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 consider the UK as a critical cog in the mission to internationalize the company’s workers movement. “I know they’re watching,” says Westwood, adding 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 once. “Amazon is an international company and they react to strikes in one country by relying on fulfillment centers in another,” says André Scheer, secretary at the German union Verdi. When Amazon workers strike in Germany, customers’ packages filter into the country from next door Poland or the Czech Republic instead.
The Coventry strike takes place the same week that 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 coordinated Black Friday protests against Amazon in November, which rippled through more than 30 countries from Costa Rica to Luxembourg, according to UNI Global, an international union involved in the #MakeAmazonPay campaign.
The Coventry strike is not the first time UK Amazon workers have publicly complained about pay and working conditions. In August, employees at warehouses across the country held unofficial protests in warehouse canteens. But compared to other countries, the UK organizing efforts have had a slow start. Amazon workers in central Germany have been striking on and off for a decade, while a Staten Island warehouse became the first US site to show me in April 2022.
Employees in the Coventry warehouse right now receive around £10.50 ($13) an hour. But the union representing them, GMB, is calling for that figure to rise to £15 per hour, which would make UK workers’ wages equivalent to the $18 hourly rate their US colleagues receive. Amazon’s local regional director, Neil Travis, describes the company’s pay as competitive—either inline with or higher than similar jobs locally. Yet many staff here worked through the pandemic—a period during which Amazon saw quarterly profits triple—and argue they have earned that pay rise.
Even on the other side of the pandemic, long days are still taking their toll on Westwood. He says his shoulder aches at night, after more than three years moving pallets inside the Coventry warehouse. But the 57-year-old is also concerned about the management culture inside Amazon. “How the 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 isn’t the army!”—he says he was told by his manager the conversation had been “logged”; immortalized on his record.
For others, that management style is epitomized by the surveillance software workers say Amazon uses to track their performance. Garfield Hylton, also a GMB union member, describes his working day at Amazon as haunted by a number; what he calls his “rate”. Every morning, and again in the afternoon, a manager walks up to him to tell him how productive he has been according to the company’s algorithms.