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Report from Ricochet and Jacobin exposes working conditions, union busting
A reporter’s time undercover at Amazon’s warehouse in Nisku, Alberta, coincided with the beginning of an ultimately unsuccessful union drive, providing a glimpse into working conditions and union busting tactics at the company owned by the world’s richest man.
Edmonton-based journalist Ashlynn Chand, as part of a joint investigation from Jacobin and Ricochet, started working as a packer at the warehouse on June 2, 2020, where she was employed for about five months.
From the outset, it’s striking how easy the application process is:
On May 6, 2020, I applied to work as a seasonal warehouse associate at the YEG1 fulfillment centre. The application process is incredibly simple, requiring only the submission of a resume and a few questions on a psychological survey. Two weeks later, I was scheduled for an “interview.” A Human Resources assistant checked my ID, took a photo of me and asked about my availability. New applicants must work the nightshift (7:15 p.m. to 5:45 a.m.) and choose between two options: Sunday to Wednesday or Wednesday to Saturday. I chose Wednesday to Saturday.
The company uses a coloured badge system to divide workers into two classes — blue badges for those who are eligible for benefits, such as education savings plans, personal time off, or monthly bonuses for high productivity, and white badges for those considered disposable.
Chand writes of how employees are disciplined through an automated system that makes it impossible to account for anyone’s personal circumstances, recalling her experience during a late-June heatwave:
Amazon’s warehouse workers labour under the company’s point system, which is all stick, no carrot. The points are not points at all — they’re demerits. Employees do not receive points as long as they punch in within the five-minute window granted at the beginning of a shift. Tardiness counts for 0.5 points. If an employee reaches five points, they receive a warning. Six points means termination. Early on in my position, I was warned that I should have my first item scanned within five minutes of clocking in.
Entering the facility at 7:17 p.m., I was down to the wire for time. However, I was stopped at the COVID temperature checkpoint and told to wait for several minutes. Because of the heat, employees were required to physically cool down to ensure accurate measurements.
After being held up, I was 13 minutes late to scan my first item. Before long, the process guide came to my station and drew my attention to the computer that they use to track packing. He very much hoped that I would become eligible for all the benefits of a blue badge, he said. But he was concerned that both me and the area manager could get in trouble for tardiness on the line — coming five minutes late is one thing, but 13 is unacceptable. He explained that because I had already received a warning for lateness, if this were to happen again, I’d get a warning potentially leading to termination.
Management moves workers around to various tasks based on their ability to meet the quotas they set, which can fluctuate based on how many staff are working that day.
Teamsters Local 362 began its union drive in early July 2020. Amazon responded with an anti-union campaign the same week, bringing in corporate specialists to ask workers whether they’ve spoken to the Teamsters before taking down their names, all while asking them how the company can address their concerns.
Moreover, the company began showing anti-union messages on TV screens across the plant, such as “unions are business,” in addition to boasting of the “special benefits” workers have the opportunity to earn. They also littered the break room and bathrooms with anti-union flyers and posters in multiple languages.
Under Alberta labour laws, a workforce with signatures of more than 40% of employees are eligible to hold a vote, which the Teamsters thought it had when it went to the Alberta Labour Relations Board for a vote in September 2021. But Amazon inflated the number of employees by including temporary workers who weren’t working at the warehouse at the time, pitting them against the more permanent force.
Teamsters withdrew its application in December 2021 and is now in the process of collecting signatures in an effort to re-file next year. While work at companies like Amazon can be difficult to organize because of a large turnover, it also poses an opportunity to try again.
Read Chand’s piece in full here.
In other news …
Former environment minister Catherine McKenna has been appointed to lead a 16-person United Nations panel that will determine whether companies’ climate efforts are genuine or simply “greenwashing.”
From the Associated Press: “Recent years have seen an explosion of pledges by businesses — including oil companies — to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero’ amid consumer expectations that corporations bear part of the burden of cutting pollution. But environmental campaigners say many such plans are at best unclear, at worst designed to make companies look good when actually they are fuelling global warming.”
While McKenna was minister, from 2015-19, Canada came nowhere near meeting its pledged climate targets, increasing carbon emissions in every year save 2016, a fact that goes unmentioned in the AP wire story that ran in news outlets across the world.
Edited by Scott Schmidt
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