PHOTO: Teamsters Local 879 member Steve Robertson hands out informational pamphlets outside the Amazon warehouse in Hamilton on Wednesday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)
Workers arriving at the Amazon warehouse in Hamilton on Wednesday morning were met by a handful of people in bright yellow vests with pamphlets and signs saying “Amazon needs a union!”
Members of Teamsters Local 879 said they stepped up their efforts after hearing from some workers at the Mountain fulfilment centre who expressed interest in unionizing.
“We have gotten some calls from Amazon workers to do with the conditions inside, how they’re being treated,” said Jim Killey, who handles organizing for the union. “When they call, we come.”
The action outside the Hamilton fulfilment centre follows similar leaflet handouts at other Amazon locations in Ontario, in Milton, Cambridge, Kitchener and London, according to Killey.
“There’s a Canada-wide organizing campaign with Teamsters,” he said.
The robotics facility, which the company called its “most technologically advanced fulfilment centre” in Canada, opened under a month ago, with Amazon announcing in April it plans to set up three more Ontario facilities in 2023.
The four centres will create a combined 4,500 “safe” jobs, the online retail giant said at the time, with at least 1,500 at the Hamilton location.
Amazon spokesperson Dave Bauer previously told CBC the majority of local warehouse workers would be full time, with a starting wage of $18.70 an hour.
Workers will also have medical, vision and dental coverage, and other benefits like a group RRSP plan, stock awards and performance bonuses, Bauer said.
Asked for comment on the unionization effort in Hamilton, Amazon spokesperson Ryma Boussoufa said the company does not believe “unions are the best answer for our employees,” but the choice is up to the workers.
“Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work,” Boussoufa wrote in an email.
Paul Gray describes Amazon as one of the “most notoriously anti-union companies in Canada.”
The assistant professor of labour studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., pointed to reports of stress and an “incredibly” high injury rate at warehouses because of Amazon’s quotas.
While the pay may be higher than other entry-level jobs, Gray said, it’s low in comparison to other warehouse work.
“A lot of these workers are saying the compensation may be comparatively good, but that doesn’t justify the working conditions that put them in danger.”
A lack of breaks, cutting back on time off and being docked for the time it takes to cross the massive facility to use the washroom are among concerns Killey said he’s heard from staff in Hamilton.
He declined to be more specific, citing a need to protect the workers.
Unionization efforts are underway at Amazon sites across Canada, including in Montreal and Alberta, where the Teamsters union has an application for a second unionization at an Amazon site near Edmonton.
Killey said news of a recent union vote by Amazon workers at the Staten Island facility in New York City “sparked a lot” of interest in Canada.
A second vote on unionization failed earlier this month, a setback for organizers at the Staten Island site.
Gray, the labour studies professor, said one of the biggest challenges for people looking to unionize at Amazon locations is the “massive amount of turnover” each plant tends to see.
The New York unionization drive provides lessons for Canadian efforts, including that the organizers were co-workers or people known by staff at the warehouse, he said.
Third parties, such as established unions, should take that as a sign to build relationships over time so employees get a sense it’s a “genuine collective voice of the workers themselves, not a group coming in from the outside,” said Gray.
The Teamsters in Hamilton spent about an hour Wednesday handing out brochures sharing wage comparisons and contact information to people driving into the parking lot and workers being dropped off by bus.
The union can help secure “respect in the workplace” and lock in contract details through a collective agreement, Killey said.
“Right now, they’re an individual,” he said, gesturing at the Amazon building and the people inside.
“With us we’re going to protect you, we’re going to make sure we take care of you and through collective bargaining we’re going to try everything we can to get what you deserve.”
Killey estimated the small group of Teamsters on site handed out hundreds of pamphlets.
They were met with “a lot of thumbs up” and questions about how to get ahold of the Teamsters, he added, describing it as a “very positive response.”
The action was about getting the word out, said Killey, explaining the union has plans to return and distribute more information.
“This is going to be a campaign that doesn’t end in a week,” he said. “We’re here until they either say ‘No’ or until we get a certification.”
With files from Bobby Hristova