Torkin Manes LegalPoint
Apr 20, 2021

The Amazon Union Organizing Drive – What Canadian Employers Can Learn

By Thomas A. Stefanik

Everyone has heard of Amazon. It is the second largest private sector employer in the United States, and has built up a considerable presence in Canada. During the pandemic it has steadily increased its employee complement during a surging demand for its products and services. For those engaged in labour law (whether on the management or union side) the organizing attempt by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to certify Amazon’s warehouse employees in Bessemer, Alabama was a matter of national interest.

With the election in January of a more union-friendly President and a Democrat-controlled Congress, many commentators believed that a “momentum” of progressive events were in place, and together with the believed unpopularity of Amazon’s billionaire owner, Jeff Bezos, the union was moving toward the first certification at Amazon. This would, it was believed, lead to subsequent certifications at other Amazon locations and ultimately, unions would break through into Walmart and other large retailers.

Except for one thing – the Amazon workers who were the subject of the campaign did not want a union, and voted against it by a 2 to 1 margin. As one employee succinctly put it, the stability of the job and the pay and benefits that are provided by Amazon were as good or better than anything that the union could negotiate with Amazon. And this is always the fundamental question faced by employees in such a campaign – can the union (in exchange for union dues) provide you with better conditions than you currently have? That is the “ballot box” question that employers, unions and employees have to ask and answer in any such organizing campaign.

Ultimately, the employees at Amazon decided, fairly definitively, that the answer to that question was “no”. The union, perhaps not surprisingly given the resources it expended on this campaign, has indicated it will file charges with the National Labour Relations Board, alleging unlawful practices by Amazon in its conduct during the campaign.

So, does this have relevance to Canadian non-union employers? The answer is “yes”, they should be very wary of what happened at Amazon. Much of Amazon’s campaigning was via so called “captive audience” meetings – where workers were required to attend meetings with management, with no union presence, while on paid time, in which they were given a rationale why they should not support the union. During a pandemic, and with little ability to meet separately with employees, the union was caught flat-footed and was at a distinct disadvantage.

These “captive audience” meetings are generally perfectly legal in the United States, although legislation, supported by President Biden (who openly supported the union’s campaign) is now before Congress, which could outlaw such activities.

The point here is that in Canada, these “captive audience” meetings, which seemed to be so advantageous to Amazon, have generally been found by Labour Relations Boards to be unfair labour practices. There is no reason to believe that, but for these meetings, the result at Amazon would have been the same. Perhaps just as importantly, Bezos, who could have been smug about the result, stated after the vote results that Amazon needed to “do a better job for our employees”.

In Canada, even in the face of the federal budget just tabled, government assistance programs to employers and employees during the pandemic will inevitably end. The only question is when. An atmosphere of uncertainty will then hover around many non-union employers. Union organizers (whose unions have in many cases been hit with significant revenue reductions due to laid off employees not paying dues), will use this uncertainty as an opportunity to convince employees that they need a union to protect their job security and to assist them in securing superior compensation and benefits. Employers who are not prepared for such events may falter and be unable or unwilling to respond, or worse still, may respond in ways that constitute unfair labour practices and expose the employer to automatic union certification.

Although employers are generally engaged almost full time now combatting pandemic-related issues, now may be the best time to seek assistance and advice in preparing for a post-pandemic union organizing campaign. Many unions are doing exactly that.