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Amazon’s attempts to block Toronto delivery union resulted in firings, bankruptcies, union alleges

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A union representing Amazon delivery drivers in Toronto alleges that dozens of drivers have lost their jobs and a courier company has gone bankrupt due to anti-union tactics by Amazon Canada Fulfillment Services.

New documents obtained by The Logic detail the extent to which the union claims Amazon controls the wages, schedules and management of the estimated 770 drivers who work out of Amazon’s Scarborough and Mississauga fulfillment centres. According to an unfair labour practice complaint filed by United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW), Local 175, the arrangement leaves drivers powerless to negotiate working conditions with either Amazon or their direct employers. Amazon maintains that delivery drivers are third-party contractors and not its employees.

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Talking Points

Documents obtained by The Logic provide new details on Amazon delivery drivers’ attempts to unionize. The union representing the Toronto-area drivers alleges that Amazon Canada Fulfillment Services blocked drivers’ organizing efforts by cutting their workloads after they filed union certification. As a result, the union says, dozens of drivers lost their jobs and one courier company contracted by Amazon went bankrupt. In court filings, Amazon denies all of the union’s allegations, including claims that the delivery drivers in question are Amazon employees.

The union alleges that by denying drivers employee status while simultaneously directing all aspects of their work, Amazon has imposed a “chilling effect” on organizing efforts. “Amazon has sent an unequivocal message to the courier drivers at its Scarborough and Mississauga distribution terminals that unionization equates to job loss,” UFCW states in its complaint to the board. “Accordingly, a reasonable courier driver … would be unable to freely exercise his or her right to choose union representation.”

Amazon did not respond to The Logic’s request to comment. “We have a longstanding practice of not commenting on an active case,” said Amanda Ip, a communications manager at Amazon, when The Logic broke the news in December about the attempt to unionize.

One courier company named in the complaint is DEC Fleet Services. Its drivers—who delivered packages exclusively for Amazon through its Scarborough and Mississauga fulfillment centres—filed for union certification on Sept. 26, 2017. The workers unionized on Oct. 31, 2017, and met for collective bargaining four times during February and March of 2018. On April 14, 2018, the company sent an email to drivers saying, “DEC Fleet Services has shut down and ceased operations effective immediately. We cannot afford to continue to operate.” The company filed for bankruptcy four days later.

Documents obtained by The Logic note that DEC president Sandy Montgomery had told drivers prior to their union vote that “Amazon doesn’t generally like Unions.” And, during collective bargaining in the months before the company’s bankruptcy, the drivers claim that Montgomery told drivers that “a lot of issues” could not be negotiated because of Amazon’s control over key aspects of the job, like drivers’ work hours and route assignments. On top of that, DEC didn’t have a “fixed term contract” with Amazon, which meant Amazon could end its arrangement with DEC at any time, leaving the drivers virtually powerless to negotiate with the e-commerce giant. In a July 2017 letter to drivers, DEC stated: “Whether the employees of DEC Fleet Services are represented by a trade union or not, our client [Amazon] will still be able to establish its own policies and require whomever it contracts with to comply with these policies.”

Montgomery thinks having a formal contract with Amazon might have improved “the ability for drivers to earn better wages.” But that the union didn’t make things easier by increasing operating costs.

The DEC president owned a mixed transportation company before he and his two children pivoted to last-mile delivery.

“The kids saw an opportunity with Amazon,” he said in a phone interview with The Logic. “I didn’t. I saw a ton of low-margin, major-effort work.”

“Everybody wants free delivery; everybody wants cheap,” said Montgomery. “On the other hand, they want to earn top dollar. It’s a challenging line of work.”

All Canadian Courier (ACC), another company named in the application, made a similar push to unionize in November 2017. On Jan. 8, 2018, ACC drivers were granted union status. The union met for collective bargaining seven times over the spring of 2018, during which the drivers raised the topic of seniority rights with respect to route and shift selection. According to the court documents, ACC told drivers “it could not agree to the Union’s seniority language proposal because Amazon alone dictates the assignment of courier drivers to particular shifts and routes.” Instead, the company suggested identifying “Amazon Specific Requirements” in the collective bargaining agreement that states: “The union recognizes that Amazon has specific operational and or other requirements that are beyond the control of the company and are a requirement of maintaining the business. These requirements are subject to change without notice and are as determined by the customer.” The union rejected the proposed clause.

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After the drivers filed for union status, “ACC experienced a steady decline of work as Amazon reduced the number of assignments it provided to the courier company,” according to the documents. “Initially, the workplace’s five shifts were reduced to three shifts per day. Courier drivers were assigned approximately 10 hours of work per day, instead of 12. Amazon reduced the number of routes from approximately 25 to approximately 12.”

Workload remained low during the first few months of 2018, according to the court documents. By April, Amazon withdrew same-day delivery work for ACC; shortly thereafter, the courier company laid off 16 employees who were part of the bargaining unit. The company closed its Mississauga operations on June 22, 2018, laying off all drivers who worked through that distribution centre, due to “unstable and declining volumes.”

Drivers of Stedfast, another courier for Amazon, filed for union certification in March 2018, but were unsuccessful. UFCW alleges that four employees were subsequently fired, including Thineshkumar Chandrakumar, “a vocal and notorious supporter of the Union.” UFCW then filed an unfair labour practice complaint on behalf of the laid-off drivers, and the Ontario Labour Board ordered Stedfast to reinstate Chandrakumar. “In its pleadings and argument in these proceedings, [Stedfast] has consistently pointed to Amazon as the reason it terminated Mr. Chandrakumar and/or cannot reinstate him to his former employment,” the documents read.

DEC was the only courier company named in the case that replied to The Logic’s request to comment.

Amazon is rapidly expanding its fulfillment-centre footprint in Canada. It has 11 centres either complete or approved to be built—four of which were announced this year—amounting to millions of square feet of warehouse goods needing to be delivered. The opportunity has spurred established delivery companies to get into the last-mile courier business, and has also enticed new companies to launch, particularly in urban areas to top up Canada Post service, whose workers are unionized.

The union is asking the OLRB to assert that Amazon and the courier companies are related employers of the delivery drivers, an arrangement that would allow drivers to negotiate directly with Amazon. It also wants the board to order a new union certification vote for Stedfast, whose organizing attempt by drivers was blocked, UFCW alleges (Stedfast denies as much in court filings). Furthermore, UFCW is asking the board to deem the union the exclusive bargaining agent for the unionized drivers—and for those who may want to unionize in the future—and to direct Amazon to take part in collective bargaining with the union.

Amazon denies all the allegations made by UFCW. According to court filings, the company maintains that it is not the employer of the courier drivers, and therefore not responsible for any violation of the Employment Standards Act. Further, Amazon asserts that the union is making “unprecedented and untenable efforts” to have workers be allowed to go to Amazon directly with concerns instead of the courier companies who, according to Amazon, “actually employ the drivers.”

While Amazon acknowledges that workloads of several couriers declined around the time they launched attempts to unionize, it claims those dips had nothing to do with organizing efforts, but rather were circumstances of a slow delivery season. “Any route-assignment reduction for [drivers] was done entirely for legitimate business reasons unrelated to any Union activities … and done proportionally across all delivery service providers,” Amazon states in its response to UFCW’s allegations.

Amazon has a history of barring workers from forming unions. In September 2018, Gizmodo reported on an internal Amazon training video that gave management tips on how to identify and stymie “organizing activity.” So far, a group of employees in Italy are the only Amazon workers to successfully reach an agreement with the company through a bargaining unit.

“Notwithstanding that thousands of courier drivers are employed to deliver Amazon goods throughout North America, there are at present, no unionized courier drivers working for Amazon.com, Inc. or any subsidiary of Amazon.com, Inc. in North America other than the bargaining units described herein,” UFCW states in its application.

The case involving Toronto drivers is ongoing at the OLRB. There have been four hearings at the board to date, with two more scheduled for January 30 and 31.