The industrial struggle is heating up in the Prairies, as momentum is building in a drive to unionize workers at an Amazon warehouse in Nisku, Alberta just south of Edmonton.
Action on the industrial front
Workers at the warehouse, known as YEG1, make significantly less than their unionized peers in the province—a blatant injustice considering Amazon’s place at the top of the capitalist food chain. Workers are also required to meet extremely high quotas, work long shifts, and operate heavy machinery, despite the job description claiming this is optional. As a result, the company reports some of the highest injury rates in the industry, despite pressuring their workers not to disclose medical issues. Since the start of the pandemic, Amazon Canada has had to pay $8.5 million to injured workers.
The struggle is being supported by former warehouse employees like Merilyn Martin, who says that some warehouse workers are working up to three extra jobs just to get by. It is absolutely shameful that people are forced to live like this in a wealthy country like Canada. But it is becoming increasingly common as the rise of inflation and encroaching signs of a recession affect workers’ paycheques and bills.
This is the Teamsters’ third attempt at organising YEG1, so they are well versed in the company’s union-busting tactics. During the first two drives, Amazon was allowed to self-report the number of employees working at the warehouse, and artificially inflated the number to make it more difficult to reach the necessary 40 per cent signature threshold. They also turned the warehouse’s digital communications forums into propaganda channels, slandering the union and suddenly expressing a philanthropic desire to address workers’ grievances directly. How convenient!
Outside the warehouse, the bosses have simultaneously begun a PR campaign to push public opinion against the union. In a statement to the press, an Amazon spokesperson said the company is “proud of the competitive pay, comprehensive benefits, and engaging, safe work experience we provide our YEG1 team.” These lies are especially rich coming from the company that infamously forces its workers to urinate in bottles to increase efficiency. At the same time, though, it is not enough to point out the lies of the employer. To win, the union has to offer the workers a real, strong alternative.
How can the drive succeed?
While the fight to unionize must be wholeheartedly supported at every opportunity, it is also important to look to past union drives, both successful and failed, to apply the necessary lessons to the movement today. After all, this is the third time Teamsters has tried to unionise the Nisku Amazon workers since 2020, and while it’s easy to blame the company’s blatant interference for the failures, a change in tactics might be necessary.
The struggle to unionize has two primary obstacles: resources and legality. These are really two sides of the same coin. In truth, the law is never on the side of the workers in this situation. The Canada Labour Code prohibits either side, employer or union, from making promises or threats to try to influence a worker’s decision to organise. This legislation is extremely favourable to the bosses for a number of reasons. For one, the threat of fines does not threaten a corporation like it does a union or independent organizer. The millions of dollars Amazon has shelled out on union-busting campaigns in the past shows they are willing to invest heavily to prevent any risk to their profits that a unionized workforce might bring.
More importantly, though, is the fact that the union is the one trying to win over the workers to their side; of course they need to make promises! And yet, there has been a tendency to cave to the pressure of legal discipline. The following quote from the vice-president of Teamsters 362 during the previous YEG1 union drive showcases this well: “We’re not here to get your $30. We’re here to help improve the workplace, see if we can negotiate higher wage increases… We can’t guarantee them anything.” This lukewarm, non-committal platform simply won’t cut it. If both sides are offering vague promises of ‘improving the workplace,’ why should workers try to unionize and risk being fired?
Lessons of the ALU
This answers the question of why the first Amazon warehouse to unionize did so as an independent union, and not by affiliating with a pre-existing one. Chris Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) kickstarted a massive wave of unionizations with just $120,000 (raised via GoFundMe) through militant tactics, rank-and-file initiative, and a fearless determination to win at any cost.
In contrast to the Teamsters in Alberta, Chris Smalls and the ALU won in Staten Island by putting forward a series of unwavering, concrete demands: $30 an hour, two paid 30-minute breaks, and a paid lunch hour. They also allowed the warehouse workers to take the initiative, directly confronting their bosses’ union-busting tactics and debunking their anti-union propaganda. They even collected and spread information on union-busting consultants so workers would know not to talk to them. This level of enthusiasm and creativity allowed the union drive to win, and it was only possible because the ALU organizers were unshackled by bureaucratic inertia. This does not mean that a pre-existing union like the Teamsters cannot succeed, but it has to provide concrete demands and put the initiative in the hands of the rank and file, even if that means breaking the law.
No one wants to oppose the legal system, but defying unjust laws is both a necessity and proud tradition of the labour movement. If workers never broke the law, unions would still be illegal! In fact, were it not for the current provincial government, Danielle Smith’s United Conservative Party (UCP), a vote would have taken place within YEG1 already. Bill 32, enacted by the UCP in 2020, revoked the labour board’s right to call an immediate unionization vote when the company has illegally interfered with the union drive, as Amazon has repeatedly done. This is a firmly anti-worker government, and they will continue to strip workers of their rights until we fight back.
That it is possible to defy the law, and win, was demonstrated by the CUPE education workers in their fight against Doug Ford’s back-to-work legislation last fall. Their strike, like the success of the ALU, shows that the time of friendly, non-confrontational, legalistic unionism is over. Unions must return to their militant traditions. Victory to the union, and victory to the Amazon workers!