Strikers on the frontline of Amazon’s walkout are aiming at their robot competitors

Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers across the country have been preparing for Amazon Prime Day this week, the annual discount bonanza which is one of the busiest dates in the calendar.

As their colleagues prepare to act, hundreds of Amazon workers in Coventry have put down their tools.

GMB claims that up to 880 employees will go on strike from Tuesday for three days to protest what they consider to be inadequate wage increases. This would be the largest walkout in the last year. The unrest dates back to August last year, when Amazon announced a non-negotiable pay increase of 50p per hour on screens in the warehouses. The increase was below inflation and came after an unprecedented sales boom during the pandemic that pushed net profit to record levels of $33.4 billion (£26billion).

Workers who delivered that product expected much more, especially after they found themselves in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.

It was like ‘Great News, Everyone! “Here is a fifty-pence pay rise!” It just set everyone off,” said Nick Henderson. The 46-year old has been working at the Coventry plant for over four years. He will be on a picket this week. “Amazon was making record profits – they could have easily paid us more.”

The GMB wants Amazon to pay its workers £15 per hour, up from their current starting rate between £11-12 an hour. Henderson, who spends most of his days loading boxes onto the back of trucks, where temperatures can reach 30C during the summer, says that the low pay increases have fuelled a long-standing dissatisfaction with physically demanding work and strict productivity targets.

Amazon installed robotic arms in Coventry that move crates at speeds humans cannot match. Insiders claim that the only reason the robotic arms weren’t installed on all floors of the warehouse is because it would have required Amazon strengthening the upper floor.

“The robots increased productivity four-, five- or six-fold — probably even more. They do not need to take breaks or use the toilet. “As a human, you cannot compete with this,” said one worker.

At Coventry workers are required to scan items for 10 hours per day, with two 30 minute breaks. One of the breaks is not paid. Supervisors monitor worker productivity constantly and are alerted if a worker doesn’t scan an item in five minutes. Workers who are the least productive receive a “adapt”, which is a gentle warning. The workers themselves cannot see how productive they are in comparison to their colleagues. Workers claim that these adapts are given out for simply returning from a short break a few minutes late.

GMB, after recruiting 700 members in Coventry, applied for formal recognition of the facility, assuming that it had met the mandatory 51 percent threshold. The union says Amazon undermined its efforts, flooding the Coventry facility with new workers and diluting the voting power of existing employees.

In the weeks following GMB’s application for recognition, a constant stream of new recruits was shown around the warehouse each day – a ritual called “day zero”. The majority of these students were international students from nearby universities such as Nottingham, Warwick, and Coventry.

“We recruit new team players across the nation and throughout the year. . . This year is no exception,” said a spokesperson. Amazon increased its minimum pay rates by 10% in the last year.

Amazon’s efforts in America, where employees at Staten Island’s warehouse successfully organised last year, show the company’s resolve to keep unions away from its business. Amazon spent $14 million on anti-union consultants last year to try and overturn the unionisation.

It was faced with a wave of walkouts that were unprecedented in the warehouses of Coventry and Bristol. Swindon, Tilbury Docks, and Swindon. The GMB has been successful in Coventry but has not made much progress elsewhere. The union is currently polling 100 workers at Amazon’s West Midlands distribution centre Rugeley for strike action. The results will be announced on Friday.

Amazon’s ability to fend off unions in the face of the most severe squeeze on living standards since a generation may mean that collective bargaining will never take hold, especially when the threat of automation hangs over workers.

Other threats to job stability include the economic slowdown, changing shopping habits and changes in purchasing patterns. Amazon’s UK sales dropped 5.6% to $30,1 billion last year. In January, the online giant announced that three of its 30+ UK warehouses will close. However, two new ones are planned to open in the next few years.

Amazon Prime has proven to be a great success despite these challenges. Subscribers are charged PS8.99 for next-day free delivery and access to Amazon TV and music streaming.

Mintel analysts estimate that Amazon Prime has 20 million subscribers in the UK. GlobalData, a research company, estimates that 68% of UK consumers have Prime accounts, even if they are not their own.

Prime Day is Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Subscribers will receive discounts on everything, from air fryers to power tools.

Amazon believes that this week’s strike will not affect Prime Day deliveries, because the Coventry Warehouse only receives products from suppliers and distributes to other Amazon facilities. However, it will disrupt Coventry’s work. Amazon has called police in the past to strike situations, claiming that workers weren’t able to clock in on time and were acting in a hostile manner.

The GMB insists the strikes are peaceful – and completely justified. Henderson said that people work 60 hours per week just to feed their families.

“The guy that I worked with today logs onto the Uber Eats application to make deliveries at night just to put food on his table. It’s wrong. “We will continue to do this as long as necessary.”

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