By Jeremy Appel
Workers at numerous Amazon warehouses in Canada are aiming to build on the momentum of the first successful Amazon union drive in Staten Island.
On Staten Island, the independent Amazon Labour Union (ALU) successfully built a grassroots organization at the JFK8 “fulfillment centre” culminating in a 10-percentage point victory over the anti-union side.
“For months, they set up shop at the bus stop outside the warehouse, grilling meat at barbecues and at one point even passing out pot,” the New York Times reported on April 1.
In the workplace, diligent and meticulous organizing laid the basis for union supporters defying management on the workfloor, including speaking up in captive-audience meetings.
The ALU union also filed several Unfair Labour Practice (ULP) complaints against Amazon with the National Labour Relations Board, which forced the company to notify its past and present workers across the U.S. of their right to organize.
“The ramifications of the Amazon victory will clearly extend beyond the borders of the United States,” Barry Eidlin, an assistant professor of sociology at McGill University, told CTV News.
“It’s important to understand the magnitude of this victory. It is the largest single bargaining unit that has won a National Labor Relations Board Union Election, at least since the 1960s.”
However, an early-May ALU drive at a second location on Staten Island was unsuccessful, so for now JFK8 is the only unionized Amazon warehouse in North America.
Amazon made an $8.1 billion US profit in the first quarter of 2021, a 300% increase from the $2.5 billion US it made in the first quarter of 2020, which is attributed to an increase in online shopping as a result of the pandemic. Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is reportedly worth $138.8 billion.
Teamsters takes the lead in Anglo Canada
Organizers attempting to unionize in Canada are subject to the patchwork of provincial labour laws that exist across the country.
Teamsters Local 362 attempted to organize Amazon workers at the Nisku, Alberta warehouse — just outside Edmonton — in an unsuccessful drive in September 2021.
In Alberta, a union must collect the signatures of 40% of the workforce, after which there’s a simple-majority vote. Last year, the Teamsters didn’t get to the first step, but they’re in the process of trying again.
“We were able to hit our target numbers a lot sooner than we were in September, showing that people have interest and are looking for change,” Richard Brown, president and business agent of Teamsters Local 362, told the Edmonton Journal.
“Everyone deserves a working wage and we’re committed to trying to get them that.”
If they get the amount of required signatures, the Nisku warehouse will be the first Amazon warehouse in Canada to vote on union certification.
Teamsters Local 879 is in the early stages of organizing workers at the Mountain fulfillment centre in Hamilton, which opened just last month. The union has been leafleting outside, as well as at Amazon locations in Milton, Cambridge, Kitchener and London.
The local says it’s responding to workers’ complaints about a lack of breaks, cuts to time off and being docked for the amount of time it takes to walk to the bathroom. Organizers promise a “Canada-wide” Teamsters-led union drive.
Ontario has the same union certification process as Alberta.
Organizing in la belle province
Meanwhile, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) is attempting to organize an Amazon warehouse in Montreal.
Workers are concerned about health and safety issues, as well as pay, the CBC reported. They make $17 to $18 an hour compared to $25 to $30 an hour for comparable jobs, and have to lift upwards of 400 boxes an hour.
“It’s like a jungle in there, a lot of people are getting injured,” CSN vice-president David Bergeron-Cyr told the CBC.
“Most of them are first-generation immigrants and they don’t know their rights and don’t speak French. They don’t go to the CNESST — our health and safety commission — to get paid.’
Quebec has card check, unlike Alberta and Ontario. This means 50% of workers signing cards gets the union certified. If it’s more than 35% but less than 50%, then there’s a vote.
A journalist goes undercover in Nisku
Ashlynn Chand began work at the Nisku warehouse in June 2021 for a story that was supposed to focus on working conditions at the fulfillment centre.
It just so happened that while she was there, the Teamsters were in the midst of their previous attempt at unionization, which she wrote about for a collaboration between Ricochet and Jacobin.
Chand told Rankandfile.ca she found out about the union drive from management because she had been absent the day the Teamsters came to the workplace and tended to work evening shifts.
“I didn’t actually see the Teamsters until three or four weeks into their union drive,” she recalled.
The employee relations people management sent to cultivate a “culture of doubt” about unionization forced the workforce to play team-building exercises games, Chand said.
“It was trying to get people to bond with one another, but in a very horrible way,” she said. “People didn’t really want to play those games because they were tired.”
From the outside to the inside
The precarious nature of the work posed a major challenge for organizers, with so many people coming and going, Chand said. “Most of them are immigrants or first generation or racialized Canadians,” she added.
But, ultimately, the Teamsters simply didn’t have a consistent presence at the workplace, which put them at a major disadvantage against an employer that does.
“A lot of workers never really interacted with the Teamsters,” Chand said.
As Local 362 secretary treasurer Bernie Haggarty admitted in Chand’s article, “we didn’t have anybody on the inside” of the Nisku facility.
The union thought it had obtained the 40% signature threshold to trigger a vote, but Amazon included temporary workers who weren’t at the time on contract, the story notes.
“The company inflated their numbers when we made our application, including lists of employees who had not worked there for three months,” Haggerty later told CTV News.
“We found several discrepancies in the list of people that work there, and strategically we could have gone to hearing but we didn’t.”
Rolling the dice
Athabasca University labour studies professor Bob Barnetson said the union should have been prepared for the company to inflate the workforce numbers.
“Any union that’s running a certification campaign that can’t meet the threshold made a significant error in their organizing. Either they missed a huge group of people or they simply don’t have the support to win a vote,” he told Rankandfile.ca. “Not hitting a 40% threshold is an organizing failure on the part of the union.”
That said, it’s common for a union to file as soon as possible, so that even if they fail they receive a list of all the workers at the workplace, whom they can convince to get on board.
“They roll the dice, they fail. They come back many days later, or whatever the timeline is, but now they have a full list,” Barnetson explained.
Writing at The Conversation, Brock University labour studies professors Jordan House and Paul Christopher Gray say the grassroots nature of the ALU put it at an advantage where other, more established unions have struggled.
Organizers were able to have one-on-one discussions with colleagues about their concerns at the workplace while explaining how Amazon’s anti-union consultants get rich “convincing poor people to stay poor,” as organizer Connor Spence put it.
“The ALU has proven that one of the most powerful anti-union companies in North America can be unionized. This doesn’t mean that the already established unions can’t beat Amazon, but as the ALU has made clear, inside workers have to take the lead,” House and Gray wrote.
About the Author
Jeremy Appel is an Alberta-based freelance journalist and regular writer for Rankandfile.ca. You can also follow and support Jeremy’s writing at Appel Orchard.