Amazon workers walked out on Monday during the night shift at the BRS2 fulfillment center in Swindon this week. A second walkout at the Tilbury site in Essex was planned by the Wednesday evening crew.
The ongoing wildcat strikes that began last week in warehouses across the country mark the coming into struggle of a critical contingent of British working class workers.
Amazon, one of the biggest companies in the world, is synonymous with rampant exploitation and profit. Its UK workforce has grown by 40,000 over the past three years, making it one of the largest private employers in the country with 75,000 employees.
Hundreds of workers walked out last Wednesday and Thursday, organized by word of mouth and WhatsApp groups, opposing a pitiful pay rise of 35 to 50 pence an hour: around 3 per cent as the RPI (consumer price) inflation is already at 11.8 percent and which according to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research think tank will rise to over 17 percent before the end of the year.
Walkouts took place at sites in Tilbury, Coventry, Rugeley, Bristol and Coalville. Since then, continued protests have taken place in Tilbury, Dartford, Belvedere, Hemel Hempstead and Chesterfield, where workers are processing just one parcel an hour.
These actions are the product of growing anger among Amazon workers over the brutal work pace demanded by the company and the de facto pay cuts caused by inflation making daily life impossible.
Tilbury workers told the World Socialist Web Site:“In fact, people were crying in the canteen and telling our managers that they couldn’t afford to pay their rent”, “We are not treated like workers but like slaves. We are often threatened here.”
Amazon and unions
After launching their fightback, Amazon workers are faced with how to take their fight forward.
The answer advanced by many pseudo-left groups and the unions themselves is that Amazon needs to be unionized.
Amazon refuses to recognize unions, putting its workers in the same position as the 74 percent of the workforce not covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Particularly among younger workers (under 35) who predominate at Amazon, unions are barely a part of their working lives. More than 80 percent of workers aged 25 to 34 are non-unionized and more than 91 percent are between 16 and 24 years old. Trades Union Congress (TUC) research of workers aged 20-29 found that ‘the vast majority had never heard of the word ‘trade union’ and were unable to provide a definition’.
The Unite and GMB unions, which already represent a handful of Amazon workers, are touted as the best “collective voice” for Amazon workers. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In the event that these organizations are recognized by Amazon, they would act as they do in all other unionized workplaces: to discipline the workforce in close collusion with management to prevent strikes and other protests. .
Unions, led by well-to-do bureaucrats, have presided over unprecedented wage stagnation and are now enforcing below-inflation wage deals across the country, leading to the biggest collapse in household incomes on record. These organizations, with decades of close collaboration with the big business on their own, offer nothing to the working class.
In a revealing tweet, Steve Garelick of the GMB wrote that he had “been informed [que] the daily cost per department on Amazon sites that have walked out on their pay offer is around £100,000 per department per day[.] Proof that the cost incurred by Amazon could have been mitigated if they had not imposed such a paltry sum.
This is the real argument of the unions: to insert themselves as social policemen on behalf of the company brewing trillions of dollars and its billionaire shareholders in exchange for a comfortable niche in the management structures.
What the GMB would do at Amazon has already been proven by its actions at Deliveroo, where it signed a “voluntary partnership agreement” behind workers’ backs last May. After years of wildcat strikes by workers, some organized by Britain’s small Independent Workers’ Union, and fearing the worst as the cost of living crisis deepens, the previously union-busting company has calls on the GMB to play the role of gendarmes.
The agreement named the GMB as the official representative of the workforce, enshrined Deliveroo’s hyper-exploitative practices and promised that: “Partners [Deliveroo et le GMB] are committed to the long-term, sustainable business success of Deliveroo and nothing in this agreement shall operate to undermine that objective.” The agreement was hailed by the TUC (Trade Union Confederation) as a “historic agreement”.
Lessons from the United States Organizing Campaign
Amazon workers should learn from the experience of their colleagues in the United States, where an organizing campaign at the BHM1 fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, late last year and early this year, received unprecedented support from United States President Joe Biden.
Biden hoped to promote the Retail and Department Stores Union (RWDSU) and its counterparts as Amazon’s business partners, trusting them to demobilize and betray strikes, and enforce cut-sale deals on wages and conditions of its million-strong workforce just as they have done in other large companies.
Bessemer workers rejected RWDSU for the same reasons Biden recommended, with the union losing two workplace votes to gain recognition.
A second organizing campaign, by the newly created Amazon Labor Union (ALU), narrowly succeeded at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, largely because the ALU distanced itself from the union bureaucracy. organized in the AFL-CIO and with Biden’s Democratic Party. But once the vote was won, however, the ALU used its popular support to restore the image of these discredited organizations. This had a counter-productive effect. A second ALU recognition vote at the nearby LDJ5 distribution center failed. The WSWS commented:“Every step in the direction of the bureaucracy and the Democratic Party was a step away from the workers.”
The events in Bessemer and New York, a Explainthe International Amazon Workers Voice, emphasized how “a new direction is needed. Where unions promote corporatism and class collaboration, workers need an anti-capitalist perspective. Where unions promote national chauvinism, working class internationalism is needed. Where the union starts from the principle of what management is willing to offer, the workers must start from what they urgently need.”
For grassroots committees!
The UK walkouts at Amazon were organized completely independently by workers. They had no connection with the bureaucratic campaigns carried out by the GMB (Your Union at Amazon) and Unite (Action with Amazon), or the Make Amazon Pay coalition which they both support.
But one way or another, Amazon workers will always find themselves struggling against the union bureaucracy and its “left” supporters. They proved last week that powerful action can be taken from below. But to succeed, they must develop their own organizations and leadership: rank-and-file committees of workers operating independently of unions in every warehouse and depot, across all roles and levels.
Amazon has vast financial reserves and full government support in every country where it operates. Enforcing workers’ demands will require a widespread, determined and international struggle. Rank-and-file committees should discuss and coordinate action across national borders with like-minded Amazon workers around the world, and others in warehousing, transportation, delivery and mass distribution. In the UK, the Communications Workers’ Union has been forced to authorize a four-day strike – to be held later this month and in September – by more than 100,000 Royal Mail postal workers.
Amazon strikers will be pressured to suspend actions, engage in unnecessary talks and accept below-rebate offers and dead-end promises. Committees must fight back by crafting and pursuing demands based not on what Amazon claims it can afford, but on the needs of workers.
All possible support will be given to these efforts by theInternational Amazon Workers Voice and the International Labor Alliance of Rank and File Committees, created to empower workers to wage the necessary struggle against big business, national governments and their union partners. We call on all Amazon workers to take up this fight by contacting us now.
(Article published in English on August 10, 2022)