Amazon union leader flies in to help UK strikers ‘kick down the door’ | Industrial action

The leader of Amazon’s first union has made his first trip outside the United States to support striking workers at the online retail giant’s Coventry warehouse.

Chris Smalls, who helped coordinate a successful unionisation drive at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, in April 2022, travelled to the UK last week to provide advice to British workers as they try to gain recognition from the company.

“It’s important that we amplify each other’s fight and struggles because we want to build that international solidarity,” Smalls told the Observer. “Just like they’re refusing to talk to these workers and negotiate a fair contract, we’re in the same process back at home.”

Smalls’s trip has been in the making for a month, with the 34-year-old specifically registering for a passport in order to make his first journey. “I booked my flight the same week I got my passport,” he said. “As soon as I got that letter that I’m free to leave, I made sure this trip was a priority.”

That Smalls made the visit – and that it was his first – has been seen as a vindication for the 400 staff striking at the Coventry warehouse. They are seeking higher pay, but also complaining about overbearing management and long working hours.

“For Chris to say the first thing he wanted to do was come out here has got me,” said Darren Westwood, one of the Amazon workers picketing the Coventry facility. “It blows my mind.”

The dispute is the first official organised strike of Amazon workers in the UK. Previous actions in Tilbury, Essex which saw staff gather in the warehouse canteen to protest at pay and conditions, were wildcat strikes.

The Coventry strikers, who account for around one-fifth of the 2,000 staff at the site, are seeking a 43% increase in pay to £15 an hour. Amazon pays an hourly wage of between £10.50 and £11.45, depending on location. The national living wage is £10.42 an hour for those over the age of 23.

“They’re getting paid £10, minimum wage, for the same time of work we’re doing back in the States, and we’re getting paid twice as much,” said Smalls. “It doesn’t make any sense. Because of the cost of living, even us making twice as much, we are still living cheque to cheque.”

An Amazon spokesperson said “a tiny proportion of our workforce is involved” in the strikes. “In fact, only a fraction of 1% of our UK employees voted in the ballot – and that includes those who voted against action.” The spokesperson added: “We appreciate the great work our teams do throughout the year and we’re proud to offer competitive pay.” Amazon also claims to offer “comprehensive benefits that are worth thousands more” to staff.

Amazon’s US union got a higher wage for its workers by continuing to press the company to improve its offer – something Smalls believes can be done by UK workers.

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UK Amazon workers stage a strike in Coventry in January.
UK Amazon workers stage a strike in Coventry in January. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

“What the union does is say: ‘Well, yes, we got breadcrumbs, but imagine what we can get if we have a contract,’” he said. Smalls said that in the US, unionised Amazon workers are now fighting to get $30 an hour. “We’re doubling that up, because we know Amazon has the money.”

Smalls spoke with striking workers on the picket line last week as part of the visit, and exchanged advice on how to organise and work for recognition by the e-commerce giant. It does, however, take time. “This is just the start. Every marathon you have to take that first step,” said Westwood.

Smalls said that the striking Amazon workers will make Coventry “the stronghold and the catalyst for the UK”.

He added: “I promise you that when they win, there’s going to be warehouses all over this country that are going to do the same thing We’ve got to get one crack in the door, then we’ve got to kick the door down and let everybody in.”

Smalls suggests Coventry – and the UK – will just be the start of his Amazon unionisation drive, with potential future visits to similar movements in Europe. “They messed up,” he said. “They let me out. I’m going everywhere I need to be.”


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