How Amazon Beat the Union in Alberta
Last year, the Teamsters attempted and failed to unionize Amazon in Alberta, Canada. A reporter working for Jacobin and Ricochet went undercover at an Amazon warehouse for almost five months and witnessed firsthand the challenges put to the Teamsters’ union drive.
On September 14, a week after Teamsters Local 362 filed a vote to unionize Amazon’s YEG1 fulfillment center in Nisku, Alberta, the warehouse’s employees received the following message via the company’s emergency text system, usually reserved for urgent COVID-19 communications:
Did you know that union negotiations are a give and take process? While these negotiations are in good faith, there are no guaranteed outcomes. The union may trade away something you value in order to get something one group of associates or the union itself wants.
I worked at YEG1 in the months leading up to the failed unionization drive. There I saw firsthand the exhausting pace of work and the coerciveness of management but also the appeal of the job for working-class people stuck in a labor market in which low wages and bad conditions are the norm.
The conditions in which workers are forced to confront bosses are never ideal — the Teamsters’ attempt to unionize Amazon was no exception. Pitted against the organizers was a company that raked in record profits and sales during the pandemic, amassing billions in just a few months. While ordinary people saw their household savings dwindle, the logistics firm’s profits soared by 220 percent.
Amazon reported a profit of $8.1 billion in 2021, compared to $2.5 billion in 2020. The firm’s pandemic-fueled growth meant that it needed more workers to meet production demands. In Canada, new fulfillment centers popped up across the country. On September 13, Amazon announced that it would top up its 25,000 current employees with 15,000 part- and full-time new hires.
Difficult working conditions resulting in part from unrealistic quotas are standard across Amazon worldwide. An investigation conducted by the Atlantic and Reveal for the Center of Investigative Reporting found that Amazon’s rate of serious injuries in the United States was more than double the national average for the warehousing industry; a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) report uncovered the company’s retaliation tactics against workers who have tried to push through unionization efforts; an article for the Globe and Mail noted that employees often complain about not having time to use the restroom and working in an environment without adequate social distancing measures in place during the pandemic.
Forty years of declining or stagnant wages in most working-class jobs have lowered workers’ morale and expectations in Canada and the United States. The fact that a unionization drive even appeared possible in a company known for its ruthless profit maximization is evidence of a change in the tide. At YEG1 the Teamsters fell short of pushing back against the torrent of retrenchment, but hope remains for renewing the fight if we can learn lessons from defeat.
“You’re Happy You’re Earning a Lot, But You’re Also Sad That You’re Tired”
On May 6, 2020, I applied to work as a seasonal warehouse associate at the YEG1 fulfillment center. The application process is incredibly simple, requiring only the submission of a résumé and a few questions on a psychological survey. Two weeks later, I was scheduled for an “interview.” A Human Resources assistant checked my ID, took a photo of me, and asked about my availability. New applicants must work the nightshift (7:15 PM to 5:45 AM) and choose between two options: Sunday to Wednesday or Wednesday to Saturday. I chose Wednesday to Saturday.
Management presented training with the machinery used to lift heavy items as optional. When I declined the training though, I was informed that I wouldn’t be hired if I didn’t mark down that I was comfortable undergoing it. As with many things at Amazon, training with machinery was an option I couldn’t refuse.
My first shift was on June 2. The first five hours of orientation were dedicated to health and safety videos. When we commenced work drills, we were further instructed in Amazon’s health and safety protocols. However, the entire affair was pro forma. As I was told later by an ambassador — ambassadors are Amazon’s on-site employee advisers and pep talkers — the preshift exercises are not necessary: “I just skip through them, although we encourage you to do them.”
New hires at Amazon are known as “White Badges.” They are treated as seasonal or temporary hires and receive limited benefits. Ostensibly, after ninety days of work, employees are eligible to apply for their blue badge, which signifies permanent employment and additional benefits. In reality, eligibility for a blue badge is much more ad hoc. The badges are granted on the basis of Amazon’s production needs. This arbitrariness works as an inducement for productivity in new hires — if they demonstrate industriousness, they may make early blue-badge status.
Blue badges entitle workers to benefits such as education savings plans, PTO (personal time off), and monthly bonuses for high productivity. It used to include paid medical leave, but a current associate informed me that medical leave is no longer offered. After two years of work, Blue Badges are also entitled to two shares of Amazon stock. Only Blue Badges can apply for day shifts, but acceptance is contingent on productivity. During peak seasons, all workers must work a mandatory sixty hours, or six days a week.
Layla, a forty-three-year-old Filipino woman in need of work hours to obtain permanent residency in Canada, started working at Amazon in October 2020. “You get tired a lot, but at the same time you earn a lot,” Layla tells me. “It’s a win-lose, lose-win situation. You’re happy you’re earning a lot, but you’re also sad that you’re tired. I don’t know how to balance that one.”
All White Badges are keen to upgrade to blue in order to obtain benefits and the security of full-time work. Jon, a twenty-five-year-old international student from Kenya, worked as a warehouse associate from June to September. He quit when his efforts didn’t result in a blue badge. “There’s some kind of exploitation at work, but it’s sugarcoated in a way,” he said of Amazon warehouse operations. “They appraise work with a computer, but you have to consider how people work.”
The Belly of the Beast
A historic heat wave began in Alberta on June 25. For eight consecutive days, temperatures reached a high of 30 degrees Celsius. At the time, I was entering my fourth week of working at YEG1.
For safety reasons, Amazon requires employees to wear clothes that cover their arms. Because of the heat, long-sleeved clothing made work extremely uncomfortable. One day during the heat wave, I found myself on the receiving end of the warehouse’s automated disciplinary procedures.
Amazon’s warehouse workers labor under the company’s point system, which is all stick, no carrot. The points are not points at all — they’re demerits. Employees do not receive points as long as they punch in within the five-minute window granted at the beginning of a shift. Tardiness counts for 0.5 points. If an employee reaches five points, they receive a warning. Six points means termination. Early on in my position, I was warned that I should have my first item scanned within five minutes of clocking in.
Entering the facility at 7:17 PM, I was down to the wire for time. However, I was stopped at the COVID temperature checkpoint and told to wait for several minutes. Because of the heat, employees were required to physically cool down to ensure accurate measurements.
After being held up, I was thirteen minutes late to scan my first item. Before long, the process guide came to my station and drew my attention to the computer that they use to track packing. He very much hoped that I would become eligible for all the benefits of a blue badge, he said. But he was concerned that both me and the area manager could get in trouble for tardiness on the line — coming five minutes late is one thing, but thirteen is unacceptable. He explained that because I had already received a warning for lateness, if this were to happen again, I’d get a warning potentially leading to termination.
I wasn’t the only one who found the warehouse work incredibly difficult during the heat wave. Employees suffering from migraines and nausea quickly used up the limited amount of unpaid voluntary time off (VTO). The fact that unpaid leave can come across as a charitable gift by management is a product of the low expectations of workers at Amazon, and in North America more generally. Workers looking to take uncompensated time off are only eligible to do so if production quotas are low.
Those of us who weren’t fast enough to grab VTO just worked through the pain as best as we could. In place of proper ventilation, management provided workers with free Gatorade, which was, predictably, not enough to cool us off. During that entire week, the only aeration in the warehouse came from the large fans on the ceilings, and it barely reached us on the ground. Small fans at each station were introduced the week after to mitigate workplace hyperthermia.
Contrary to popular opinion, Amazon hasn’t actually changed the nature of work, according to Barry Eidlin, an assistant professor in the sociology department at McGill University. Rather, Amazon’s business model exists only because workers’ expectations have changed. Eidlin notes that Amazon proudly boasts about its starting wages of $17.75 in an attempt to appeal to the large pool of low-wage workers who have been forced to make ends meet on minimum wage for decades.
“In the context of the broader labor market, what they’re actually doing is undercutting wages by making warehouse work look more like working at Walmart,” Eidlin says. “So, a high-wage warehouse job is becoming more like a low-wage retail job.”
Being a packer is physically demanding, and pain is common. My ambassador, along with other associates, warns new recruits about how much pain they will experience in their feet at the onset of work. It’s a rite of passage to be in pain and tired. Half-serious jokes about this are frequent: “Amazon is killing us” and “I’m going to get scoliosis” are common refrains among workers. Eventually, the foot pain subsides, giving way to consistent back pain.
After an item is retrieved by the picker, it is sent to packers to be scanned, packaged, taped, and stuck with a shipping label. After passing through these rounds, the item is sent to the shipping dock to be placed on a truck. If at any point there is a problem, the item will be stalled and a “problem solver” will have to come in to fix the issue. All items must be mailed out on time, so speed and accuracy are of utmost importance.
Several weeks into my time with the company, I was informed that I wasn’t making quota. This was a surprise because the need to make quota was never communicated to me. For the first two weeks of work, new recruits aren’t expected to meet quota. By the third week, quotas are implemented, but they are not properly communicated to employees. Associates have to push to get any answers to even simple questions. Consequently, there is a general sense of frustration with management. “Amazon doesn’t care” is a warehouse mantra.
I soon learned that regular workers are expected to pack sixty to eighty medium or large items or ninety small items per hour. Items labeled “Shipment In Own Container” (SIOC) don’t need to be packed into a box, but they still need to be scanned and stuck with a shipment label. These tend to be large and heavy.
The longer an employee’s tenure with the company, the greater the expectations for productivity. The fastest packer on our shift could pack 300 items — depending on size — in one hour. Other fast packers reach 100 to 200 items per hour. When production is slow, fast packers are removed from the packing station to reduce the speed and volume. When production speeds up, these packers are crucial to ensuring that items are shipped on time. Workers with exceptional packing skills are frequently burdened with the extra toil of dealing with priority packages. Amazon work is not piecework, and the skill required to meet surges in production demand is not remunerated.
On my second day of work, I visited Amazon’s on-site medical unit, AmCare. My feet were killing me and I wanted some ice. I asked the medical workers there if many employees come in for treatment. I was told that there are usually a few new employees who seek aid for soreness and a small but consistent number of regular employees who drop in due to workplace injuries to shoulders, backs, or ankles.
Whenever an associate is injured, they have to report the injury within twenty-four hours. If they don’t, they will be reprimanded. Area managers investigate by looking over recently scanned items to see if the size of handled packages appears commensurate with the severity of the injury. According to the Intercept, an investigation carried out by the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that AmCare workers have been pressured by the company to “sweep injuries and medical issues under the rug at the expense of employee health.” From what I saw, minor injuries happen often, but many workers don’t think a trip to AmCare is worth the trouble, or they are simply unaware of what rights they have and forego treatment.
Kelly, a forty-five-year-old white woman, was suffering from a car accident injury and worked from November to August on accepted accommodations. “Accommodations” is the term used to indicate that an employer has engaged an employee with some sort of disability. Kelly sustained a further injury in the warehouse. She said the process of acquiring workers’ compensation and proper accommodation was difficult because it required a thorough understanding of health care and labor laws.
“I think that Amazon is able to get away with so many people not making WCB (Workers’ Compensation Board) claims — like they should when they’re injured — because people don’t know their rights,” Kelly said. “I was born and raised here, and I had no idea how WCB stuff was supposed to work when I was injured.”
Amber, a fifty-nine-year-old white immigrant, injured her knee while working in the winter of 2021. The Workers’ Compensation Board accepted her case, and she has been on leave since then. When she was working in the warehouse, she felt she was pushed to do more than other associates because she wasn’t a “favorite” of management. “I’ve been told that I’m not fast enough,” Amber said through text message. “I went around to ask people who I’ve seen working with my speed or slower. They’ve never been told the same.”
My area manager would often say “health and safety first, productivity and quality second.” However, this worker-first mantra was cast aside when production quotas demanded work speedups — stations would be overcrowded with process assistants digging for priority packages in cages, associates would pack items twice their own size, and improper lifting techniques would become widespread.
“Sometimes I Feel Bad, but I Fight Back”
“Front half” is the term used at Amazon to refer to shifts covering the early part of the week, from Sunday to Wednesday. “Back half” refers to all Wednesday to Saturday shifts. The convergence of multiple shifts on Wednesday makes it the busiest day of the week. Because of frequent staff shortages, workers who are willing to put in overtime are often made to work overlong shifts, and speedups are common. When this happens, there isn’t any forewarning — employees are simply expected to deal with an increase to the hourly quota. The usual assignment of roughly sixty to eighty items rises to ninety to 110 items per hour. “For back half, we don’t have any choice if we are asked to pack for ten hours a shift and not be rotated because we never have adequate staff,” Layla says.
Over time, it became clear that Amazon often relocates workers unable to meet quotas. Alternative duties are called indirect tasks, and they’re not monitored by the company’s surveillance technology. I was often required to work as a “water spider” — the slang term associates use to refer to workers who keep packing stations fully stocked. To maintain production speed, packers are discouraged from leaving their stations. If they need supplies, water spiders will go and get them.
Although my productivity was fine and I received praise and supportive comments from managers, there were many days when work-related pain and frustration would almost have me in tears. I would come home with numb fingers and often wake up with searing back pain. When I shared my feelings with coworkers, they admitted that they too often felt overwhelmed by the interminable strain of the work.
Anxiety and frustration among staff are common, but so too is worker defiance. I’m not sure about other Amazon facilities, but the Nisku warehouse is full of firebrands. Many of my coworkers would chastise me for not standing up to management and encourage me to speak up more.
“Sometimes I feel bad, but I fight back,” Layla said. “I don’t care if they hate me — I never cared if they called me bitch, never cared if they called me whatever — but I speak my mind. I tell them when I’m mad.”
Amazon is, of course, constantly changing and innovating. In my short four months there, many managers, associates, and policies were upended or discarded. There was no guarantee that a new policy or management team would be around for long. It was not the constant flux, however, that surprised me most — it was the positive work environment. Not the faux positivity pushed by managers through platitudes and work vernacular, but the fact that many workers — even if they were tired, angry, in pain, and complaining openly — claimed to like their jobs.
“I personally enjoyed my time here so far as there wasn’t too much expected out of me as long as you meet the daily quota,” one employee told me over email.
This favorable attitude toward work was due to the mutual support of the shop floor. Workers often create their own close-knit community, and Amazon is no different in that regard. Associates were always available to help anyone in need. Whenever I was unable to lift or carry something, other packers would offer me assistance. Once when I was unable to pack a bag of worms due to my entomophobia, another associate did it for me.
“I like working at Amazon because I meet new people,” another employee told me. “As far as I’m concerned, without its employees, Amazon wouldn’t be able to make anything work properly.”
As Kelly put it to me, “You end up learning more from your coworkers than you do from management.”
The Union Drive
In early July, Teamsters Canada started their first organizing drive at the YEG1 fulfillment center. Amazon put in place an anti-union campaign that same week.
According to Eidlin, the cost of anti-union action, in the minds of employers like Amazon, is of little consequence compared to the potential downward redistribution of money and power that successful unionization can bring about:
What employers really value is unchecked authority in the workplace and the ability to just direct things the way that they see fit, and they will pay a financial premium for that. So, it’s worth it to invest money on the front end in union busting to prevent those longer-term expenses, but when push comes to shove, it’s about control.
Within about a week of the union drive announcement, I was visited by the first of many employee-relations workers (corporate specialists deployed to thwart unionization efforts). He asked if I had spoken with anyone from the union. He proceeded to tell me it was within my rights to talk to union representatives and to ask them questions. He told me that workers have every right to want to talk about unions and that no one would be penalized for speaking to the union. He then wrote down my name before asking me if I had any problems that I would like management to address. Evidently, the arrival of the Teamsters prompted new levels of managerial solicitude because he also asked me what changes I’d like to see at the workplace.
I asked my ambassador if the employee-relations workers are a common presence at Amazon. She answered that in all the months that she’d been an employee, this was the first she had ever seen or heard about them. For the next couple weeks, employee-relations personnel were an unavoidable presence at the workplace. At the same time, the arrival of the Teamsters had changed the tenor of workplace discussions.
While some workers were automatically supportive of the union, others were hesitant or uninformed about unionization. The fight for the hearts and minds of workers by both Amazon and the Teamsters was slow, and it didn’t really pick up in intensity until September. All the same, subtle changes took place. TV screens began to display information about unions, making claims such as “unions are a business.” Messaging about the “special benefits” Amazon gives employees became ubiquitous — on warehouse screens and on printouts left on tables.
In the break areas, information sheets answering hypothetical questions about unions were set up on every table. Signs were hung on every stall in the bathroom, in multiple languages, arguing that the effects of unionization are all negative. The signs decried union dues as costly fees and warned workers that benefits could potentially be cut.
Employee sentiment on the matter was mixed. A standard employee discussion on the issue would have proponents and detractors. One associate would say that unionization depends on the union — some unions are good and some are bad. Another employee would declare that her concern was more about job security than it was about pay. Many of my colleagues explained that they were on the fence about the issue. Unionization might mean some protections, sure, but they were worried about how much of their pay would go to union dues. Some fast packers, who are not compensated for their efficiency, feared that a union would benefit “lazy” coworkers over them.
In another example of the workplace brio at the Nisku warehouse, my ambassador advised our operations manager that “if you don’t want Amazon to be unionized, then you need to do something about salary, because that’s what people see.”
“We’re not here to get your $30. We’re here to help improve the workplace, see if we can negotiate higher wage increases,” Chance Hrycun, Teamsters Local 362 vice president, said in an interview after I left Amazon. “We can’t guarantee them anything. We’re just showing them an example of what other people get.” This language, a little short on bravura, doubtlessly played a part in the union’s lack of success.
“You Going to Vote?”
In early August, I called the Teamsters, presenting myself as an uninformed employee. Over the phone, I was told by an organizer that the union had about 200 signatures and that they thought they were close to obtaining signatures from 40 percent of employees — the number needed to hold an election. However, as Eidlin points out, experienced union organizers are aware that a union drive should aim to obtain signatures from 70 percent of the workers.
Layla told me she called the Teamsters as well, but did not receive a call back. She wasn’t able to find an organizer on-site, either. Consequently, she ended up discussing her concerns with a manager. She explained that she wanted to sign the union card but was hesitant about the union dues. The manager told her, somewhat even-handedly, that there are a lot of pros and cons to consider, and that the decision was ultimately in her hands. Needless to say, this experience did little to persuade her of the advantages of unionization. Had she been able to get access to an organizer, she may well have been able to have her concerns addressed more thoroughly.
Around this time, roughly a month after the union drive began, Amazon sent in a new employee-relations person, who told us that the company wanted to make sure that associates knew what they’d be getting themselves into if they signed a union card. I asked her point-blank if Amazon was for or against unionization. She told us:
The reason we don’t feel like unions align with our culture is that when there’s a problem, associates can always go talk to HR or their managers directly. When you unionize, you have to go through the union first, even with small issues. We lose that direct communication and thus ruin that relationship between associates and management.
In August and early September, a sense of dissatisfaction seemed to spread through the warehouse — my coworkers felt overworked and underappreciated.
“The pandemic has highlighted this essential work,” Eidlin says:
It’s been less evident in Canada, but we had an uptick in strikes in the US; we’ve had that great resignation of people realizing that they don’t have to put up with the day-to-day indignities they’ve been putting up with at work.
Layla informed me she had changed her mind about the union because she felt she wasn’t respected or listened to by management. An employee named Jon, a young black man, signed the union card due to the counsel of older black employees, who were almost unanimous in their union advocacy.
My coworker Sara signed the union card because she felt there was too much favoritism on the job. She felt her requests to do lighter work or be rotated on to different shifts resulted in exactly the opposite of what she requested.
“When the union tried to get into Amazon, I noticed how the higher authorities tried to convince us to not sign up for it,” Sara later wrote to me. “Management became more accommodating and nicer to us. That’s what I noticed. I believed that maybe the union could do something for all the workers in Amazon, especially when it comes to equality at work.”
Someone in management apparently could read the change in worker mood because Amazon battened down the hatches, deploying upper management from other facilities to rail against unionization and to extoll the benefits of working at Amazon.
On September 14, Teamsters Local 362 filed for a union vote, confident that they had obtained the necessary 40 percent of signed cards to hold an election. A week later, the company sent the emergency text, warning workers that the “union may trade away something you value in order to get something one group of associates or the union itself wants.”
Shortly before my departure from the company, I had a discussion with an area manager that quickly turned to the matter of the Teamsters drive.
“I didn’t get your own take on the union,” the manager said.
“I would say I’m pro-union.”
“You going to vote?”
“I don’t know if I’ll be here long enough.”
“I’m thinking, regardless, that if you think that, it’s best maybe you shouldn’t because it’ll impact everybody else.”
“There Are Things You Just Don’t Know”
My last interaction with one of Amazon’s employee-relations personnel was with an operations manager named Blaine. He was quick to underscore problems with unionization. “It is a risk, and if you want to take that risk, then it’s up to you, but the other thing to look at is there are plenty of examples where unions don’t negotiate anything better for their members.”
Blaine went on to say that Amazon might reduce the shift hours to offset potential losses incurred by unionization. He suggested that the company might not offer as much Voluntary Extra Time (VET) or dental benefits.
On September 29, the Alberta Labour Relations Board informed Teamsters Canada that the number of signed cards did not meet the necessary 40 percent of employees in the fulfillment center to trigger an election.
Two months later, on November 24, the Teamsters discovered that Amazon had inflated the number of employees by including people who were not employed at Amazon during the time of the union application.
In the Bessemer union drive in Alabama, Amazon insisted on including temporary seasonal workers in the election, inflating the number of workers that the union needed to reach. Although temporary workers also deserve representation, Amazon is fully aware that, because they’re not in it for the long haul, temporary workers can oftentimes be used as a form of leverage against organizing.
“Amazon is such a vast company with a global footprint, and it has so much power and so many resources at its disposal,” Eidlin says. “It needs to be reined in, not just with work authorization, but with state regulation.”
I spoke with Bernie Haggarty, secretary treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 362, after the election failure. “There are things you just don’t know, when you’re going in for the first time — and we didn’t have anybody on the inside,” Haggerty told me. “Wherever we fell down, we will, going forward, try to correct.”
I also checked in on a few of my former coworkers. Sara told me she probably won’t vote again in the future: “I realized that maybe we’re okay without the union because I heard from other unionized workers that they really won’t do anything for us, maybe besides the wage increase.”
“Having a union would, at a basic level, force Amazon to recognize the humanity of the workers, because they would actually have to negotiate with them,” Eidlin says. For this to happen, however, the union must up its game and successfully communicate with workers.
In late December of last year, Teamsters Canada withdrew its application. The union says it is planning to start a new application after the legally mandated ninety-day wait period. The union is currently collecting signatures again at YEG1 and plans to refile later this year.