Amazon Delivery Firm Allows Its Drivers to Unionize with the Teamsters

REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski
Delivery vehicles leave an Amazon logistics centre in Mannheim, Germany, September 17, 2019.

A group of Amazon delivery drivers and dispatchers who work for a contractor in Palmdale, Calif., have officially unionized with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a major step forward in the effort to unionize the workers who deliver packages for the e-commerce giant.

Last week, 84 workers at Amazon contractor Battle Tested Strategies reached a contract with the Teamsters, which the employer voluntarily recognized. Though the delivery drivers wear Amazon branded vests, drive Amazon branded vans and deliver exclusively Amazon packages, they are not directly employed by Amazon. Their employer – a third-party delivery company – recognized their union and negotiated their contract, not Amazon.

That contract includes an immediate wage increase as well as substantial future raises and addresses concerns, as well as addressing vehicle conditions and heat safety.

The delivery drivers told Amazon about their new union Monday, demanding the tech giant respect their right to a contract. Amazon governs wage floors, routes, delivery schedules, revenue and maintains the right to terminate and discipline drivers – and the new union contract will require that the company make changes to some of these terms. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Rajpal Singh, an Amazon delivery driver at the Palmdale delivery center, said he’s hopeful that the contract will address compensation and safety issues.

“We just want fair pay and safe jobs,” Singh, 40, said in an interview. “I hope other drivers join in [because] what we deserve is not what we’re getting.”

Amazon spokeswoman Eileen Hards said in a statement, “Whether the Teamsters are being intentionally misleading or they just don’t understand our business, the narrative they’re spreading is false.” She said the employees don’t work for Amazon and that the company’s deliver network is comprised of thousands of contractors that are independently operated and owned.

“This particular third party company had a track record of failing to perform and had been notified of its termination for poor performance well before today’s announcement,” Hards added. “This situation is more about an outside company trying to distract from their history of failing to meet their obligations.”

Amazon in the past has vigorously defended the wages it pays, as well as its safety record. In a 2022 safety report it published in March, the company said its accident rate has decreased significantly as it has rolled out more safety features in its fleet. And it has encouraged its direct employees to work with Amazon directly instead of unionizing.

Amazon relies heavily on contractors known as “delivery service providers,” who drive the blue-gray vans that deliver millions of packages every day to consumers’ doors. While not directly employed by Amazon, they power a huge swath of its logistics network – which now rivals the size of UPS.

But labor advocates and union organizers say Amazon’s expansion into last-mile logistics has come at a steep cost for delivery drivers across the country. Amazon’s contracted delivery drivers have described skipping meals and rest breaks to deliver hundreds of packages a shift on time for skimpy wages compared with their peers at UPS, who are unionized by the Teamsters.

Previously, the Teamsters organized an Amazon delivery service partner in Michigan. Drivers for a company called Silverstar voted to join the Teamsters in 2017, but Amazon cut the company’s contract shortly thereafter, BuzzFeed News reported.

Because the contractor Battle Tested Strategies recognized the union voluntarily after a majority of its drivers indicated they supported the union, the union can legally skip the election process typically required for a bargaining unit to receive federal recognition, the Teamsters said.

Johnathon Ervin, a veteran and the owner of Battle Tested Strategies said in an interview he decided to recognize the union after repeatedly asking Amazon to address his drivers’ concerns about heat and vehicle safety. He currently receives $19.75 an hour to pay each driver, which he said prevents him from raising wages.

Over the past two summers, Battle Tested Strategies drivers have had to deliver as temperatures have soared far above 100 degrees Farenheit for multiple days in a row. One BTS driver was hospitalized for heat exhaustion last year, Ervin said.

Singh said there were days when he felt like he would pass out from heat exhaustion from walking into the back of his sweltering van to retrieve packages.

Delivery routes, where drivers are expected to drop off between 250 to 400 packages, typically run 10 hours.

But when Ervin allowed drivers to end their shifts without completing their Amazon’s delivery routes last year over what he said were health concerns, Amazon threatened to put Ervin on official notice that he could lose his contract, he said.

While the Teamsters – with 340,000 represented UPS employees – have been trying to unionize Amazon drivers for years, their commitment to that effort was redoubled when Sean O’Brien, the current progressive union president, won a hotly contested race in 2021. O’Brien campaigned on a platform that was critical of past Teamsters leadership for not taking a more aggressive approach to organizing Amazon’s growing logistics empire.

With their UPS contract expiring this August, O’Brien and the Teamsters are already gearing up for a potential strike.

The pandemic resulted in an uptick of labor activism at Amazon, which is the nation’s second-largest private employer. In a first, Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala. voted in 2021 on whether to unionize their warehouse, but the results were thrown out by a judge. The results of a second election held a year ago are stuck in litigation.

Around the same time last year, the upstart Amazon Labor Union made history when it won a union election in Staten Island, the first of its kind inside Amazon. That vote is also being challenged by Amazon, which is locked in a legal battle to get the union’s victory thrown out.