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View: Critical engagement with XR’s Black Friday Amazon blockades

Written by Lee Booker, a Green Party member and Health and Safety Rep for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw). The Green Party Trade Union Group publishes an array of different views and perspectives on both Green Party and labour movement topics, which represent the view of the writer and not necessarily GPTU. If you want to write for our blog, please contact us today.

Image: Make Amazon Pay!’ Demonstration in Berlin 03.jpg” by Leonhard Lenz is marked with CC0 1.0

In the early hours of ‘Black Friday’ – 26th November 2021 – Amazon distribution depots were hit by an unexpected delay. Extinction Rebellion (XR) set up blockades at various sites for 48 hours to try to interrupt Amazon’s well known run-up-to-Christmas Black Friday sales. Coincidentally, at four sites members of GMB Union supported by the TUC protested against Amazon’s exploitation of its workers and criticised its anti-union culture; the GMB protests took place as part of a global day of action under the banner of ‘Make Amazon Pay’, an initiative coordinated by the Progressive International. It is part of a much longer campaign spanning years by the unions to organise Amazon workers. However, as reported in the Guardian, the union and XR campaigns were separate. Visible GMB campaigning could be seen on only four sites, whereas XR hit thirteen. This piece will argue that the nature of such actions and the lack of collaboration with broader movements, such as the trade union movement, enable the media to spin a popular narrative against such protests.

Examples of this media phenomenon abound. Take right-winger Brendan O’Neill’s piece in the Spectator attacking Extinction Rebellion’s Amazon action, titled: “The snobbery of Extinction Rebellion’s Amazon blockade”. Without so much as a shred of irony writing for an avowedly capitalist magazine, O’Neill characterises the XR action as distinctly bourgeois; with this action, he claims, they were punishing the working class for its consumerism in the lead up to Christmas. He finishes the piece with the following summary:

“These eco-muppets occasionally don the garb of anti-capitalism and flirt with radical lingo. But strip that all away and you’ll find well-educated, often well-off people who are hell-bent on stopping the rest of us, the little people, from driving so much, flying so much and buying so much.

“Extinction Rebellion is fundamentally a movement for austerity. No wonder it is unpopular. We like our holidays, we like our comforts and we like our Black Friday bargains, so bugger off.”

Let us be perfectly clear: Brendan O’Neill; is a right-wing charlatan, and no ally at all in the fight against capitalism or ecological destruction. But strip away the fiery faux “everyday man” language and behind O’Neill’s clownish and bad faith provocations there hides a kernel of truth. One of the biggest problems that often haunts environmental movements time and again is its class composition. Take a look at Wales’ excellent Centre for Alternative Technology, whose own research has led them to formulate a strategy to broaden the environmental movement after recognising that “the environmental movement in the UK is dominated by a single demographic: the white middle class”.

When I heard XR had targeted the Rugeley Amazon site (which is relatively local to me) I felt excitement and a degree of support towards their direct action. Why? I know the site’s track record in terms of employee treatment, as well as its anti-union tactics because of my own lived experience. I have friends and colleagues who have worked there, and I have seen various large site demonstrations by unions at the site entrance.  However, I also expected anger from the many people locally and across the region who would likely be using the Black Friday sales to help get Christmas presents at cheaper-than-usual prices in these tough times. This feeling was weaponised by the media, as the Spectator piece shows.

Taking the Rugeley site as a focus point to analyse tactics will shine a light on the ways in which the ecological justice movement, in this case Extinction Rebellion, need to alter the ways in which they work if they are to gather broad appeal for real change.

Rugeley is part of Cannock Chase District. In 2017 this area was ranked (excluding Stoke on Trent) the most deprived local authority in Staffordshire, its rank pre-pandemic in 2019 was the 126th out of the 317 most deprived local authorities in England. Amazon’s Rugeley site is now recognised as the largest business in the area and is located over the road from the now demolished power station, which once was the area’s largest employer. Stable long-term jobs, replaced by precarious employment. 

GMB union have been trying to unionise the Rugeley site for years, including well publicised demonstrations which have attracted support from some MPs. A major recurring issue on the Rugeley site has been its terrible health and safety record, leading to frequent call outs to ambulances for staff.  Whilst the district today may unfortunately elect Conservative MP Amanda Milling as its representative, Cannock Chase District has not shied away from class and ecological justice struggles in its history. From the striking Lea Hall miners in ‘84 and ‘85 to the recent opposition to the increased privatisation of Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Not far from Amazon, the area still retains the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre and Social Club which has hosted post-demonstration socials for trade unionists picketing the amazon site in a show of solidarity a few times over the years. Many times I have driven past St John’s Church in nearby Heath Hayes and spotted banners and announcements that a church group is supporting extinction rebellion events and other earth strikes. Cannock Chase District, whilst once a majority Labour council area, now shares control between Labour and Conservative Parties; it also has one elected Green Party councillor (following the defection of three to an Independent group). A combination of multiple social, economic, culture and political potentialities exist and could be utilised, but so far have not been.

There exists here, as in most communities, the possibility of campaigns that could gather mass support. One problem, however, with Extinction Rebellion’s actions is that they act in isolation and ‘out of the blue’. The ability to put oneself in a position whereby deliberate arrest is sought, a common XR tactic, also comes from a position of privilege (albeit also one requiring courage, which is laudable). Many working class people could not necessarily risk arrest, the loss of wages and the impact this would have on future employment. While many working class movements and their campaign actions have resulted in mass arrests, these have been most successful when supported by a vibrant local support network and local trade union backing; with robust support and buoyed by the collective self-confidence it engenders, working class strikers and agitators have been able to defy the criminal justice system to advance their demands. But XR does not appear to have built the local infrastructure that could make judicious use of such unlawful tactics sustainable and successful. As a result, their tactics can appear alien to many but the most radical and ideologically committed.

Working with those employed on the Amazon site would mean reaching out to and coordinating both with the trade unions trying to organise there, and with ‘organic’ leaders among the workforce. It would mean working within those communities and involving them in the organising process. Until this approach is taken, XR will struggle to challenge hegemonic media narratives characterising them as out of touch; they will fail to represent the views and issues which concern working class communities. The exploitation that occurs in Amazon, as with most large industries, is so often hidden from view. With the general public often oblivious or misinformed as to the misery that has gone into getting the product to their front door, it is no wonder many do not speak up. This is one of the key difficulties when it comes to confronting capitalist relations of production, where the social relations between human beings and the producers of commodities are obscured by the production process itself.

Extinction Rebellion is right to challenge business and government for leading the world into ecological catastrophe. It was right to challenge Amazon. However, to gather public support they need to work with the people of the areas they target. We cannot just be a photo and press opportunity for 48 hours of action, where our community has never had support from XR before and will likely not have it again. They will not win support this way.