Historic Amazon workers’ strike – Courageously standing up to bosses’ intimidation

Coventry Socialist Party members

At one minute past midnight on the morning of Wednesday 25 January, Amazon workers at the BHX4 site in Coventry walked out. This was the first official strike action against Amazon anywhere in the UK.

It was a courageous step for dozens of night-shift workers, many of whom had never been involved in trade union activity before, to strike against an employer notorious for victimisation and brutal tactics aimed at smashing worker organisation.

At midnight they downed their tools in the warehouse. Then they marched along a bridge in full view of bitter managers who have been part of a long campaign of anti-union intimidation. They left the warehouse, passed a reinforced security team on a long misty walk out of the car park, and started a 24-hour strike.

When they got outside, they were greeted by a crowd of jubilant trade union activists and supporters, including a team from Coventry Socialist Party. GMB Amazon rep Darren Westwood told us that, in that moment, “I was in tears”. Many of the lay reps didn’t hold back their joy.

Amazon strikers in coventry. Photo: Coventry SP
Amazon strikers in coventry. Photo: Coventry SP

The work to build

It has taken a lot of effort to get to this stage. Darren and another rep told us how a vicious regime had been set up in the warehouse to fight working-class organisation. Darren said, when issues are raised, “Amazon won’t speak to us. Instead, they clamp down and bring in more security and cameras”.

The other rep described a “pressure-cooker environment”, with managers whose main qualification is their ability to intimidate. Union activists, and virtually anyone who speaks up, face intimidation and trumped-up charges of low productivity, with a threat of dismissal.

When a friend asked Darren if he felt like a robot working at Amazon, he said: “No, because they treat their robots better than us!”

Combine that with language barriers across a diverse workforce, alongside many workers not even knowing what a union is, and we get an idea of the immense challenges union organisers have faced.

Despite all their efforts, Amazon bosses could not hold back the rising anger and confidence of its workers. The insulting 50p an hour pay rise in August was the final straw, especially when Covid lockdowns resulted in Amazon getting even more contracts and more profits.

Amazon strikers read bulletin. Photo Cov SP
Amazon strikers read bulletin. Photo Cov SP

Unofficial walkouts last summer

BHX4 was one of the sites where workers took spontaneous protest action immediately after the 50p rise was announced. Union membership at BHX4 grew sharply, from just 30 to reportedly over 300 in GMB.

The union balloted for strike action in October, which unfortunately narrowly failed to meet the 50% threshold demanded by the Tories’ repressive anti-union laws. So the workers balloted again and, on 16 December, succeeded! Then they built and organised for the action, overcoming all the obstacles to achieve a historic strike.

One rep linked it to local history: “This is a first, here in Coventry. Lady Godiva, Tom Mann, Frank Whittle, the Specials – and now our strike!” Another said: “Today has changed the narrative of what workers will accept”.

The picket organisers also asked for support at 4-8am and 4-8pm when shift changes occur, with a rally at 6pm. The Socialist Party attended with bulletins celebrating the strike. During the shift changes, more workers were convinced to refuse to cross the picket line; around 50 were reported to have turned around. 

Despite the bitter cold, the evening rally was attended by hundreds more trade unionists and supporters, including a delegation from Coventry RMT rail union. 

Coventry TUC banner at Amazon strike. Photo Coventry SP
Coventry TUC banner at Amazon strike. Photo Coventry SP

Embolden the fight

The organisers are absolutely right to celebrate this important step in fighting Amazon bosses for the decent pay and conditions the workers deserve.

But they are well aware there could be a bitter fight ahead, as they face down an employer well practised in attacking trade unions. Already there are reports of workers who went on strike being marked as ‘no-shows’ by management, sparking fears they could be disciplined for their legal and democratic action.

On 25 January, 300 Amazon workers took strike action out of a UK workforce of 75,000. But it’s clear that Amazon’s bosses – as well as those of other big businesses – are worried those few could inspire the rest. The task for unions organising workers in Amazon and across the industry is to turn that fear into reality.

Bringing Amazon workers into coordinated strike action alongside other sections of the working class would strengthen and embolden the fight against low pay, grim working conditions, and austerity, and against the idea that bosses and their politicians can make us pay for the crisis of capitalism.