Amazon is engaging in “tactics of intimidation and harassment” against workers in Montreal who are in the midst of a union drive, according to the union whose banner they’re organizing under. The Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) says its legal department sent letters to management on May 20 and June 2 accusing the Seattle-based company of breaching workers’ rights.
CSN vice president David Bergeron-Cyr notes that Amazon has come out in full force with anti-labor messaging that is “omnipresent” at its Montreal fulfillment center. “It’s intimidation,” Bergeron-Cyr told the Canadian Press (CP). “This American company needs to respect Quebec labor laws.”
The union provided photos to CP showing the warehouse’s break room plastered with posters on the transparent walls dividing the dining tables. The posters read, “We encourage you to speak for yourself. We do not believe that we need a third party between us.”
The company also sent text messages to employees’ personal phones to remind them that the matter of signing a union card or an online petition is one of personal choice. “It is your fundamental right to sign or to say, ‘No, thank you,’ or ‘I am not interested,”’ the text messages read.
Quebec’s Pro-Labor Political Culture
Unlike many other Canadian provinces, Quebec, in cases where more than 50 percent of workers sign union cards, has automatic union certification. If less than half but more than 35 percent of workers sign on, then there’s a vote by secret ballot.
Under Quebec labor laws, employers have a right to express opposition to unionization, but they cannot interfere with the union drive. Nor can employers issue threats or promises based on the outcome of union organizing. Most importantly in this case, employees have the right to choose whether they want to hear management’s views on unionization or not.
Frédéric Paré, a labor studies professor at the University of Québec in Montréal, told CP that Amazon’s tactics “could become problematic” if it overwhelms workers. He said Amazon’s American-style anti-union tactics won’t fly in Quebec, which has a much more pro-labor political culture. “Amazon comes here but they have an old American way of doing things where the employer has more leverage,” Paré said. “Here with unionization, employers don’t have a say.”
According to workers who spoke to CP on the condition of anonymity, management has worked to isolate pro-union workers and threatened to relocate the warehouses if unionization succeeds.
One worker said his life has become miserable since he uttered the word “union” at work. “Every coworker who talks to me, after a few seconds, they are interrogated by the manager. When they do that, people don’t want to talk to you anymore. I’m being isolated,” he said.
Another worker said, “Most people you talk to think we deserve more. But they don’t want to sign the union card because they’re afraid that the company will know that they did and will fire them.”
Bergeron-Cyr says that workers at the Montreal warehouse reached out to the union in April, expressing concern that they were making just $17 or $18 CDN an hour, compared to the $26 to $30 CDN an hour in comparable factory jobs in the province. “The workload and pace of it all are insane,” he said. “People are under pressure. A lot of them are immigrants who don’t know their rights, and Amazon uses that to its own advantage.”
The charges of worker harassment come on the heels of workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island voting in favor of unionization with the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) by a margin of ten percentage points. However, a union drive at another Staten Island warehouse was unsuccessful.
Writing for the Conversation, Brock University labor studies professors Jordan House and Paul Christopher Gray observe that the ALU’s grassroots nature put it at an advantage compared with other more established unions. ALU organizers were able to engage in one-on-one discussions with their fellow Amazon workers about their unique set of conditions.
“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 write.
Organizing Amazon Workers Outside of Quebec
Teamsters Local 362 is trying again to organize Amazon’s Edmonton-area Nisku warehouse after an unsuccessful attempt in September 2021. In last year’s attempt, the union was unable to get the 40 percent of worker signatures needed to trigger a vote under Alberta’s labor laws.
“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 the local, told the Edmonton Journal.
In Ontario, which has the same certification process as Alberta, Teamsters Local 879 is in the early stages of organizing workers at the Mountain warehouse in Hamilton, which opened in April. The local is also leafleting outside fulfillment centers in Milton, Cambridge, Kitchener, and London, and promises a “Canada-wide” effort.
The union says its efforts are a response to workers’ complaints about a lack of breaks and cuts to time off. Workers also complain about being docked for the amount of time it takes to walk to the bathroom.
Defeat in Nisku
Edmonton-based journalist Ashlynn Chand went undercover at the Nisku warehouse in the summer of 2021 for a joint investigation from Jacobin and Ricochet, which coincided with the Teamsters drive. She described union-busting efforts that are very similar to those employed in Montreal. These include TV screens throughout the warehouse and leaflets left on tables displaying anti-union talking points, as well as signs in bathroom stalls in multiple languages for the largely immigrant and racialized workforce.
In the piece, Teamsters Local 362 organizer Bernie Haggerty admitted a major flaw in its unionization plans — “we didn’t have anybody on the inside.” This stands in stark contrast with the ALU’s approach in Staten Island that produced the first unionized Amazon warehouse in North America.
“A lot of workers never really interacted with the Teamsters,” Chand told rankandfile.ca. This allowed the company to sow a culture of doubt about the unknown outsiders who were trying to organize workers they weren’t acquainted with. The precarious nature of the work also posed a challenge to organizers, she added.
The union’s messaging was flawed, Chand observed. “We can’t guarantee [workers] anything. We’re just showing them an example of what other people get,” local vice president Chance Hrycun told her. “This language, a little short on bravura, doubtlessly played a part in the union’s lack of success,” Chand wrote.
It remains to be seen whether the second time will be a charm for the Nisku drive. But if there’s one place in Canada where union organizers can beat the long odds of taking on a trillion-dollar behemoth, it’s in Quebec, with its rich culture of labor activism.