Amazon Coventry workers on the picket line this year (Picture: Sean Leahy)

Action by Amazon workers in the BHX4 centre in Coventry has built the union and won workers a better deal. But there is still more work to do to seize a victory over the bosses. 

Coventry is not an Amazon fulfilment centre, but distributes everything arriving internationally to the fulfilment centres around Britain.

Strikes have been ongoing since January 2023, after an initial unofficial walkout in August 2022. Union membership has grown in spurts from a handful to more than 1,100 members. 

This has been enabled by taking up issues in the plant and a series of one, two, three, four and then five-day strikes. Hundreds of the strikers have joined mass picket lines. Since the strikes began, Amazon workers have achieved a 17 percent increase in pay. 

By April of this year, Amazon workers in Coventry will have increased their pay by 20 percent.

Amazon has recruited large numbers of workers to try to undermine the action, so much so that a surplus of people are replacing the use of overtime. The cost of diluting the workforce is estimated to have cost around £500,000 for the company. 

Usually, there would have been 1,200 to 1,300 workers in the building, but this has now expanded to 3,000 employees.

Amazon bosses are trying to make it more difficult for workers to gain enough union members as a proportion of the workforce. If workers achieved this, it would force Amazon to recognise the GMB union.

Coventry is a legacy plant and is different from newer ones, such as the Minworth site near Birmingham which is much more automated. 

There is now a discussion going on about what the emphasis of the strikes should continue to be in Coventry and in Minworth. Several workers from Coventry have transferred to Minworth and started organising there. They recently had their first strike there. 

The heavy recruitment to the GMB in Coventry and the development of more internal rank and file reps and leaders is having an effect. Disciplinaries are commonplace at the site, and before the development of this leadership, workers were totally unrepresented. 

Human resources (HR) have been rattled by the union and are bringing in HR from elsewhere to try and deal with it. One of us decided to try to stop some of these disciplinaries by threatening to publish reports about them in the media. This included getting the BBC to ring Amazon about them victimising a worker through reducing his hours.

Amazon bosses are starting to offer benefits that seem positive but are, in reality, limited. They are offering some benefits because they’re trying to avoid having to recognise the union. And Amazon is still trying to repress workers through disciplinary measures and constant monitoring. 

When there is a lull at work, managers use it to accuse workers of taking “idle time”. This is subject to disciplinary action when the company’s thresholds aren’t met. 

The constant monitoring of “idle time” and productivity is counterproductive. When a “tote”—container—gets damaged, the pressure incentivises letting the damaged tote through instead of stopping to remove it.

Mark 1 robots require more human labour, but later versions now replace three or four people. Nevertheless, one person per robot is still required. The robots are slower than the person due to constant backlogs developing that the humans have to assist the robot to deal with. 

The robots also break down and malfunction, sometimes causing damage—although they may be more reliable in other newer sites. If it damages the container, the robot may then be unable to handle it.

 

Management’s first response to any damage or delay is always to blame the worker. About 1,000 totes are put into a trailer and filled about every two hours. Pressure from management to fill the totes leads to workers overloading them. This can become dangerous for other workers whose job is unloading them from the trailer. 

Amazon tried to carry on as usual during the five-day strike in March last year. But then, when the strikers returned, there were no totes for the new loads due to overproduction. The next time, they tried to shift the stuff to other sites, including Doncaster. 

But when the other site couldn’t handle them, they were sent back to Coventry which only caused problems later with the backlog.

GMB reps are organising to raise a collective grievance about the food served in the canteen. Much of it is not halal, and there aren’t many vegetarian options. Another issue is the inadequate size of lockers for workers’ belongings, and some workers don’t even get lockers because there aren’t enough. 

Workers in Coventry are angry about many things, and now we have to think about how we organise to win.

 

It became a full-time job getting the votes out for ballots as the membership has grown so much.

It became necessary to explain to members where and how to use a postbox for the postal ballot. We also want more coordination with Minworth and with other European sites. 

The GMB is also trying to identify worker leaders in other sites in Britain. Coventry now has a large core of strike leaders, some of whom moved to Minworth.

Structures in the unions can be a barrier to rank-and-file organising, but rank-and-file members are having their meetings locally. 

The next step is to win recognition. Our work shows Amazon we already have the structures and capabilities to make it a reality.

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