraged strikers to join a solidarity rally held outside the warehouse the next day. The company responded by sending day-shift workers home early and telling night-shift workers not to come in to work, she said. 

Delegations of trade unionists from around the country joined the rally. Coral Fineman, senior GMB representative for Serco refuse workers in Milton Keynes, said she and her workmates had been inspired by the Amazon workers’ fight. “To forge united action they’re having to overcome a great deal,” she said, pointing both to company maneuvers and the fact workers in the plant speak a multitude of languages. One rally speech was given in Punjabi and a union flyer was translated into Romanian. Some 80% of BHX4 workers were born outside of the U.K. 

They face divisive anti-immigrant demagogy spread by the U.K. government, and, for many, costly visa renewals that run up to thousands of pounds. 

Amazon recently announced it is closing the Rugeley facility and opening another much bigger warehouse in Sutton Coldfield, 20 miles away. Many of the Rugeley workers will transfer to the new plant, taking the unionization drive with them.

Joining the Rugeley picket were rail workers from Manchester Piccadilly who brought greetings from their Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union branch. Amazon worker Dale Crook was keen to discuss the common challenges faced by unions today — be it the fight for union recognition at Amazon or the RMT’s fight for a wage raise and against the closure of ticket offices.

“This is how Coventry began a year ago,” Chris Hoofe, a GMB regional organizer, told the Rugeley pickets. “Every time we strike we get bigger.”