The Teamsters Organized Some Amazon Delivery Workers. What Happens Next Is Complicated.

Did the Teamsters just successfully negotiate the first tentative agreement for Amazon workers anywhere in America? The fact that the workers are subcontracted means the answer to that question isn’t cut and dry.

An Amazon worker walks past his Amazon Prime delivery truck in Washington, DC, on February 19, 2022. (Stefani Reynolds / AFP / Getty Images)

When Sean O’Brien ran for the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, he vowed to unionize Amazon. Building on the Teamsters’ creation of an Amazon division in 2021, O’Brien, who won the union’s top leadership in 2022, promised to prioritize organizing one of the largest and most anti-union companies in the United States. Led by Amazon division director and Teamsters Joint Council 42 director of organizing Randy Korgan, Teamsters have since been building ties with Amazon workers, both in the company’s warehouses and among its delivery drivers, but no new bargaining units resulted.

That changed on Monday, when the Teamsters announced that eighty-four Amazon delivery drivers and dispatchers in Palmdale, California, site of Amazon’s DAX8 facility, had unionized, and that the Teamsters Local 396 union had reached a tentative agreement, the first such agreement for any Amazon workers in the United States. The workers are employed by Battle-Tested Strategies (BTS), one of Amazon’s roughly three thousand delivery service partners (DSPs), which granted voluntary union recognition after a majority of workers signed union-authorization cards.

While the details of the contract won’t be released until members vote on whether to ratify the agreement, it “includes immediate pay increases, substantial hourly raises in the fall, provisions that hold Amazon accountable on health and safety standards, a grievance procedure, and other benefits,” said Korgan in a press release. Voting will take place over the coming weeks.

“We want fair pay and safe jobs, to be able to provide food for our families. We want to know we will make it home to our families at night after delivering Amazon packages in the extreme heat,” said Rajpal Singh, a forty-year-old Amazon driver in Palmdale. Singh was one of many BTS employees who marched on Amazon on Monday morning to demand that the company respect their right to organize.

But what followed the announcement wasn’t so straightforward. Shortly after the Teamsters went public with the campaign, Amazon said that BTS “had a track record of failing to perform and had been notified of its termination for poor performance well before today’s announcement.” The following day, in comments to the Guardian’s Michael Sainato, BTS owner Johnathan Ervin disputed Amazon’s claims, noting that the company’s current contract doesn’t expire until October 3 and that the newly unionized drivers are currently delivering Amazon packages.

It’s possible that Amazon is telling the truth, and BTS’s owner hid Amazon’s decision not to renew the contract from the workers and their union, hoping that his decision to grant voluntary recognition would result in good publicity; it’s also possible that Amazon’s decision to cancel the contract is retaliation against the workers. But the conflicting statements point to a key complication in organizing Amazon’s drivers.

Amazon’s DSP program launched in 2019, and DSPs are legally distinct companies from Amazon itself. That remove, an example of what David Weil has termed the “fissured workplace,” separates the e-commerce giant and the more than one hundred thousand workers it employs to transport goods to your doorstep. These drivers may wear Amazon-branded clothing, drive Amazon-branded vehicles, and in all meaningful senses of the term be laboring under Amazon’s edicts, but rather than taking workplace grievances to Amazon itself, those workers deal with DSP management. Amazon, in turn, gets millions of packages delivered, without the liability and responsibility that accompanies employer status.

Such a dynamic means that to avoid a union, Amazon can simply cancel the contracts of any DSPs whose workers organize — making organizing one shop at a time not only tremendously time consuming but potentially doomed from the start.

This isn’t the first time Amazon has been suspected of retaliating against delivery drivers. A group of forty-six Silver Star drivers unionized with the Teamsters in 2017, and the union said that Silver Star and Amazon responded by illegally firing the workers. Shortly after the campaign, Amazon held a meeting in Chicago with the management of some of the city’s DSPs. As one attendee told Buzzfeed News, “The whole purpose of the meeting was to say to you, ‘Here’s how to not get unionized. Because if you do, we pretty much don’t want anything to do with a union.’”

Many DSPs exist solely to service Amazon, leaving them beholden to the company’s changing expectations and directives. That means DSP management often has plenty of its own grievances against the company.

Stories of these owners racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt abound. In 2021, two DSPs in Portland, Oregon terminated their contracts after Amazon refused to agree to a set of conditions that the DSPs said would improve revenue and driver safety. A letter from the attorney representing the two DSPs stated that “Amazon’s conduct over the past two years has become intolerable, unconscionable, unsafe, and most importantly, unlawful.”

Such frustrations may explain why management at BTS, the California company, voluntarily recognized its workers’ union: some DSP owners might see a union as a useful bulwark against Amazon’s unilateral, unworkable dictates. (BTS’s owner couldn’t be reached for comment.)

It’s possible that the new BTS union will be a test case for determining whether Amazon’s control over its delivery workforce makes it a joint employer. Workers just won such a union at YouTube, with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determining that Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is a joint employer and will have to bargain with the employees. In California, the threshold for being an independent contractor rather than a worker entitled to union protections requires meeting three conditions: the worker is free from the company’s “control and direction,” they perform work that is “outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business,” and they are engaged in an independently established trade.

“If Amazon is able to get away with ignoring the workers’ decision and hiding behind the subcontractor relationships, then I’m afraid we’ll have yet another story of the failure of American labor law,” Benjamin Sachs, a labor scholar at Harvard Law School, told Vox. “If this leads to a recognition that these drivers are Amazon employees, joint employees, then this could be massively important.”

The timing of Amazon’s cancelation of BTS’s contract is a key question. If the NLRB finds that the company canceled the contract to avoid engaging with the union, that would be a violation of labor law. Amazon has yet to specify at what date it informed BTS that its contract would not be renewed, and the Teamsters say the BTS workers had been engaged in legally protected concerted activity for more than a year, raising the possibility that the cancelation of a contract during that period could have been a response to the organizing activity.

Should the Palmdale workers pursue the argument for joint-employer status, they’ll have plenty of evidence to draw from. The letter to Amazon from the attorney for the two former Portland DSPs contains a series of grievances: per Motherboard, they include “cutting routes from delivery companies without notice, unevenly distributing workloads among drivers, lowering reimbursement for drivers’ wages, accessing their employee’s records and personal information, firing their drivers without input from delivery companies,” and frequently changing “rules on a whim without notifying delivery service partners.” A 2016 Department of Labor investigation also bolsters the argument: in that case, the investigator found that the company’s control and supervision of the work and the delivery workforce constituted joint employment.

“We deliver in an Amazon van, wearing an Amazon uniform, but when we petition Amazon, they ignore us,” said Singh, the BTS employee. “We have a mass of support, we are a union, and now they need to listen.”