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Toronto delivery drivers say Amazon is blocking their attempts to unionize

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A group of Toronto delivery drivers say Amazon is blocking their attempts to unionize about 770 workers, and they’re asking the Ontario Labour Relations Board to order a new vote.

The drivers, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW), Local 175, allege that Amazon Canada Fulfillment Services is subjecting them to unfair labour practices and has violated the Ontario Labour Relations Act (OLRA) by blocking their efforts to unionize.

“We were approached by delivery drivers who expressed they had concerns about their working conditions and were seeking the aid of a trade union—in this case us—to unionize them in order to deal with their employer,” Tim Deelstra, a spokesperson for UFCW, which filed the complaint on July 20, told The Logic.

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In hearing documents, UFCW asserts that approximately 770 employees would be represented by the proposed bargaining unit. UFCW alleges that Amazon interfered with the drivers’ unionization efforts, preventing the group from getting the 40 per cent support it needs to form a bargaining unit.

Amazon declined to comment. “We have a longstanding practice of not commenting on an active case,” said Amanda Ip, a communications manager at Amazon.

According to Deelstra, UFCW filed union certifications on behalf of delivery drivers hired by Amazon through third-party courier companies. After doing so, Deelstra said Amazon cut back drivers’ work—a form of intimidation, he said, that stifled unionization efforts. “Every time we apply for certification, Amazon cuts off their business,” he said. “Amazon says, ‘We’re not giving you any more orders,’ and then those companies say, ‘We’re folding because that was our business.’”

The Logic reached out to the seven companies named in the complaint. Only one returned our calls, but declined to comment on the proceedings out of fear of retribution.

Talking Point

The union representing delivery drivers asserts that Amazon Canada Fulfillment Services blocked drivers’ attempts to unionize by cutting their workloads after they filed union certifications. While Amazon classifies the drivers as third-party contractors, the union says they are entirely directed by and dependent on Amazon, and are therefore Amazon employees. Amazon declined to comment.

The rapid uptick in Amazon Prime memberships—which include unlimited free shipping—has given rise to an industry of third-party couriers needed to fulfill one- and two-day deliveries. According to the company’s own numbers, Amazon signed up more new Prime members in 2017 than it did in all previous years combined since it launched in 2005. In Canada, members ordered more than twice as many products with same-day delivery in 2018 than the year before. Meanwhile, the company is quickly expanding its fulfillment centre footprint in Canada. It has 11 centres 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. In the United States, Amazon itself recently appealed to independent drivers: spend US$10,000 on upfront fees and earn up to US$300,000 a year delivering Amazon goods.

Similar to how Uber refers to its drivers as “partners” rather than employees, Amazon insists delivery drivers are third-party contractors and don’t directly work for Amazon.

The seven companies named in the Labour Relations Board complaint, however, deliver orders almost exclusively for Amazon, said Deelstra. “These delivery drivers are with subcontracted companies, but our position is that they are entirely directed by Amazon and are Amazon employees,” he said. The arrangement leaves drivers vulnerable to the whims of the e-commerce giant.

“This is part of of a fairly typical playbook,” said Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based employment and human rights lawyer. With any of these emerging or dominant players in the tech industry, they’ve structured their operations in a manner to limit unionization. They’re also looking at ways to download risk that employers take on to individual workers, and third party contractors and subcontractors.”

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Non-unionized delivery driver jobs in Canada tend to be precarious. Numbers from Indeed suggest the average salary is $16.24 per hour, and the average tenure is less than a year.

The Toronto drivers aren’t the only ones pushing to unionize. Last week, warehouse workers in New York went public with their efforts to form a bargaining unit, citing poor working conditions that they say are unacceptable in light of the over US$2.8 billion in incentives the company may ultimately secure in exchange for expanding its presence in the area.

Many workers before them have failed attempts to organize. In 2014, maintenance repair workers for Amazon in Middletown, Del. tried unionizing, but abandoned the effort after intense pressure from management. In 2000, Amazon shut down a call centre in Seattle after the Communication Workers of America tried to organize employees there.

Amazon has historically been effective at stopping workers from forming unions. In September, 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.

Meanwhile, the rise of the gig economy has heightened debate around what constitutes an independent contractor versus a full-time employee. In Ontario, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act (Bill 148), introduced last year, was meant to crack down on misclassifications of these roles by placing the onus on the employer to prove the worker is not an employee in the event of a dispute. The new Ontario government, however, has walked back the changes, leaving workers on the hook for proving they’re an employee and therefore entitled to benefits, vacation and other securities that come with full-time status.

“The labour laws in Ontario just don’t address this sort of scenario,” said Langille. “Bill 148 went a bit of a ways to addressing some of the the power imbalances in employees and employers, but virtually all of that has been rolled back.”

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