Until now, anti-union e-commerce giant Amazon had successfully squashed any attempt from its workers to unionise; the most recent being the organising drive by a small union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) held in Bessemer, Alabama earlier this year. This particular union drive was one of the greatest pushes to unionisation Amazon had faced since its founding in 1994. This followed a global campaign from the previous year titled Make Amazon Pay, which sought the demand for fair treatment of its workers and the right to unionise. For nearly three decades, the company kept unions out of its workforce, and is set to be the US’ largest employer within the next few years.
The company fought back against the Alabama drive through a number of anti-union tactics—the most notable push-back was blocking its workers from voting by mail and ‘encouraging’ them to use a mailbox the company installed at the site instead. It was announced in April, by The National Labour Relations Board (NLRB), that over 3,000 Amazon workers at the BHM1 centre voted—with a majority of 1,798 voting against the unionisation of the facility. The employees were quick to contest the result.
For years, Amazon has been able to get away with its mistreatment of its employees and now it has reached an all-time high in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. From being treated like robots and reportedly having to urinate in bottles to racial discrimination and sexual assault, dying from exhaustion and more recently, using algorithms to fire workers without warning—the list of Amazon’s atrocities is honestly endless. But, it looks like the company is about to have another fight on its hands.
News of a campaign led by The International Brotherhood of Teamsters was first reported by Motherboard. It was on Prime Day, 21 June to 22 June, that one of the US’ largest unions put forth a resolution aimed at prioritising the unionisation of the Amazon workforce. In a video obtained by Motherboard, Teamster’s National Amazon Director Randy Korgan stated that “The Teamsters will build the types of worker and community power necessary to take on one of the most powerful corporations in the world and win.”
“We’ve been working on this for quite some time—well before Bessemer broke out,” Korgan told Motherboard. On Thursday 24 June, The Teamsters union officially passed a near-unanimous vote—with 1,562 out of 1,632 delegates voting in favour of the resolution dubbed the “Amazon project.” Writing in its resolution, it explains “that there is no clearer example of how America is failing the working class than Amazon.”
It cites that “Amazon exploits its employees, contractors and employees of contractors via: wage theft, fraudulent classification, intense production quotas, dehumanising work environments, unsafe workplaces and production standards, low wages, high turnover, no voice on the job, lack of job security and outsourced jobs.” The union stated that this is a “top priority” and that it is committed to ensuring its success—vowing to unionise the company’s entire workforce from “coast to coast.”
With The Teamsters’ weighty reputation, history and strength, it seems Amazon is in for a long and gruelling fight. This won’t be as easy as crushing one drive, because there will be many—The Teamsters hold a massive wide-reaching influence across the US. To put it simply, they’ve got the numbers.
Korgan told The Guardian why it was a “natural move” to go after Amazon. “Our union has represented this industry for more than 100 years. We represent hundreds of thousands of workers in this industry,” he continued, stating that it was even bigger than just the Amazon workforce itself but that Amazon posed a threat to all workers of this industry.
So while Bezos abandons the Amazon ship for a literal space one, there’s a team of people trying to clean up his mess on Earth. Billionaires, am I right?
In order to deliver all those next-day deliveries on time, Amazon uses millions of subcontracted drivers for its Flex delivery programme, started in 2015. Drivers sign up via a smartphone app where they can choose shifts, coordinate deliveries and report problems. Think of Uber’s false sense of freedom for its employees and you’ve pretty much got the same thing happening here with Amazon Flex. But the reliance on technology doesn’t end there as drivers are also monitored for performance and fired by algorithms with little human intervention, according to a recent Bloomberg report.
As much as we love and depend on algorithms, it’s crucial that we understand how even those can mess up from time to time. According to the report, the AI system used by Amazon Flex can often fire workers seemingly without good cause. One worker said her rating—ranging from Fantastic, Great, Fair, or At Risk—fell after she was forced to halt deliveries due to a nail in her tire.
Over the next several weeks, she managed to boost it to Great but her account was eventually terminated for violating Amazon’s terms of service. She contested the firing, but the company wouldn’t reinstate her.
Another driver was unable to deliver packages to an apartment complex because its gate was closed and the residents wouldn’t answer their phones. Shortly after, in another building, an Amazon locker failed to open. His rating quickly dropped and he spent six weeks trying to raise it, only to be fired for falling below a prescribed level.
In those instances, when a driver feels they’re wrongly terminated, there’s not much recourse, either. Drivers must pay $200 to dispute any termination, and many have said it’s simply not worth the effort. “Whenever there’s an issue, there’s no support,” said Cope, 29. “It’s you against the machine, so you don’t even try.”
Amazon became the world’s largest online retailer in part by outsourcing its many different operations to algorithms. For years, the company has used algorithms to manage the millions of third-party merchants on its online marketplace, drawing complaints that sellers have been booted off after being falsely accused of selling counterfeit goods and jacking up prices.
More and more, the company is also ceding its human-resources operation to machines, using software not only to manage workers in its warehouses but to oversee contract drivers, independent delivery companies and even the performance of its office workers. People familiar with the strategy say Jeff Bezos believes machines make decisions more quickly and accurately than people, reducing costs and giving Amazon a competitive advantage.
Inside Amazon, the programme has been praised for its success. Around 4 million drivers have downloaded the app worldwide including 2.9 million in the US, according to Bloomberg’s report. More than 660,000 people in the US have downloaded the app in the last five months alone.
Amazon said drivers’ claims of poor treatment and unfair termination were anecdotal and don’t represent the experience of the vast majority of Flex drivers. “We have invested heavily in technology and resources to provide drivers visibility into their standing and eligibility to continue delivering, and investigate all driver appeals,” Spokesperson Kate Kudrna told Bloomberg.