Canadian Amazon workers are forming unions. What happens next?

Whether we are talking about the Canadian or American landscape, there are vast implications that come with Amazon unionization. Photo Credit: Amazon Jobs. 

It has been a significant spring for labour relations in Canada. Not only have there been several major unions threatening to go on strike from coast to coast, but landmark events are taking place right now that have the capacity to turn the economic status-quo on its head. Perhaps the most transformational development happening right before our eyes is unionization attempting to establish a foothold over one of the largest companies in history. Inc., the 1990s brainchild of American billionaire Jeff Bezos, is now operating in over 130 countries worldwide. Entering the twentieth year of Amazon Prime, which provides one-day delivery on most items for approximately $80 USD annually, there are now over 230 million subscribers to the service across the globe. Amazon has prided itself on quality of service and unmatched stability for its customers. This golden era could be about to end. 

In May, 200 warehouse employees in Laval, Quebec received certification from the Administrative Labour Tribunal to form the first Amazon workers union in Canada. Upon obtaining approval, the workers began the process of drafting their constitution, selecting leadership and debating what their contract demands will ultimately be. Later in the month, the British Columbia Labour Relations Board accepted the second application by Unifor to pursue forming a union that will represent workers at the Delta Amazon facility. The board ordered a secret vote among employees at the Delta location to determine whether unionization will go forward which took place between May 28 and May 31.

The right to form a union is guaranteed under Section 2(d) – Freedom of Association, in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This means that, in theory, Amazon management cannot forcibly stop a consenting group of employees from opting to bargain their contracts collectively. Labour tribunals have been created in the various Canadian provinces for the purpose of ensuring that union applications are substantive and legitimate. That is not to say, however, that Amazon has no tools in their toolbox for discouraging unionization within their company. 

One of the most traditional strategies that corporations use in tempering union support is to rapidly increase their number of staff leading up to a key vote. It is argued that doing so will maximize the number of employees who do not yet have strong relationships with their co-workers and/or are generally unaware of organizational issues that unionization is being marketed to address. Unifor has filed a complaint that Amazon has turned to this exact approach, expanding staff by approximately 30 per cent, in order to undermine attempts to form the union. Amazon is denying this accusation and says that seasonal recruitment takes place annually. The results from the vote on unionization will not be made available until the complaint has been reviewed. 

In the United States, Amazon workers have also been attempting to form unions. At this juncture, the only successful bid for unionization is the JFK8 warehouse which was created in April 2021 and recognized by the National Labour Relations Board the following year. Additional efforts across the country have been unsuccessful to date. This reality is unsurprising, as unionization in America has been restricted by the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which significantly limits the potential for closer relations between big labour and big government, as well as the widespread popularity of right-to-work legislation across the majority of American states. With an unprecedented era of North American re-industrialization beginning, however, the support of big labour is once again coveted by Democrats and Republicans alike. Taking these realities into account, there is a strong potential that we will see growing support for unions across the American political scene in the years ahead. 

Whether we are talking about the Canadian or American landscape, there are vast implications that come with Amazon unionization. The most glaring issue would be recurring strikes. Considering that individuals and businesses rely on Prime one-day delivery for items that range from food, toiletries and medical supplies to technology and essential job-related toolkits, the impact of a work stoppage at Amazon would be real and far reaching. This economic jolt would only be intensified if labour unrest were to ever manifest during the lead up to Christmas.

Once the unions realize success in their demands for higher wages and benefits, shorter hours and/or additional workplace accommodations, it is almost inevitable that prices of products, as well as the cost for a Prime membership itself will increase exponentially. Consumers will be asked to pick up the tab. Get ready for more inflation. 

Finally, should the workers pursue alterations to the physical requirements of the job, such as how much they are required to lift on the job, it could mean changes to staffing. While the unions may applaud the short-term need to hire additional employees as a victory, it is undoubtedly a pacing threat that artificial intelligence (e.g. robots) could gradually take over the heaving lifting tasks, resulting in the kinds of layoffs that they have been seeking to prevent since the age of the Luddites. Corporations are not going to pay more if they can avoid doing so. As John Adams famously put it “facts are stubborn things.” 

In conclusion, globalism paved the way for a quiet past number of decades in the North American labour movement. Everything we have grown accustomed to is now changing as innovative industries, technologies and trade relationships are forged. Amazon workers can be applauded for having picked up on the memo. Whether every day consumers will stand to benefit is, of course, a different matter. 

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