What began as a trickle soon turned into a floodtide. At 6pm last night, as one shift at the Amazon BHX4 distribution centre gave way to another, a small gathering of striking workers quickly escalated into an impressive crowd.
The strikers – all donned in bright orange hats, the colours of the GMB union in which they are organised – rapidly mobilised themselves into groups at the picket line. Each pack of workers would run up and down the line of cars waiting to go into the warehouse car park, surrounding vehicles and attempting to persuade their colleagues to turn around in solidarity.
This energetic strategy visibly made an impact. Traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t long before the bosses, clearly rattled, had called in the police to help alleviate the jam.
Nevertheless, those on the picket seemed unperturbed . One worker told us that the queues had been even longer in the morning, for the previous switchover, stretching back for around three miles.
A GMB organiser, meanwhile, said that management had ended the current shift ahead of schedule, letting the workers out an hour or so early, in order to avoid fraternisation between outgoing staff and strikers at the warehouse gates.
“They’re not completely stupid,” the union official wryly noted, speaking about the bosses’ tactics. “They can see the impact that the strike is having. They can see how it’s spreading, and they’re taking sly measures to try and stop this. But it won’t work.”
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Indeed, other workers we chatted with were proud to announce that yesterday’s strike was noticeably bigger than the previous walkout earlier this year, on 25 January.
Around 300 workers are estimated to have taken part in the last strike, out of a total workforce of 1,500 at the site. This time, everyone believed that the numbers were much bigger.
“My team of ‘problem solvers’ [who deal with customer requests and returns] normally has 30 staff working at any one time,” said Zeeshan, speaking to us on the picket line, in between successful attempts to convince drivers (workers and deliveries) not to cross the picket line, “but 20 of us are out here at the moment.”
“People are gaining confidence,” stated Jake, one of the hundreds of Coventry workers who was out both in January and yesterday. “Before there was a fear that we might get the sack; that we might be victimised. But now people can see that we won’t get punished if we all strike together.”
“In any case,” Jake continued, “we have to show the way; we have to fight. We don’t have a choice.”
Burnout and exploitation
Along with his friend and colleague Pascal, Jake told us about their reasons for striking. Number one on the list is pay. Everyone at the warehouse, they said, had to put in paid overtime, because the basic rate is so low.
“We’re working 10 hours a day, six days a week,” Jake stated. “Then there’s just one day to cook and clean; to live your life,” Pascal remarked.
Both of these young workers were ‘lucky’; they have been at the warehouse for several years, and are on permanent contracts. But all new employees are only taken on temporarily, with a massive turnover rate of staff.
This isn’t by accident. On the one hand, the business’ entire model – as with many other sectors of the economy – is based on burning through workers, before throwing them on the scrapheap, all for the sake of the bosses’ profits.
“We’re set ridiculous targets, sometimes by the hour,” stated another worker on the picket line. “If we meet them, there’s no praise,” Pascal added. “But if we fail, there is always the threat of punishment – of being dragged into the manager’s office.”
“It’s the knees,” exclaimed Jake, talking about the backbreaking nature of the work. “It’s so painful, constantly bending down to pick up items and crates. A lot of people have to stop working here after a few years, because of injuries.”
Power in the union
On the other hand, by keeping workers in such a precarious position, the bosses hope to prevent a steady, organised workforce from forming.
But clearly their tactics are failing. The Coventry Amazon workers have had enough. And far from being intimidated and cowed, they are gaining a sense of their strength and power.
“They’re joining [the union] in their droves,” asserted Stuart Perry, a regional organiser with GMB, who was leading chants of ‘the workers united will never be defeated’.
And Stuart predicted that this trend would only continue, with another walkout planned for tomorrow (2 March), and a further five consecutive days of strike action from 13-17 March – all of which is inspiring more and more workers to get organised and fight back against Bezos.
It’s been an amazing day and I’ll let the brilliant @GMBMidlands members at BHX4 Coventry message have the last words
Here’s their message for #Amazon bosses#amazonstrike pic.twitter.com/90dmscUVrX
— Stuart Richards (@GMBStuart) February 28, 2023
Spread the strike!
Whereas the bosses were able to keep the warehouse running for the last day of action, nobody thought that this would be possible for yesterday’s strike. And this will have knock-on effects for the entire Amazon network, we were told.
BHX4 is a giant distribution centre, meaning that no goods are actually stored there. Instead, it is a hub – a vital nodal point – for moving commodities from storage units elsewhere in the country to their next destination. A spanner in the wheels here therefore means disruption across the whole supply chain.
Nevertheless, whilst the Coventry workers play a key role in maintaining the blistering pace of Amazon deliveries, they cannot be left to fight alone. To win, the strike must spread.
Stuart said that warehouse management, so far, have been completely dismissive of the workers’ demands, and have refused to engage with the union. But this militant action is forcing the bosses to take notice of the workers, as they make their voices heard.
Shutting down distribution at the Coventry site is an inspiring start. If Amazon workers across the country were to follow suit, however, this would be an unstoppable force.
- Solidarity to the Coventry workers! Victory to the strikers!
- Fight for £15 an hour! For a sliding scale of wages, with pay linked to prices!
- Spread the strike across the Amazon network!
- Expropriate Bezos and the billionaires! Put workers in control!