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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Some Amazon Drivers Have Had Enough. Can They Unionize?

the Netradyne cameras were the last straw. For the past year, Casey had been working as a driver for one of Amazon’s Delivery Service Partners (DSP), the company’s network of last-mile delivery contractors. On busy days, she’d cart nearly 300 packages to 200 stops in a 10-hour shift—one stop every three minutes—skipping lunch and limiting her water intake so bathroom breaks wouldn’t cause her to fall behind. If her icon turned red on the dispatcher’s tracking screen, indicating a delay, she knew she might get a call.

Casey (not her real name) was sick of the “group stops,” multiple nearby stops marked as one, despite sometimes falling blocks apart. She was sick of the cattywampus routing, making her retrace her tracks to accommodate individual delivery windows. She was sick of the oppressive monitoring app docking points from her safety score for hard braking or speeding up, even to avoid a collision. Low scores meant potential lost hours or even termination. Now her boss was about to stick an AI camera in her face that would record her every expression, potentially dinging her for yawning. When the app asked for permission to do just that, she declined. She put in her two weeks notice.

Casey also logged onto a DSP driver Discord channel to vent. Despite their largely solitary workdays and Amazon’s watchful eye, drivers use online forums like Reddit and Discord to commiserate—although, given reports of the company monitoring drivers on social media, anxiety about potential sleepers abounds. People were pissed about the cameras. They griped about yet another layer of micromanagement and worried about their privacy. (So did Congress.)

Later that week, Casey got a DM from Ron, a Canadian DSP driver. He was fed up too. (Casey and Ron withheld their real names out of fear of jeopardizing their jobs.) Last month the two launched an informal online survey to see whether other drivers were facing similar issues. Some 500 people have responded so far. They complained about the relentless pace, about the Mentor app surveilling and scoring their every move, about feeling the need to cheat to get around its hypersensitivity. (Casey said her boss advised her to download Mentor on a secondary phone and avoid touching it.) They complained about the pay—80 percent of respondents make between $15 and $17 an hour—and the cameras. The “fucking cameras.” The “stupid fucking cameras.”

Inspired by the union election at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, Ron added a question about whether drivers should unionize. Nine percent of respondents said maybe. Eighty-seven percent said yes.

For Amazon workers across the country, the Bessemer election is sparking conversations about their own working conditions and how they might improve them. On the road to becoming the nation’s second-largest employer, the company has faced a slew of criticism over its labor practices, from warehouse safety to allegations of discrimination and harassment by senior staff. As the people who literally hold the keys to the company’s increasingly speedy shipping, last-mile delivery drivers could have enormous collective power. The rub is, none of them are technically Amazon employees—not the Flex drivers distributing Amazon totes out of their own cars, not even the DSP drivers in Amazon-branded uniforms driving Amazon-branded vans. For those who want a union, this throws up some major roadblocks.


Amazon’s DSP network spans eight countries and employs 158,000 drivers. Each one of those drivers is a subcontractor, employed by one of 2,500 DSPs that contract with Amazon to deliver its packages. Amazon provides a suite of equipment that DSPs use to surveil their employees: There’s the Rabbit, an electronic scanning device that tracks drivers in real time; the Mentor app, which monitors and scores their driving behavior; and now, increasingly, the always-on AI cameras that record inside and outside the van, a concern not only for drivers but for anyone on the other side of its four lenses. Amazon can reward high-performing DSPs with additional routes and cut poor performers, putting constant pressure on owners to keep drivers moving swiftly.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said, “We’re proud to empower more than 2,000 Delivery Service Partners around the country—small businesses that create thousands more jobs and offer a great work environment with pay of at least $15 an hour, health care benefits, and paid time off.”

Amazon launched the DSP program in 2018 as part of an effort to gain more control over its shipping operations by bringing them in-house. (But not too in-house.) To help DSP owners start their businesses, Amazon offers assistance like financing and negotiated rates on insurance and van leases. In turn, the company offloads the overhead of maintaining employees, as well as liability for accidents and workplace violations. (As reporting by BuzzFeed and ProPublica has shown, safety concerns turn out to be far from hypothetical.)

According to some estimates, DSP profit margins run low by industry standards, putting pressure on labor costs. For comparison, the Teamsters say the UPS drivers they represent make an average of $38 an hour plus benefits, including a pension. And since Amazon caps the number of vans per partner at 40, no one business can get too powerful. Drivers can unionize, but only on a firm-by-firm basis. If one DSP unionizes, Amazon has other options. “If any one of them gets out of order and starts threatening to strike or demands more wages, then boom, the ax comes down,” says Marc Wulfraat, president of MWPVL International, a logistics consulting firm that closely monitors Amazon. “They’re gone, and they bring somebody else in.”

That’s exactly what a group of Michigan drivers alleged in 2017. Employees of an Amazon contractor named Silverstar Delivery voted 22-7 to unionize with the Teamsters. Less than a month later, several union supporters were fired. A few months after that, the firm closed its Michigan location. Workers filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging unlawful retaliation. While the retaliatory firing charge was dismissed due to insufficient evidence, Silverstar paid over $15,000 in back pay as part of a settlement. Amazon avoided liability, arguing that it wasn’t the drivers’ joint employer. Shortly after the incident, according to a BuzzFeed report, the company held meetings with other DSP owners on how to avoid union drives at their own companies. No Amazon drivers have attempted a union vote since.


While the deck appears stacked wildly in Amazon’s favor, there is precedent for successfully unionizing a large subcontracted workforce. In the 1980s, for example, multinational corporate building owners began outsourcing janitorial work to subcontractors. Janitors saw their wages and benefits slashed and wanted union protections. Over a period of years, they launched a series of escalating walkouts and demonstrations nationwide, under the rallying cry “Justice for janitors.” 

Instead of pressuring the relatively powerless subcontractors, organizers aimed their sights at the master contractor—in that case, the building owners, says Chris Rhomberg, a Fordham University sociology professor who researches labor strikes. “They built up solidarity so they could pressure the master contractor and say, ‘You’ve got to put enough money out there so that your subcontractors can pay a decent wage.’ It wasn’t until they had everybody lined up that they’d go for the union election at all the subcontractors.” This eventually worked. For some janitors, their pay and benefits doubled.

Activists have also won gains with campaigns that haven't necessarily ended in union drives. More recently, nonunion fast-food workers have focused on demonstrations to attract public attention and urge lawmakers to raise the minimum wage. Since they began, nine states plus DC have passed $15 minimum wage laws, and President Biden has voiced support. When the Fight for Fifteen movement started in 2012, Rhomberg says, “nobody thought that had a chance.”

Amidst the campaign, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) sought to establish McDonald’s as a joint employer, which could have paved the way toward holding the company responsible for its franchisees’ labor practices and potentially compelled it to bargain with any unions that formed. In 2014, the Obama-era NLRB sided with the SEIU, expanding the definition of a joint employer to include not just franchisors, but companies that hire subcontractors, provided the employer had the ability to exert indirect control over the workers’ conditions. The Trump administration reversed the rule, but in yet another volley just last week, Biden’s Labor Department proposed reverting to a more expansive definition of joint employer, a proposal that’s open for public comment until next month. Depending on the outcome, the new rule could impact not just chains like McDonald's but Amazon’s DSP network as well.

Amazon’s Flex drivers face even rockier terrain. These gig workers make up a smaller share of the company’s driver pool, and like Uber and Lyft, Amazon considers them independent contractors. This means they lack the protections afforded employees, like minimum wage guarantees, paid time off, and protection from harassment and discrimination. They’re the kind of labor issues that might drive workers to unionize—that is, if Flex drivers could.

When the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935, anyone providing a service to a company in exchange for money was considered an employee, says Catherine Fisk, a UC Berkeley labor law professor—and as such had the right to unionize. Then the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendment excluded independent contractors from NLRA rights. The thing is, “it’s not clear who independent contractors are,” says Fisk. “The statute doesn’t effectively define them. At various times, the NLRB has held that regardless of whether a company designates someone an independent contractor, if a company effectively controls their working conditions and workers are economically dependent on the company, they’re employees.”

“Essentially what companies like Uber have argued is that the law should go back to the way it was circa 1920, when not only did most workers have no statutory right to unionize, but federal law treated unions as illegal conspiracies in restraint of trade,” Fisk says. “In my view, that’s fundamentally inconsistent with the language of the NLRA and the language of federal antitrust law. But that’s an issue that will have to get fought about.”

On the heels of their Prop. 22 victory in California, companies like Uber and DoorDash have formed a coalition and begun lobbying to enshrine a new “third category” of worker into law. In exchange for industry-wide collective bargaining rights, workers would essentially forfeit the protections afforded employees under the NLRA—things like minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and paid time off. But some legal experts argue that gig workers already are employees under current federal law, despite corporate claims to the contrary. 

The PRO Act, which passed in the House last week, affirms this view. It establishes an ABC test for classifying workers as independent contractors. To pass the test, a worker would need to be free from company control, not perform a job that's core to the company's business, and have an independent business doing work of the same nature. Unless they satisfied these criteria, workers would have the right to unionize. The bill, however, is unlikely to clear the Senate unless Democrats first pass filibuster reform.

Although Prop. 22 dealt a huge blow to gig worker protections, it spawned a flurry of organizing, with advocacy groups like Gig Workers Rising, We Drive Progress, and Rideshare Drivers United coordinating protests and opposition campaigns. Many of these groups continue to fight efforts to duplicate Prop. 22-type laws nationwide.

Have you worked as an Amazon driver? Is there something you think we should know? Email the author at caitlin_harrington@wired.com. WIRED protects the confidentiality of its sources, but if you wish to conceal your identity, here are the instructions for using SecureDrop. 

Meanwhile, the Amazon logistics juggernaut continues full speed ahead. In just four short years, the company has gone from shipping less than 10 percent of its own products to a whopping two-thirds of them in 2020, per estimates by MWPVL and Rakuten Intelligence. Randy Korgan, director of the Amazon Project at the Teamsters, calls this “a defining moment in transportation.”

When Korgan began as a dock worker in the freight industry in 1990, he made $15 an hour within his first year, more than $11 above minimum wage at the time. “I had a hard time surviving at that time on $15. Now we’re patting Amazon on the back 30 years later for paying $15 an hour? It’s mind-boggling.” (Of the four major local delivery providers in the US—Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and USPS—only UPS and the postal service are unionized.) Amazon’s comparably low-wage model, Korgan says, leads to a revolving door of workers.

Ron, the DSP driver who created the survey, calls Amazon’s delivery service “profoundly useful,” particularly during the pandemic. “But the way the people who bring the service are treated doesn’t match,” he says. “Amazon found a way to regress working conditions in North America. It’s such a huge damper on all the work that’s been done by people fighting for better labor conditions.”

Ron started as a DSP driver late last year during the holiday crunch. It didn’t take much to get started: His road test consisted of making a U-turn in an empty parking lot. He has held several jobs, but he’d never felt as fatigued as he did delivering for Amazon. During the holiday blitz, he’d skip breaks and pee in bottles to avoid falling behind. One of his group chat members shared a photo of two urine-filled plastic water bottles left in a van by a previous driver. (Amazon said its app provides a list of nearby restrooms and alerts drivers when it’s time for a break.) “After working four of five days, I couldn’t focus at home. I couldn’t unwind. I just had to lay down,” Ron says. “I later learned that these were symptoms of fatigue. When you’re overworked, you can’t focus on resting or talking to people. You just lie down, rinse, and repeat.”

One moment in particular stuck with him. It was during a snowstorm that had forced many businesses in the area to close. Ron was assigned a typical 180-stop route. He caught glimpses of customers warming themselves by fireplaces as slush soaked through his boot seams. When he finished his deliveries, frozen and spent, the dispatcher asked him to make a “rescue” stop, Amazon’s term for assisting other drivers who fall behind schedule. Ron pleaded to go home, but the dispatcher insisted, so he dragged himself to the other driver’s van. “I’m younger, and I was helping out this guy in his forties or fifties. He was panting, and his shoes were not even winter shoes. His feet were completely soaked,” Ron recalls. “That image of a middle-aged man panting with soaked shoes making deliveries for a trillion-dollar company—that’s when I thought, something has to change.”

For now, he’s focused on raising awareness. Earlier this month, he and Casey launched a Twitter account, Amazon Delivery Associates for Change and Direct Action. “If we tweet one suggestion a day, we’ll have enough for months,” he says. Next they plan to start an Instagram page.

Casey never finished out her two weeks. During a particularly harrowing group stop involving a list of non-working apartment codes, her dispatcher called and pushed her to speed up. She couldn’t take it anymore. She told her boss she wasn’t coming in the next day. Now she delivers for FedEx Express as a full employee. “The pay is better. I have actual good benefits. They don’t micromanage. I get my breaks,” she says. “It’s 10 times better.” Whether it stays that way will have to get fought about. For now, she’s just happy to enjoy her lunch.

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