Teamsters Canada – a trade union representing approximately 120,000 workers mostly in warehousing and delivery services – is reviving its campaign to unionize workers at an Amazon packaging facility in Nisku, Alta., just south of Edmonton.
The move comes on the heels of a historic unionizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y. There, a grassroots movement led by a fired employee successfully rallied workers to vote in favour of becoming the first unionized workplace in Amazon’s history.
Widely seen as one of the biggest victories for organized labour in North America in a generation, the triumph couldn’t have happened at a better time, said Bernie Haggerty, one of the lead organizers of the Nisku campaign for Teamsters Local Union 362.
“We want to strike as quickly as we can now,” Mr. Haggerty told The Globe and Mail. Teamsters staff began handing out union cards in the parking lot of the Amazon warehouse on Tuesday morning, in an effort to get contact information from workers.
This is the Teamsters second attempt at forming a union at the Nisku warehouse, which employs between 700 and 1,000 workers. Its first attempt was fraught with complications. The union accused Amazon of inflating the number of workers at the warehouse such that the Alberta Labour Relations Board ultimately declared Teamsters had not met the threshold of necessary support.
Under provincial rules, an application to unionize must show evidence that at least 40 per cent of employees are in favour. Only after an application has been approved by the labour board are workers allowed to cast votes for or against becoming unionized. Teamsters never made it to that stage.
“We had roughly 370 cards signed, and we felt there were less than 800 workers there. But when we were going over the application with the labour board, the employer included names of employees who had not worked there in over three months,” Mr. Haggerty said.
Amazon warehouses have a high turnover rate: A New York Times investigation published last June showed that the company lost about 3 per cent of its hourly workers each week on average – indicating an annual turnover rate of approximately 150 per cent.
That high rate is perhaps the biggest obstacle in organizing a union drive at Amazon facilities – and a great advantage to the employer, said Douglas Finnson, a Teamsters staff member in charge of the nationwide campaign to get Amazon workers unionized, which was officially launched last June.
“In a month, you’ll sometimes have hundreds of workers leave their jobs. At Amazon, it’s mainly because the work is tough and back-breaking. You have to move fast, you’re in pain. So you don’t last long, especially if you have better options,” he said.
Numerous studies and news investigations over the past few years have documented how poor employment conditions are at Amazon warehouses across North America. For example, a June, 2021, study from the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of American labour unions, found that workers at Amazon warehouses in the U.S. had an injury rate that was almost 80 per cent higher than the rest of the industry.
Ashlynn Chand, an Edmonton-based freelance journalist, worked undercover at the Nisku facility for five months last year and witnessed the Teamsters’ union drive. She said that Amazon employed numerous union-busting tactics, such as arranging individual meetings with workers to discourage them from unionizing.
“They also sent us text messages that warned us we should be careful of the union, they would take away our benefits,” she said. One of the text messages that Amazon sent workers, which Ms. Chand showed The Globe, read: “The union may trade away something you value, in order to get something one group of associates or the union itself wants.”
In response to a Globe and Mail request for comment about Teamsters’ attempt at unionizing workers in the Nisku plant, Amazon said employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union.
“In this case, the Alberta Labour Relations Board found that there was not enough interest to hold a vote.”
That an independent union group (Amazon Labor Union) managed to get workers to vote in favour of joining a union speaks volumes about what methods are useful in organizing against a large and powerful employer, said Stephanie Ross, a labour movement historian and the director of the labour studies program at McMaster University.
“The overarching lesson from the Staten Island campaign was that union organizers need to speak with authenticity about the shared lived experience of working at a place like Amazon in order to gain the trust of workers,” Prof. Ross said. She added that it is not unusual for employers to try and break workers from unionizing by typecasting unions as “outsiders” who just exist to “take your money.”
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