Amazon hit with new union demand – in the UK

Workers in the UK complain of a culture of intrusive monitoring - and paltry wages.
26 April 2023

Robots – treated better than humans in UK Amazon facility?

Big Tech has never been a friend of organized labor, and Amazon in particular has a checkered history of labor relations in the US. While it has one warehouse that has formed a union, the JFK8 facility made famous by its current uniqueness, Amazon has been accused of “old-fashioned union-busting” when it comes to stopping the progress of unionization in its tracks.

Not only did the company contest the formation of the JFK8 union – it lost that appeal in January, 2023, but has said it will appeal again rather than recognize the union or legitimize its right to negotiate on behalf of its members.

And the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has accused Amazon CEO Andy Jassy of “illegally coercing and intimidating workers” at other Amazon facilities that held ballots on unionization – the JFK8 union remains the only Amazon union in the United States, and it remains unacknowledged and unrecognized by the company, more than a year after the union vote was held in Staten Island.

Against that backdrop comes news from the UK that a major union has enrolled what it calls “a majority” of staff at one of Amazon UK’s city warehouses.

The UK economic background.

At the Coventry facility in the north of England, workers make just £11 an hour ($13.71), just 58p (72c) per hour above the UK’s minimum wage. The UK is currently suffering from a cost of living crisis, conflating the consequences of the Brexit vote in 2016, the cost of Covid response and furlough of businesses, and, some would argue, spates of governmental mismanagement of the economy (former Prime Minister Liz Truss wiped £30 bn off the health of the UK economy over the course of her 44-day premiership – the shortest time in the top job in 200 years, since George Canning, whose time was cut short in dramatic fashion – by death).

As such, the pressures on the UK economy – and in particular the UK food economy – are currently more extreme than elsewhere in Europe and the rest of the West. The use of “food banks,” which distribute food to the poor who simply cannot afford to feed their families (whether they are working or not) has risen by 37% in the space of a year – and now even food banks are running short of provisions, as the food they distribute is donated by citizens, and increasingly, they cannot afford anything extra.

The country is experiencing labor strikes in a number of sectors, from those with a history of industrial action, like rail workers and postal workers, to those for whom having to strike goes against sometimes lifelong vocations – doctors, nurses, and paramedics.

It’s unsurprising then that warehouse workers on those wages that are barely a whisker above the minimum allowable, despite working for one of the world’s richest multinational companies, would organize and unionize.

A culture of monitoring.

But for the Coventry workers, it’s about more than money, and it would be irresponsible to lay the actions of Amazon staff there simply at the feet of the economy. Back in January 2023, Coventry Amazon workers went on strike over what they called “severe” conditions in the facility, saying they were monitored constantly, upbraided for “idle time” if they stopped working for more than a few minutes – and that even their bathroom breaks were timed, in case they needed to be written up.

Amazon on that occasion said it had a system “that recognizes great performance and encourages coaching to help employees improve if they are not meeting their performance goals.”

Some of the striking workers claimed the robots that are a hallmark of Amazon warehouse efficiency were treated better than the human workforce.

While the workers in January were able to strike because they were members of the GMB union, now that union says that having enrolled the majority of the Coventry facility’s staff in its membership, the workers qualify for recognition under the UK’s laws.

It’s worth noting the different tone of Amazon’s response in the UK – on being asked to recognize the union, it said it “respects its employees’ rights to choose to join or not join a labor union.”

Not a straightforward process.

While that’s intensely different and significantly paler language than the response of the company to the Staten Island union – and other would-be branches of the Amazon union in the States – senior organizers at the GMB told the BBC (the UK’s leading broadcast news outlet) that these things are never straightforward.

Amanda Gearing, senior organiser of the GMB, said “There is a full process in place to try and prevent the GMB from forming, but we have the numbers now and Amazon will go out of their way to flood that warehouse with more workers, so the numbers are different.”

It would be too much to draw conclusions from this fact, but currently, Amazon is actively recruiting workers for its Coventry facility across several job sites.

If the union’s quest were successful, it would mean Amazon would have to negotiate with workers about pay and conditions – assuming of course it didn’t appeal, fail, and appeal again.

The question is whether it can afford to let the UK workers form a union – which would likewise be the first of its kind in Amazon in the UK – as that would surely complicate its labor relations issues back home.

After all, how could it justify allowing workers in similar but much smaller Western countries to unionize while holding out from recognizing the union in Staten Island?

Amazon has ten days to respond to the GMB’s request for recognition.