Canadian Amazon Warehouse Could Be First To Unionize In North America

Above Photo: Members of Teamsters Locals 987 and 362 protest outside an Amazon fulfillment center in Alberta, Canada, on July 14, 2021, after meeting with Amazon workers across the country to discuss working conditions and union organizing. Teamsters Canada.

The struggle to unionize Amazon is shifting to Canada, where workers in Alberta could soon be the first to unionize an Amazon warehouse in North America. Workers at the “YEG1” facility in Nisku, Alberta, just outside Edmonton, filed for a union election on Monday, September 13. The election could be held in mere weeks, once the Alberta Labour Relations Board approves the application.

Workers at the relatively new facility in Nisku, which employs between 600 to 800 Amazon “associates,” have described rampant favoritism and discrimination against marginalized workers of color and immigrants. Job security, the pace of work and wages are also among Nisku workers’ top concerns, according to Christopher Monette, director of public affairs at Teamsters Canada.

“A lot workers were telling us stories about how they have been given less favorable job assignments or postings within the warehouse. For example, having to lift heavier boxes without access to the right equipment, things like that,” Monette tells Truthout. “They feel it’s because they didn’t have the correct relationship with their manager or because of their race or ethnic background.”

Monette says workers are being asked to retrieve items every 9 to 12 seconds, and that their jobs and wages are threatened when they can’t keep up. “That’s taking a toll on workers’ bodies,” he says. “We’re seeing young, fit workers complaining about lower-back pain, knee pain, things that they shouldn’t be having as they’re trying to earn a living at Amazon.”

While many Amazon warehouse workers in Europe have unionized, the company has waged severe union-busting campaigns to fend off union drives across North America. The U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found the company violated U.S. labor law in beating back its first North American union election at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this year, and has recommended Bessemer workers hold a new election to determine whether to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

Now, one of the most powerful unions in North America, International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, are stepping up to the plate, hoping that Canada’s union-friendly labor laws will give its local, Teamsters 362, an edge in its union drive at Nisku, and build momentum at warehouses across the country — and the continent.

The 1.4 million-member Teamsters passed a resolution in June to lead an ambitious, international initiative to unionize Amazon. The union is taking a different approach than the RWDSU, promising to pour significant financial resources into a unified unionizing effort across its more than 500 locals in the U.S. and Canada, rather than organizing warehouse by warehouse.

As the warehouse filed for a union election Monday, Amazon Canada announced it would hire 15,000 new warehouse workers and raise hourly wages from $16 to between $17 to $21.65 Canadian dollars per hour. Dave Bauer, who is Amazon Canada Operations head of communications, touted the wage increase, telling Truthout in a statement that full-time employees also receive comprehensive benefits. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly,” Bauer said. “That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle.”

Teamsters Canada’s Monette countered that narrative, telling Truthout that the union believes Amazon’s pay raise came as a direct response to its unionization effort at Nisku, and that its wage hike is misleading because the company also eliminated a monthly bonus scheme that allowed workers to receive extra money for attendance and other productivity-furthering behaviors.

“Because they’ve taken that away while increasing wages, a lot of workers have come to us in the past couple of days and said, ‘You know, we’re not actually sure that our take-home pay is going to be much higher at the end of the month,’” Monette tells Truthout. “It’s being seen as a PR move to make [Amazon] look good, to basically increase wages on one hand and slash bonuses on the other.”

Moreover, he points out, the new wages still don’t match what Teamsters unionized warehouse workers in other kinds of large facilities in Canada regularly earn. Teamsters Canada warehouse workers make between $24.50 and $31.93 per hour within five years, depending on the sector, Monette says.

A collective agreement with seniority rights, he says, would provide a permanent solution to the problem of both favoritism and discrimination that workers have alleged are systemic at the Nisku facility, since workers with seniority would be able to bid on job assignments, preventing shop floor managers from making decisions potentially based on preference or prejudice.

“For both Americans and Canadians, this sends a powerful message. Nisku Amazon workers … are saying, ‘No, we’re not going to be afraid, we’re not going to be intimidated. As Canadian workers, we have the legal right to unionization as a way to improve our lives, and we’re going to do it,’ and the Teamsters are supporting them through that process,” Monette says. “We’re hoping it’s going to be snowball effect. We’re going to start at Nisku, but this can snowball into even more sites as things go on.”

Just as the failed union election in Bessemer, Alabama, sparked a wave of organizing at Amazon warehouses across the U.S., the new union drive at Nisku could inspire similar unionization efforts at even larger Canadian warehouses and provide important new lessons for union organizers in the U.S, where Amazon is set to become the largest employer in the next year or two.

Monette says the Teamsters are building relationships with warehouse workers across Canada and coordinating weekly to share information and best practices with union representatives in the U.S., where Teamsters unions have been focused on fighting tax breaks for new Amazon warehouses. The U.S. strategy has claimed several victories, with at least three local governments denying Amazon projects and tax abatements.

As Nisku Amazon workers push forward with their union drive, Teamsters officials are closely eyeing the differences in dynamics between Canada’s first potential union election and the outcome in Bessemer, Alabama.

“We’ve spoken about the flawed NLRB process, the problems with which are well-documented and which have been tested in the Amazon context already,” said Teamsters National Amazon Director Randy Korgan in a statement. “The process in Alberta is slightly different. We will be watching whether those differences result in a different outcome in this case. Meanwhile, our commitment to building worker power outside these flawed election processes has not wavered one bit.”

Organizing a labor union is a far easier task in Canada than it is in the U.S., since Canadian labor law has much stronger rules against employer interference. At least 40 percent of workers must sign a union authorization card in order to apply for a union election. The Alberta Labour Relations Board then holds a secret ballot election in which a union must receive a simple majority of votes to win.

Another key difference is that Teamsters unions in Canada are more independent from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, with a higher degree of autonomy over locals and greater ability to elect their own leaders.

Amazon’s response to the union drive in Canada will have to differ too. Protections for workers automatically kick in under Canadian law once a unionization campaign officially begins. Amazon can’t fire workers without just cause during a unionizing campaign or arbitrarily change working conditions. Other kinds of threats and coercive approaches that the company has heavily relied on in the U.S. are more strictly prohibited in Canada.

Still, Monette tells Truthout that Amazon has already set up meetings with Nisku employees to attempt to dissuade them from unionizing. “Amazon is a notoriously anti-union, anti-worker company, and we are expecting the worst form them,” he says. “We are expecting them to try to bend all the rules, and yes, we are expecting a certain degree of union-busting, despite the fact that Canadian laws and Canadian culture and Canadian perceptions of unions are quite different from what you find in the United States.”

While much about union organizing in the two countries is different, one of the ways in which the new union drive is similar to the high-profile campaign in Alabama is that, like the Bessemer warehouse that opened in March 2020, the Nisku warehouse is also a newer facility, reaching its one-year anniversary just this month. Employee retention and turnover rate at the young Bessemer facility were among the challenges the RWDSU faced in its campaign.

Monette says the turnover rate at Nisku doesn’t change the fact that a core constituency of senior employees at the warehouse have supported Teamsters Canada’s campaign from the beginning. “That makes a difference, we believe,” he says. “We’re confident that if we do this well, Amazon workers are going to be able to get this [union].”