Photo: Darren Westwood

Nigel Flanagan explains why every trade unionist should shut down Amazon in Coventry on 5 August

This has been a chaotic and bewildering year of national strikes, ballots and actions all across the labour movement. The scale of it has left many of us excited and exhausted. Whilst many of the national disputes continue to dominate the activity of the movement – in universities and railways, the strikes continue – there is one dispute that is most firmly about the future of trade unions than any. It is the Amazon strike at Coventry.

This is classic non-union territory against a global powerhouse. The workforce is casualised, it is in the private sector and its determination not to tolerate any unions in its workplaces is second to none. It operates in the ‘click and buy’ economy as the lead, where every other company in the world wants to be Amazon. This is a company that has fired activists, closed down entire plants where a union might be growing, deploys strikebreaking companies from the USA, and moves operations around the globe at will.

On 5 August, the strikers have asked us to join them on their picket lines to shut down Amazon. In the tradition of the great Saltley Gate shutdown in 1972, where 20,000 union members shut the gates of the coke depot at the centre of a dispute, the Coventry strikers have called this day of action to show Amazon that trade-union members support the strikes. We have to respond.

The Coventry strikers voted by 99% to strike and have been energetically fighting against the company, despite the clear threat to their jobs and community. Only recently, the company hoodwinked the ‘central arbitration committee’ (the civil-service run committee that oversees union recognition claims) by suddenly adding 1,000 workers into employment in order to deliberately dilute the numbers and percentage of trade-union members.

Yet this is a company that paid almost no tax in 2022, despite £24 billion worth of sales, making it bigger than Asda and twice as big as Marks & Spencer. It directly employs over 75,000 workers in the UK and many thousands more along supply chains and in delivery operators. Globally it is an economic giant, dominating markets and suppliers in Europe, Africa, India and North America. Its owner, Jeff Bezos, is personally worth over $151 billion.

In this context, the workers’ demands for a wage rise and union recognition is a drop in the ocean. But Amazon are fighting them all the way.

The union can win

The spirit of the strikers is impressive. The picket lines are constantly busy and recruitment to the union continues to go up despite Amazon efforts. Over 500 out of the 800 members pack out the picket lines, joined by local supporters including MPs and other union members. The GMB union has deployed local resources to support the strike and has used its leverage to have the workers’ conditions at work raised in parliament. This is a company that has been condemned for the 300-plus emergency ambulance calls a year to some of its plants when workers are injured or exhausted. The company where workers were regularly using water bottles to pee in because of the lack of toilet and break facilities, and where workers in Dunfermline had been discovered camping in tents near the site just in case they missed calls to be back on shift.

But this action in particular on Saturday 5 August is crucial to the whole campaign in Amazon. GMB members are spreading out their action to other nearby Amazon plants, in places like Rugeley and Mansfield. In Rugeley, they have just voted by 86% to join the strike action. There is clearly potential across the company in the UK for more actions and union organising.

That is why 5 August is so important: To send a message to strikers that we support them physically, to show the company that the whole movement is determined to unionise the entire UK workforce.

This call is supported by a rank-and-file organising group called @RankFileCombine and other similar initiatives, like Strike Map, is urging all to promote and organise to be at this shutdown. This style of bottom-up initiative is exactly what we wish to see more of. Organised pressure from below is a fundamental aspect of union organising, when empowered workers like the Amazon strikers can issue a call for solidarity and members of other unions and other union branches can answer with mobilisation. Unofficial but rooted in the movement. That is the style and the politics of this Shutdown Protest.

We urge you all to be at the Shutdown on 5 August and send a shock wave through Amazon. Contact your own union branch or your trades council. Book coaches, organise your networks, get there by whatever means.

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