Workers can form union at Amazon warehouse in Laval, Que., a first in Canada

Quebec’s labour tribunal has given union accreditation to workers at an Amazon warehouse in Laval, Que., a first in Canada.  

Workers at the DXT4 warehouse, located in Laval, a suburb north of Montreal, had been working toward unionizing with the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) for two years.

The CSN filed an application with Quebec’s Administrative Labour Tribunal on April 19 to represent some 200 employees. The decision came down Friday.

Caroline Senneville, the CSN’s president, said employees were dissatisfied with what they described as a hectic work pace, low wages, and inadequate health and safety measures.

She called the move “an important first step.”

“These are people who really need to improve their working conditions. Amazon is a multinational company … there are ways to make sure those who work for it aren’t jeopardizing their health, that their labour isn’t considered disposable,” said Senneville.

“It’s a model that exploits vulnerable workers since many of them are immigrants.”

Amazon has previously stated that the company does not require employees to meet fixed productivity targets. It has also said it provides safe and inclusive workplaces, competitive pay, health benefits and opportunities for career growth.

The majority of the workers at the Laval warehouse signed union cards, which cemented the union’s accreditation. 

According to Quebec law, the labour tribunal must certify a union even if the employer refuses to agree to part of the bargaining unit if a majority of workers want to be unionized.

According to the tribunal ruling, Amazon had requested one group of employees not be excluded from the accreditation. Senneville said the employees were largely supervisors who had not signed union cards.

In the end, because the majority voted in favour of a union, about 10 more employees than the union expected can be represented by the CSN, said Senneville.

Amazon contesting labour law

Before the labour tribunal’s decision was even rendered, Amazon said it would contest any decision approving the union. A hearing has been set for June 10.

In a letter sent to the labour tribunal on May 6, Amazon said it could not back the accreditation because it “does not respect the interests of its employees.” It claimed that some employees were misled to sign union cards.

The company also claimed some sections of Quebec’s labour code go against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by using membership cards instead of a secret ballot vote. 

“We believe that all people should have the right to inform themselves and to vote according to their situation and convictions at the time,” said Barbara M. Agrait, an Amazon spokesperson, in a statement to CBC.

“If a simple majority of people at an employer have joined a union at any point, then there’s no vote and representation is automatic for all employees – including maybe dozens or hundreds of employees who didn’t even know it was being considered.”

Caroline Senneville, the president of the CSN, said unionizing a first Amazon warehouse in Canada is an important step in improving working conditions for employees. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Amazon is not the first company to argue that employees should undergo a voting process to unionize instead of using member cards, which is typically an intimidation tactic, said Senneville of the CSN.

“The labour board has said over and over again that the procedure we have is perfectly legal … What the courts have usually said is, well, it’s not for you to contest, it’s for the union,” she said.

The right to unionize and the right to associate with fellow workers is enshrined in both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“You’re trying to say the right to associate is not protected since there are no votes. But what you’re trying to do is have a vote so you can put pressure on your employees so they don’t unionize,” said Senneville.

a poster at a desk warning employees to be careful when signing union membership cards
The CSN filed a complaint against an Amazon warehouse in June 2022 after posters it says discourage employees from signing union cards went up. Similar posters were seen at the DXT4 warehouse (pictured). (Submitted by François L’Écuyer)

The CSN can now take the next step in the process, with appointing a president and draft bylaws in preparation to negotiate a collective agreement regardless of Amazon’s decision to contest the decision. Senneville said the CSN is ready for a legal battle.

In June 2022, the CSN filed a complaint with the labour board against a different Amazon warehouse in Montreal’s Lachine borough after posters it said were meant to discourage people from signing union cards went up. The CSN sent CBC News photos of similar posters at the DXT4 warehouse.

Agrait said Amazon employees have the right to choose to join a union or not to do so.

“They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best option for our employees,” he said.

‘Pretty limited’

Barry Eidlin, an associate professor of sociology at McGill University with a focus on labour policy, said workers likely won’t see major improvements in their working conditions any time soon.

“This is one fulfillment centre in a large international network of a global company, so it’s going to take a lot more than one warehouse unionizing to actually make a difference in the wages and working conditions at Amazon,” he said.

“And we can expect Amazon to fight every step of the way.”

For example, Amazon could shut down the unionized warehouse or lay off card-carrying members en masse to dilute the majority in favour. Senneville said new employees will be asked to sign union cards as soon as they’re hired to prevent this.

However, Eidlin said “this is a promising start” and he hopes it will trigger a ripple effect and have other warehouses follow suit.

“What they can realistically expect to win in an agreement is pretty limited unless we see an expansion of organizing to many more warehouses. That will be the challenge,” said Eidlin.

Eidlin says it will take a union contract to raise working standards and wages, which “will take many more warehouses organizing.”

“That’s the kind of leverage you need,” he said.

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