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How Some Amazon Shareholders Allied With The Labour Movement

Above Photo: An Amazon corporate building. Bryan Angelo / UnsplashNick Seebruch.

Some shareholders at Amazon are using their power to advance the interests of labour.

During Amazon’s annual general meeting on May 24, a proposal for an independent audit on working conditions in Amazon warehouses did not pass. This was unsurprising after Amazon’s Board of Directors advised their shareholders to vote against the proposal ahead of the meeting.

The Board of Directors recommended against passing the proposal because they claim that the company regularly enhances safety processes and programs, they have shared workforce incident rates, they are transparent about their commitment to improve workplace safety and because there are already “independent directors” who review workplace incidents.

However, the reasons provided by the board give little comfort for those who are aware of the situation on the ground.

A number of Amazon shareholders, including members of the Canadian group, the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE), responded to the Board’s recommendation with a strong call to continue to support an audit into warehouse conditions.

“Although Amazon has committed to respect the freedom of association and collective bargaining rights of its employees and abide by internationally recognized human rights standards, numerous reports indicate that Amazon’s conduct towards employees seeking unionization appears to contradict its own human rights commitments,” reads a statement put out by SHARE and other investment groups.

While the proposal didn’t pass, the push coming from shareholders has revealed how important shareholders can sometimes be as allies to the labour movement. The working class holds their power in their labour and the ability to withhold that labour. As well, shareholder allies to the labour movement can also use their financial influence to up the pressure on corporations.

Sarah Couturier-Tanoh, a member of SHARE who has been involved with the shareholder proposal on labour conditions, said that there are quite a few shareholders that are interested in addressing the mistreatment of warehouse workers. These shareholders have the capacity to escalate pressure in order to hold the board accountable.

“Last year, there has been some efforts I believe withhold votes to re-elect Judith McGrath, one of Amazon’s board members,” Couturier-Tanoh said. “I believe that a number of shareholders withheld votes against her re-election. So that could be an avenue that some shareholders might pursue in the coming year.”

Getting Amazon to review their labour practices and create a better work environment does not have to wait until 2024, however. According to a report by Reuters, companies often take action on a resolution if they receive a backing of 30 per cent to 40 per cent of votes cast.

Couturier-Tanoh said that in 2022, a similar proposal received 39 per cent of shareholders support. She explained that when you remove the votes of shareholders who are also managers, the number goes up to 46 per cent.

“It’s clear that workforce issues have been at the forefront of this meeting and that workforce issues are a top priority for a lot of investors of Amazon,” Couturier-Tanoh said. “And wherever the voting result is, I think considering last year’s votes and considering all the concerns that have been raised by a number of investors here, it really should prompt Amazon to be more responsive.”

For shareholders who may not be as concerned about the poor labour conditions, there is still reason to push for better practices. Couturier-Tanoh explained that the poor conditions in warehouses poses a reputational risk which could lead to a lower return for investors.

“When you have that amount of controversy it’s a reputational risk,” Couturier-Tanoh said. “It’s a regulatory and legal risk. So the effect the failure to uphold freedom of association and collective bargaining rights may have on Amazon would ultimately impact the long term value.”

Worker power comes from workers themselves. However, allyship from shareholders can help make necessary changes on urgent issues. While the shareholder proposal did not pass this year, pressure from worker organizing mixed with the efforts from organizations like SHARE may bring the Amazon Board of directors to account.

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