Amazon Crushed a US Union Drive, but There Could Be Hope for the UK

Amazon looks to have squashed a major unionisation bid in the US. But union officials in the UK are still optimistic about what comes next.
April 9, 2021, 4:07pm
After Amazon Union Bid Falters in US, What Next For UK Amazon Workers?
A worker at an Amazon fulfilment centre in Wales pictured in 2014. Photo: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Amazon appears to have successfully busted the biggest attempt so far by its workers to unionise. Although votes are still being counted at a warehouse in the US state of Alabama, there are currently enough “No” votes to put a stop to the union.

It’s a blow to unions worldwide who hoped that the vote in Bessemer would be a catalyst for change in other Amazon workplaces. But officials in the UK say unionisation at Amazon –  known for its testing working conditions – might not be that far away. 

Workers at Amazon UK have never managed to successfully unionise, but membership among Amazon workers is growing according to general union GMB. Amazon has 17 fulfilment centres in the UK, and across all of them, GMB says it now has between 1,300 and 1,500 members, with plans to grow these numbers further to gain recognition. 

“We are not just going to be working in and around the Amazon site, talking to workers,” Mick Rix, a national organiser for GMB tells VICE World News. “We're going to be working in the community where Amazon workers live. We are holding meetings, in regular conversations, and people are becoming active and training up to be activists as well. These are the people who are going to unionise the workforce.”

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“It's not just about getting the salacious stories or winning the news in the air war,” says Rix. “If you analyse the amount Amazon is purporting to [spend] on TV commercials, radio commercials. Why? Because of the bad reputation Amazon has now got.”

In America, workers have claimed that they’ve had to urinate in bottles in order to keep up with the workflow, something that VICE World News verified this month, despite Amazon tweeting that it wasn’t true. In October last year, the Trade Union Congress and GMB released a report into Amazon’s working practices in the UK, where an FOI revealed that between 2015 and 2018, ambulances were called 600 times to 14 Amazon warehouses in the UK. The unions alleged this was due to workers collapsing in the intense working conditions. 

At the time, Amazon said that it was “simply not correct to suggest that we have unsafe working conditions based on this data or on unsubstantiated anecdotes. Requests for ambulance services at our fulfilment centres are predominantly associated with personal health events and are not work related.”

Rix says that workers' concerns at the moment centre around punishing working practices. 

“The real pace of demand for workers is extremely punishing,” he says. “We've got examples of people whose feet and joints are becoming extremely painful. The pace of work and the schedule of working – stretching, bending, walking up to 20 miles a day, walking up and down mezzanine floors to pack, stow and do all the other tasks associated with picking products that take place in Amazon is really quite mind-bending. It doesn't happen anywhere else in the UK industry, the way people are expected to work in Amazon, and the way they are treated.”

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VICE World News reached out to Amazon, who invited us to visit a warehouse when COVID regulations allow. A spokesperson for Amazon said: “At Amazon, we are proud to offer excellent pay, excellent benefits and excellent opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment.” 

“We respect our employees’ right to join, form or not to join a labour union or other lawful organization of their own selection,” they continued. “Across Amazon, including in our fulfilment centres, we place enormous value on having daily conversations with each associate and work to make sure direct engagement with our employees is a strong part of our work culture.” A full statement from Amazon can be found at the bottom of this article. 

James, who worked in an Amazon warehouse in Bristol doing inbound stow – the part that organises stock coming into the warehouse before it is later sent out – says the work was both demanding and isolating. “It was a very lonely place to work in my experience,” he says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was rare that I actually spoke a word to anyone during my whole day – your role/station assignment for the day is put up on a TV screen and you just sort of get on with it.”

While the pay was good, according to James, there were periods when issues in the warehouse made things particularly difficult. At one point, many of the men’s toilets were out of order on the floor where he was based for a ten day period, which James says made working there difficult. “People had the option to go to other floors to use toilets,” he said, “but when the building is so huge and it takes you at least 10 minutes to walk all the way around one floor, people were naturally worried about taking too long and being registered as time off task for too long”

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On this, Amazon says in this specific warehouse, there are 130 toilets: “Amazon ensures all of its associates have easy access to toilet facilities which are just a short walk from where they are working. Associates are allowed to use the toilet whenever needed. We do not monitor toilet breaks.” 

After three months, James left. “The job wasn't challenging in itself, but it was mentally taxing purely because of how dull and repetitive it was,” he says. “I left primarily because I felt like I was going a bit mad doing the same thing for 10.5 hours a day  – my temporary contract was extended indefinitely, but I also started to get knee pain in the end from squatting/climbing stairs all day so that contributed, too.”

Although unions do exist at Amazon across Europe in places with stronger worker protections like Germany and France, the UK and US sites have struggled to unionise. In the UK, a trade union must apply for recognition within a workplace. If the percentage of union workers in that workplace is above 50 percent plus one, the union is automatically recognised. Below that, it goes to a vote, and if there are very few members, recognition is denied.

Alongside anti-union sentiment held by the company – seen in the rigorous campaign against organisers in Alabama where Amazon has encouraged employees to “Vote No” – high staff turnover is a large issue for unionisation. 

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“The problem is Amazon buys people's contracts out, and there is a punishing set of schedules that workers have to go through in order to perform, and the pace of work is really quite horrific, so there's a huge turnover,” says Rix. “There is a general churn anyway because people aren’t prepared to put up with the general working conditions that they have to tolerate.”

Many current or ex-employees of Amazon UK told VICE World News that they were only at the company for short periods of time, citing the pace of work as hard to maintain. Current employees spoke of the fear of repercussions for speaking out about working conditions. 

Despite these challenges, Rix says that GMB has a plan. “We know we have to do it completely differently to beat Amazon,” he says. “ We're not messing around.”

Full Amazon statement:

“At Amazon, we are proud to offer excellent pay, excellent benefits and excellent opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment. Our competitive wages start at £9.70 or £10.80 per hour depending on location. We are proud that over 40,000 people have chosen Amazon as their employer in the UK and recommend Amazon as an excellent workplace to their family and friends.

“Amazon is a safe place to work. Yet again, our critics seem determined to paint a false picture of what it’s like to work for Amazon. They repeat the same sensationalised allegations time and time again.

“We respect our employees’ right to join, form or not to join a labour union or other lawful organization of their own selection. Across Amazon, including in our fulfilment centres, we place enormous value on having daily conversations with each associate and work to make sure direct engagement with our employees is a strong part of our work culture. The fact is, we already offer excellent pay, excellent benefits and excellent opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment. The unions know this.”

“Like most companies, we have a system at Amazon that recognizes great performance and also encourages coaching to help employees improve if they are not meeting their performance goals. Performance metrics are regularly evaluated and built on benchmarks based on actual attainable employee performance history. We look at the performance that associates are naturally setting and then set the benchmarks from there with a focus on safety in mind.

 “Amazon has a number of different programmes to help employees achieve their personal and professional goals, including a programme called The Offer. While we hope associates stay with and grow their careers at Amazon, this programme is designed to provide extra support for those who decide that Amazon isn’t part of their long-term career plan.”