Tuesday briefing: Inside the fight to unionise Amazon warehouses

<span>Amazon workers on strike outside a warehouse in Coventry.</span><span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Amazon workers on strike outside a warehouse in Coventry.Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Good morning.

Amazon warehouse workers in Coventry first walked out during an ad-hoc protest last January in response to a “derisory” pay rise. People who had worked hard during the pandemic were hoping for monetary relief from their employer during a cost of living crisis and historically high inflation rates. That relief never came, leading to an 18-month battle and, now, more than 30 days of strike action. Amazon’s gross worldwide profits in this time has increased by almost 20%, reaching $281.16bn in the 12 months leading up to March 2024, and its profits in the UK division jumped by almost 60% to £204m in 2022.

The US retail company has resisted calls for union recognition and better compensation, and so the workers’ fight continues. Yesterday morning, employees staged protests outside several warehouses across England, to demonstrate their discontent with pay and what they describe as unsafe conditions, including unrealistic daily work quotas. The action coincided with the opening of a historic trade union recognition ballot that could allow Amazon employees in the UK to bargain collectively for the first time. Three-thousand workers in the Coventry warehouse will take part in the vote that closes on Saturday. The ballot only effects the workers in Coventry, so other Amazon branches will be watching the results closely. This latest effort is part of a decade-long battle between the retailer and trade unions for the right of the union to officially represent warehouse workers.

For today’s newsletter, I spoke with Guardian special correspondent Heather Stewart about why this dispute still has not been resolved and what it tells us about the future of workers’ rights. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Labour | Tony Blair has warned Keir Starmer to “close off the avenues” of the populist right by keeping tough controls on immigration. The former prime minister said the new government should tackle parties such as Nigel Farage’s Reform UK by dealing with people’s grievances while sticking to the centre ground to hold Labour’s electoral coalition together.

  2. EU | UK government officials fear tailbacks and chaos at UK ports in three months’ time unless the EU again delays plans to introduce a biometric travel registration scheme requiring facial and finger scanning.

  3. Ukraine | Western and UN leaders have condemned a daylight Russian missile barrage that hit Ukraine’s largest children’s hospital, leaving an unknown number trapped under the rubble, as strikes across the country killed 37 people in one of the deadliest attacks this year. President Joe Biden has called one of the heaviest Russian airstrikes on Ukraine since the war began “a horrific reminder of Russia’s brutality”.

  4. UK general election | Reform UK has come under pressure to provide evidence its candidates at the general election were all real people after doubts were raised about a series of hopefuls who stood without providing any photos, biographies or contact details. Reform insists every one of its candidates were real, while accepting that some did no campaigning and were there simply to help increase the party’s vote share.

  5. France | Emmanuel Macron has asked Gabriel Attal to stay on temporarily as prime minister to maintain stability after a snap general election left France facing a hung parliament and fraught negotiations to form a new government.

In depth: ‘It has been a really long and arduous organising process’

Amazon is worth an estimated $2.08tn and its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, has a net worth of $214.3bn. The staggering wealth of their employer and their boss is not lost on warehouse workers who feel they are not properly remunerated and are subject to unreasonable working conditions.

Warehouse staff are calling on the company to raise minimum pay to £15 an hour and to improve conditions of work, complaining about long shifts, aggressive surveillance and high injury rates.

***

Years in the making

Amazon experienced a massive boom during the pandemic, with customers spending more time at home than ever before. The company, headquartered in the US, saw its profits triple, which led to an extraordinary hiring spree (In 2020 in the UK, the company hired 15,000 more workers than planned to keep up with demand). The personal net worth of CEO Jeff Bezos grew by £70bn during the first 12 months of the pandemic alone. At the same time, workers in warehouses across the UK and the world were contending with difficult shifts.

“I think they hoped their work would be recognised in their pay after the pandemic,” Heather says. “So when they were offered a paltry 5op pay rise, some people put down their tools and decided it was time to start organising.”

Until this point, it was particularly difficult for unions to organise in these kinds of workplaces, due to a fragmented workforce. “People speak loads of different languages, they’re doing long shifts and they’re commuting from different places,” Heather says. High staff turnover exacerbates this problem. National bargaining is largely confined to the public sector, which is why this union recognition ballot only affects Amazon warehouse workers in Coventry.

The workers reached out to the GMB, who started helping them organise what has become an 18-month-long campaign. It is only when a union believes it has support from half of the staff in a workplace that workers would apply for union recognition. A victory would be a landmark moment for the trade union and the workers who, according to the GMB national secretary, “face shocking levels of intimidation, fear and abuse at the hands of bosses for daring to fight”.

“It has been a really long and arduous organising process,” Heather says.

***

Amazon’s response

It will come as no surprise that the online retail titan is sceptical of unionisation. In 2022 alone, it ploughed an unparalleled $14m into “union-busting” consultants in the US. They have also been accused of using illegal tactics in the US to coerce and intimidate workers away from unionisation. (Amazon denies these claims.) “There was a point recently where Amazon were putting QR codes around the building that, when scanned, would automatically generate an email to the GMB membership department that said something along the lines of, ‘I want to stop my union membership’,” Heather says. “So they’re not exactly subtle.”

As reported by Richard Partington on Monday, an Amazon spokesperson said it had increased starting pay by 50% since 2018 to £12.30 or £13 an hour, and had a positive work environment, benefits and career opportunities. “Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. We regularly review our pay to ensure we offer competitive wages and benefits,” they added.

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A changing climate

At the start of this process, the GMB and the Amazon warehouse workers were not only up against a company that is hostile to union activity but also a Conservative government that was trying to weaken the power of unions. The political tides have changed and there is now a Labour government that is promising to introduce a host of measures to protect workers’ rights. In the workers’ rights package, unions will have a legal right to access workplaces. It may seem like a small change, but with an employer like Amazon – which doesn’t want unions in its premises – the measure automatically gives the GMB access that it would have had to fight for legally.

Despite progress and a highly successful union recruitment drive, it is still unclear if the ballot will come out in favour of the GMB. The barriers are high and Amazon effectively has limitless resources to fight this battle, which the workers and union do not. Even so, they are optimistic about their chances.

This effort to gain union recognition and secure better conditions and pay has already had a positive impact for the workers. “They used to feel really atomised before,” Heather says, but the union drive has created community and solidarity, not just in Coventry but with Amazon workers around the world. “That’s quite a powerful thing,” she says.

A victory for the GMB would strengthen unions more broadly and give them confidence and a precedent to go into other Amazon branches – and the protests yesterday indicate there is appetite for that. Heather says it could also lead to more organising and “stronger union roles” in other workplaces, “especially if there is a government that is making noise about the fact that unions are good for workers”.

What else we’ve been reading

  • Michael Aylwin has written a truly devastating piece about his wife Vanessa’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and the danger of focusing on “living well with dementia” when so many are simply unable to do so. (Vanessa Aylwin is pictured above, in 2021.) Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • Spotify’s algorithm often leaves me in a musical rut, listening to the same five songs on a loop. This list of recommendations by Guardian readers of their favourite albums is exactly what I needed to break the cycle. Nimo

  • “I knew that my career was essentially over”: the latest standout Olympian in G2’s series is diver Greg Louganis, who kept his HIV diagnosis a secret while competing at the highest level. Hannah

  • Ben Ryder Howe for New York magazine (£) has potentially found the most expensive pet dog with the utterly obscene price tag of $150,000. He asks the owners: why?! Nimo

  • I love the sound of Michelle de Swarte’s new autobiographical comedy Spent, about a hard up model who flees the US to housesit in Brixton. Here’s Lucy Mangan’s verdict on an “astonishingly accomplished debut”. Hannah

Sport

Tennis | Alex De Minaur played down injury fears after he reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals for the first time, with the ninth seed from Australia winning 6-2 6-4 4-6 6-3 against Arthur Fils. Ukrainian Elina Svitolina wore a black ribbon in solidarity with the victims of the Russian bombing of a children’s hospital in Kyiv. Svitolina fought back tears on the court after winning 6-2 6-1 in her fourth-round match against Wang Xinyu.

Football | Mason Greenwood has held discussions with Manchester United leadership regarding a move away. Marseille have lodged a bid for the forward and talks are advanced, with United valuing the player at £40m.

Formula One | Toto Wolff has described Lewis Hamilton’s victory on Sunday at the British Grand Prix as a fairytale, while the seven-time world champion is now optimistic he can take more victories this season and end his tenure with Mercedes on a high.

The front pages

“Labour to ‘fix front door’ of NHS by diverting billions to local surgeries” is the Guardian’s lead on Tuesday. The Financial Times says “Reeves sounds the alarm on finances and orders analysis of Tory spending”. The i reports “Reeves ready for war over the UK’s green belt as she vows to take on Nimbys”. The Telegraph says “Rowling attacks PM over new women’s minister”.

A deadly Russian strike on a Kyiv children’s hospital makes the Mirror’s front page with “Putin bombs cancer kids”. The Times looks at the bombing under the headline “Pressure on Starmer to raise defence spending”. The Mail covers the same story with “Atrocity that shows why Britain and Nato must spend more on defence”.

Today in Focus

France’s leftwing alliance beat the far right, but what now?

A leftwing alliance snatched victory from the far right in the final round of the French parliamentary elections. But will France now fall into political deadlock? Angelique Chrisafis reports.

Cartoon of the day | Ella Baron

A special offer from the Guardian Print Shop
To celebrate the first solo exhibition from multi-award winning Guardian cartoonist Ben Jennings, Snowflake’s Progress, we’re delighted to offer 10% off for First Edition readers at the Guardian Print shop. Buy hand-signed limited edition exhibition prints of Ben’s cartoons with the code GSUBSCRIBER10 until Saturday, 20 July.

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

The aim of the latest initiative at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, says Alex Patterson, is to “ruffle a few feathers”. Patterson, a curator, is referring to the temporary removal of one of its most popular sculptures, John Gibson’s Tinted Venus, from show. In the place of the Victorian piece is Zak Ové’s Lost Soul IV, from 2009. A statue of a black child happily playing in costume, it stands out among the gallery’s many white marble works – of white subjects. Says Ové: “I think it is fantastic … It is a really interesting way to question that history and for people to start to think about things which were not discussed.”

Other additions have been made elsewhere in the gallery, such as texts pointing out works with direct links to slavery. All of the changes are part of the Carving Out Truths project, which has incorporated the expertise of young people of black and ethnic minority heritage from the city.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.

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