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A first in Canada

Amazon workers in Quebec ready to form historic union

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This morning, a group of Laval workers announced that they may well be the first to form a union at a Canadian warehouse of monopoly giant Amazon. The Montreal Amazon Workers Union (MAWU-CSN) said it had filed with the Tribunal administratif du travail (TAT) evidence that a majority of employees at the DXT4 warehouse had signed a union card.

According to Caroline Senneville, President of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), "Last Friday, we notified the court that a majority of employees at the DXT4 warehouse had joined their union. We are asking the TAT to recognize their desire to unionize, and we will be particularly vigilant with regard to the multinational's behavior over the next few days."

To better understand the significance of this announcement, North Star spoke to MAWU-CSN activists Vincent and Miguel*. Vincent, a CSN union activist, worked for over a year at the DXT4 warehouse. It was he who took the initiative of contacting the CSN to launch the unionization campaign after leaving his job. Miguel, a worker and associate at the DXT4 warehouse, was also actively involved in the campaign.

No longer afraid to stand up

For Miguel, in Amazon's warehouses, "There are three issues that often come up: pay, job security, and health and safety at work."

"It's all related to a general feeling that we work really hard and don't get any respect in return," Vincent adds. "We work really hard, but we don't get paid that well. We work really hard, but we get injured, and then they treat us like crap. We work really hard, but we have no guarantee of having a job in two months."

They point out that Amazon often hires under three-month contracts, denying many workers access to benefits. These contracts are often renewed for more than a year, with no guarantee of tenure. However, the lack of job security goes beyond the question of contracts.

Vincent continues: "For example, one guy had a heart attack on the floor, so he was labelled 'at risk of injury.' They cut his contract overnight, while all the others were extended. Another example is someone who had injured himself soon after being hired. They cut his contract not long after. The system pushes managers to see people at risk of injury as income-losing hazards, so they cut them after a few months."

The pressure to perform pushes workers to take shortcuts. They have few options for refusing to perform a task because it's dangerous, since their employment situation is unstable. "So you're going to go faster, you're not going to lift the bag the right way, and you're going to get hurt."

What's more, those who do get hurt would receive completely inadequate treatment from managers, as they try at all costs to avoid involving the CNESST. "They'll give you minimal accommodation in your job for a while, but if you haven't managed to find a doctor quickly enough in their eyes, you're in trouble. They'll end the accommodation and then you'll get warnings, you'll have to work fast, and your injury, it'll get worse." 

But for Vincent, "What's going to change people's lives the most [following the arrival of the union] is having a decent pace of work and no longer being afraid to stand up. Do you understand, workers are spied on in the toilets! Sometimes there's a supervisor who goes into the washroom to tell people to go faster: 'Pee faster, come on, shit faster, it's time to work!' People work ten hours a night, they can't wait to finish, so I can understand why they'll take a little break in the toilet."

The immense challenge of the union campaign

According to Vincent and Miguel, at first most workers were reluctant, fearing reprisals from the multinational. "No one dared to be the first to join us," says Vincent. "We had no hope of victory."

But in the face of these difficulties, they didn't give up. They began distributing a monthly newspaper in front of the warehouses to denounce the mistreatment, and organized meetings between colleagues to discuss the problems encountered. They wanted to "start creating a discourse that spread the message that 'it's not normal what's happening.'"

"It got the workers talking to each other. Then, people already in favour of the union identified others who might agree. Then we had to have one-on-one conversations to explain what a union was, explain Quebec law, reassure people. We had to win people's trust, and in the long run, it snowballed."

However, "There's nothing magical about it. It's long, difficult, and this is just the beginning of what needs to be done at Amazon. Nothing happened all at once. We didn't do a grandiose action that convinced everyone. We really had to convince one person at a time."

Caroline Senneville, CSN President

At the press conference, the President of the CSN stated, "I would like to salute the courage and determination of the Amazon workers. For several months now, Amazon has been waging a campaign of fear in its various Quebec warehouses, flooding workplaces with anti-union propaganda. It's time for the intimidation of employees to stop, and for labour rights to be respected in Quebec."

A message for Jeff Bezos

For Miguel and Vincent, the unionization of Amazon's DXT4 warehouse represents much more than a simple improvement in working conditions for the workers. It's a strong message to Amazon and other companies that workers won't tolerate exploitation, control and disrespect.

"It sends a clear message to Jeff Bezos and his gang that there are limits," exclaims Vincent. "Workers may be afraid to organize, but at some point, they're going to organize anyway, because it just doesn't make sense anymore. People are getting hurt, and with inflation too, people can no longer afford to eat, pay for their cars and housing."

While he feels there's "something peculiar about Amazon, almost dystopian," he adds that he has worked in many non-union industries, and seen many of the same problems there. "It's constant: bosses' lack of respect puts workers' safety at risk for the company's productivity."

"What's special about Amazon is the new technologies. That's the scary part! I see how my old jobs, which had less technology, could become like this, if Amazon becomes the norm. Amazon is technologically more advanced, so their methods for controlling work and their methods for forcing you to work faster are more advanced."

"It's in this sense that I think the fight against Amazon is paramount. We have to show all companies that if they try to do these things, well, workers aren't going to accept that. It's unacceptable to do things like that, because it's a level of control over people that just doesn't make sense. Keeping track of where you are at all times, every move you make, is unacceptable. We don't want it to get any worse for Amazon workers, or for workers at other companies."

And with the possible creation of a union at the DXT4 warehouse, Miguel believes it "proves that workers can win against a multinational, against a company that is notorious for its anti-union efforts, and then we prove that workers can stand up, even in difficult conditions."

DXT4 warehouse, Laval

According to a union organizer present at the press conference, "You know, right here in Montreal, we've already started attacking other warehouses. We've got contacts everywhere, drivers are stopping today to talk to us. It's just a first step, but it's a big first step because we've broken the fear, we've seen that it's possible, we've shown that workers want a union. After that, maybe it's easier, the next ones will come faster."

Appealing to workers in other Amazon warehouses and other companies, Vincent says: "Don't be afraid to talk to your colleagues about getting organized. Everyone's afraid of being the first to say 'That doesn't make sense,' but trust those around you who are going through the same situation as you. It's not true that they're all going to tell on you. Talk to each other, and it could be the start of something important, which can lead you to join us in our fight."

*"Vincent" and "Miguel" are pseudonyms used to preserve their anonymity and avoid any form of repression by their employer.

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