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In January of this year, Amazon workers at the BHX4 fulfillment centre in Coventry, England, launched a work stoppage, making them the first Amazon workers in UK history to ever go on strike - and they're showing no signs of stopping. With the support of the GMB Union (a general UK trade union), they've gone on a total of 22 strike days with the most recent wave of strikes occurring during Amazon's Prime Week and bringing out a record of over 1000 workers to the picket line in three days.
A week before that strike, the GMB Union were forced to withdraw their union bid at BHX4, after they learned that Amazon had hired over 1,300 workers in under a month in order to dilute the percentage of union membership in the warehouse. The GMB Union had made their official bid for union recognition back in April, when they had over 800 card signing members out of approximately 1400 workers in the warehouse; well over the 50% membership threshold needed to obtain union recognition in the UK.
Stuart Richards, GMB senior organiser, spoke on the situation: "Amazon has refused to pay workers a decent wage, but are now paying an additional 1,300 workers to try and bust the union. We estimate that's more than £300,000 ($518,000) a week - just to stop workers having a voice in their workplace. This is more than it would cost to pay the original workforce the £15 an hour they were asking for. It's dirty tricks, plain and simple."
A North Star reporter was in Coventry to cover the strikes and spoke with Garfield Hylton, a BHX4 worker who has been at the warehouse for close to five years and is now a GMB representative. He explains that there isn't normally a wave of hiring in June, but as he sat in the break room, he could see the stream of new people. Amazon's reported hiring figures went from 500 to 1,300 in a short space of time.
North Star also spoke with Darren Westwood, a long-time BHX4 worker and the GMB rep for Amazon in the Midland regions of England. "It is within our realm, especially in the UK, to be unionized. They might not like it, but we have that right. They cheat and they bend the rules and they do whatever they did with the CAC (Central Arbitration Committee) and that's okay. If that's how they want to play the game, that's fine. But we'll keep going."
The CAC is a tribunal for the UK's Department of Business and Trade, they claim to "encourage fair and efficient arrangements in the workplace by resolving collective disputes" but Richards claims that the CAC doesn't operate fairly, especially with the dispute at BHX4. In his opinion, the procedure strongly favours employers. The number of workers on the site is not confirmed until the CAC has verified it, but there is a long delay between the application and this verification. Amazon thus had time to hire the 1,300 workers, turning their signed card majority into a minority. The CAC has no appeal procedure for this type of check.
Amazon's hiring spree has nearly doubled the number of workers on the shop floor, which workers say has created choke-points in hallways during breaks and shift changes, and raised safety concerns if there were to be an evacuation for an emergency or fire. As a former training instructor in the warehouse, Hylton noted that it is nearly impossible to properly train that many workers in the time frame that Amazon hired them in, putting into question the proper integration of health & safety protocols, and equipment operation practices.
Workers also reported that many of them have lost their overtime hours because of the influx of new hires. BHX4 workers are the lowest paid Amazon workers in the country at 11£/hr. Many workers relied on overtime hours to pay bills and feed their families. "A lot of people, to survive, have been doing 60 hours on and off over a period of four and a half years. All of a sudden, Amazon said, 'let's give it to the new hires who've been here less than four weeks', and that's antagonized the staff." Hylton explained.
What the majority of reports on the situation at BHX4 leave out, is who exactly Amazon chose to hire. "[most of them] were students from another country, and that's okay. But the thing is they are on student visas and they can't go on strike, because if their money drops below a certain level they lose their claim for citizenship." Westwood noted.
Despite Amazon's attempts to pit workers against each other and drive them away from the union, their tactics have only pushed more workers to sign cards with GMB. On the first day of the strikes in June, over 40 workers signed their cards, and now the number of card-signing workers is over 1000 following the Prime Week strikes. One worker who had recently signed their card told North Star "The union is the only way to protect us from Amazon's games."
Westwood had this to say about how workers are reacting to Amazon's anti-union tactics: "We haven't cheated yet and we're not going to cheat. We're going to win this fair and square and hopefully that will give everyone the courage to stand up. It's within your grasp, if you've got enough people and you have those awkward conversations about the union. It'll happen because we're all fighting for the same thing."