21st September 2023

Revamped labour laws in British Columbia have led Canada’s largest private-sector union to focus on the province as it aims to organize Amazon employees.

Last week, Unifor launched a drive to unionize Amazon staff at a news conference outside one of the U.S. corporation’s fulfilment centres in New Westminster, B.C.

It’s the latest union in Canada to make an organizing push, and if successful, the centre would be the first unionized Amazon workplace in the country. 

“We have one of the best labour law regimes here,” said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director, in an interview after the event. 

McGarrigle referred to changes in B.C.’s Labour Relations Code that came into effect in June 2022 that make it easier to form a union.

The code now says if 55 per cent of employees sign union cards during an organizing drive, they can apply for certification. Previously, the B.C. Labour Relations Board (LRB) required 45 per cent of employees to sign cards, and then a majority had to vote in favour of organizing in a vote conducted by the board at the worksite. 

That removes the opportunity for the company to influence the outcome of the vote, McGarrigle said.

“Workers don’t have to go through the intimidation of a vote where companies like Amazon will spend weeks bombarding them with anti-union messages and trying to convince them that it’s not a good thing to join the union,” he said.

Skipping the ballot vote has benefited workers, says Anelyse Weiler, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Victoria.

“If you are submitting an application for your workplace, they can be processed way more quickly, and it makes a huge deal if you have a boss who is hostile to your efforts to unionize in a workplace,” she said.

LRB data shows in the six months after the Labour Relations Code Amendment Act came into effect last year, the number of groups applying for union certification nearly doubled to 114 from 58 compared to the previous six months.

Amazon ‘a great place to work,’ company says

Numerous concerns among workers at Amazon Canada have been documented.

They include dangerous working conditions that lead to injuries, such as being asked to package and lift 400 boxes in one shift, said David Bergeron-Cyr, vice president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux.

A former delivery driver for Amazon also told CBC News he was expected to deliver 17 packages per hour and, as a subcontractor, would not be paid for overtime.

A spokesperson for Amazon Canada, Ryma Boussoufa, said in a statement that the company doesn’t think it’s necessary for its employees to unionize and that it prefers to work directly with its staff to make the company “a great place to work.”

Amazon spent $14 million US in 2022 in response to union drives in the U.S., according to a disclosure document submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In Canada, some former Amazon employees have told CBC News that they were fired for trying to organize their colleagues.

Unifor drive is latest of many

Teamsters Canada and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux are among the unions that have tried to organize workers at the corporation’s worksites in the past.

Unifor’s size makes it best suited to organize Amazon workers in Canada, McGarrigle says, adding that the union has “dozens” of organizers on the ground in B.C.

Last year, workers at a New York warehouse became the first Amazon staff to unionize. Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, which helped lead the push in New York, spoke at the New Westminster drive launch on June 21.

UVic’s Weiler says the event shows Unifor is staking a claim to unionize Amazon workers. 

But she notes the strategy of an established union going in and trying to organize is different from what led to the win in the U.S., where workers led an independent campaign.

“What made them really powerful was having that ground up, worker-worker solidarity,” she said.