How Amazon’s first UK strike could be a sign of things to come

How Amazon’s first UK strike could be a sign of things to come

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Big Tech is facing increasing pressure from unions as cost-of-living crisis fuels nationwide unrest

Union protest during strike action at an Amazon warehouse in France, November 2022

Amazon workers in the UK are set go on strike for the first time in the company’s history as the relationship between Big Tech and its employees enters a new era.

Almost a quarter of the total 1,400 staff at the US company’s distribution centre in Coventry are expected to walk out on 25 January in a dispute over pay. The GMB said members of the union who voted in favour of industrial action have “shown they’re willing to put themselves on the line to fighting for what’s right”.

Urging Amazon to increase its UK workers’ wages, GMB senior organiser Amanda Gearing added that “people working for one of the most valuable companies in the world shouldn’t have to threaten strike action just to win a wage they can live on”.

Why are Amazon workers striking? 

Amazon has long been “hostile” to trade unions, said retail tech news site Charged, “making it tough to organise a formal protest against the company’s offer of a 50p per hour pay rise which was put on the table last year”.

 The GMB “has agitated on the sidelines at Amazon for a decade with little to show for it”, said The Times’s retail correspondent Sam Chambers. But the union began organising a formal strike after workers in Coventry and several other Amazon distribution centres staged an impromptu walkout last August.

Amazon has insisted that this month’s planned strike will not impact customers. However, it could set the stage for “broader disruption”, according to Chambers, who reported that the GMB was “close” to balloting for strike action at the online retailer’s vast distribution centre at Tillbury Docks in Essex.

The unrest in the UK “mirrors similar action in the US, where Amazon workers in New York created their own labour union last year”, he added.

The planned Coventry walkout also “comes at a time of wider industrial unrest”, said Sky News’s business reporter James Sillars, as the cost-of-living crisis drives workers nationwide to the picket lines.

What about staff at other tech firms?

This may the start of difficult year for the once all-powerful tech giants.

The new head of the Trades Union Congress, Paul Nowak, told Politico that Elon Musk’s controversial takeover of Twitter is sending the platform’s workers into the arms of trade unions. Musk is “a perfect recruitment tool” for the trade union movement​,​​​​​​ said Nowak, who claimed that since the October takeover, one of the TUC’s 48 affiliates, Prospect, “has seen its membership in Twitter go up tenfold”.

In recent years, said the site, unions have also “ramped up their activity in another part of the tech world: the gig economy”. As well as industrial action at Amazon, food delivery service Deliveroo has signed agreements with unions, and some Apple stores have voted for union recognition.

Uber workers are also taking industrial action. Last week, hundreds of Uber drivers gathered outside the company’s headquarters in downtown New York as part of a 24-hour national strike in response to the ride-hailing app’s move to sue New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) for approving a raise and fare hike.

Will 2023 be a turning point for Big Tech?

Big Tech firms are facing challenges of another kind too. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, was fined almost €400m last week after EU regulators ruled that the company’s legal basis for its advertising model was invalid.

According to Politico’s tech reporter Vincent Manancourt, the challenge to this data-fuelled model poses an “existential threat” to Meta, which is “still smarting from a drop-off in revenue, mass layoffs and a costly pivot to the metaverse”. 

Combined with “the dramatic, multidimensional implosion” of Meta and the “nuclear train wreck” of Musk’s Twitter, wrote author Brian Merchant for The Atlantic, the “momentous labour uprising” against Amazon in the US meant that 2022 “wasn’t just an unusually disastrous year for America’s biggest tech companies”. It was also “a reckoning”.

 “Ruled by monopolies, marred by toxicity, and overly reliant on precarious labour, Silicon Valley looks like it’s finally run hard up into its limits,” Merchant added.

And with UK workers also taking on Big Tech, “how these companies respond to this troubled new era will have major repercussions”.

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