LOS ANGELES: Dozens of Amazon.com Inc delivery drivers in California have signed a first-of-its-kind union contract in the US as fears grow over low wages, tough conditions, and workers’ safety put at risk from worsening heatwaves fueled by climate change.
The 84 workers in the city of Palmdale, who organised with the Teamsters union, secured pay rises, paid holidays and safety protections in April after gaining recognition from their employer Battle-Tested Strategies (BTS), a delivery firm contracted by Amazon.
The drivers unionized over fears for their safety in extreme temperatures, which often exceed 100°F (38°C) in summer, according to the Teamsters, which said the union contract was the first to cover workers in Amazon's delivery network.
Veteran labour organiser Peter Olney, ex-organising director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said the contract was “trail-blazing, but with very difficult obstacles to come”, citing the challenge of unionising workers across more than 2,500 Amazon Delivery Service Partners (DSPs) such as BTS.
In response to a request for comment from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Amazon spokesperson Eileen Hards said the group of individuals in question did not work for the ecommerce giant.
“Our delivery network is made up of thousands of independently owned and operated small businesses who provide delivery services for our company,” Hards said in an email.
Heath Lopez, one of the drivers at BTS who joined the union, said workers’ concerns began to crystallise last August, as California experienced a heatwave so extreme that a state of emergency was declared.
“It felt like putting your head in an oven – like a sauna,” he said, describing the hottest work shifts last year.
“I would press my face against the AC (air conditioning) just to try and feel the cold air.”
One driver had to be taken away from the delivery station in an ambulance after fainting in the heat, Lopez recalled.
Lopez said he and other workers sent a petition to Amazon last summer asking for broken AC in vans to be fixed or replaced and for the company to reduce the number of deliveries.
Amazon did not comment on the incident of the worker fainting, or the petition.
Its spokesperson said all vehicles have AC, and that Amazon monitors the local heat index and adds up to an hour of extra breaks for drivers during heatwaves. Workers can cut deliveries short if they feel unwell or unsafe, the spokesperson added.
BTS owner Johnathon Ervin said he was supportive of the union but added that there was only so much he could do to improve labour conditions – especially with rising heat stress.
Ervin leases his vans from Amazon, and said he does not have control over when he can replace them. Delivery schedules, even on the hottest days, are set by Amazon's algorithms, he said.
“That algorithm is built by their computer – but these are humans. They're going to wear out over time,” Ervin said.
“And this is what occurred in the summer of 2022.”
When the BTS drivers sent the petition to Amazon last summer, the company directed Ervin to a training course designed to help him dissuade his workers from unionising, he said.
Amazon did not comment on the training course.
Heatwaves plant seed of worker resistance
With California experiencing soaring temperatures and record heatwaves in recent years as climate change turbo-charges extreme weather, heat has become an urgent issue for workers in the state, especially those in the sprawling logistics industry.
In 2022, Amazon warehouse workers staged walkouts over excessive heat, and unionised United Parcel Service (UPS) drivers have made cool-down breaks and AC a key part of their contract negotiations.
California’s occupational safety regulator, Cal/OSHA, is currently finalising tighter heat regulations that would mandate cool-down breaks and other protections for indoor workers, which would apply to Amazon workers inside of warehouses.
Temperatures above 100°F lead to a significant uptick of more than 15% in worker injury rates in California, a 2021 study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found.
Each year, heat contributes to about 20,000 additional workplace injuries in the state, according to the research.
Last summer, several delivery drivers and employees at various Amazon DSPs told the Thomson Reuters Foundation heat exhaustion was common, with workers regularly vomiting and fainting on the job.
"Especially in hot regions like ... Palmdale, many drivers face issues related to heat exhaustion, dehydration," said Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, who studies Amazon's logistics business.
"Some of these seemingly basic demands by workers have been the seed that has started worker resistance," he added.
Union faces uncertain future
The new contract Ervin has agreed with his drivers raised wages from US$19.75 to US$20.05 an hour in May, with a guarantee that the rate will rise to US$30 an hour by September. It also ensures drivers have vans in good working order, and protects them from discipline or firing without just cause.
"It was a no-brainer for me to recognise the union," Ervin said. But the future of the union effort is now unclear.
Ervin said Amazon told him in mid-April it was cutting short its contract with BTS. He believes the company was punishing him for supporting the union. He and his lawyers intend to challenge Amazon's decision to cancel the contract.
Amazon's spokesperson said the company had decided to end Ervin's contract before the union announcement was made public, in response to unrelated concerns about the maintenance of his fleet of vehicles, and insurance issues.
Delivery drivers for DSPs in other parts of the United States said they were not surprised by Amazon's response to the BTS union.
"If anything union-wise needs to be done, it will have to be all the DSPs in one state getting together and unionizing," said a driver for a DSP in Iowa, asking for his name to be withheld.
"Otherwise ... Amazon will just cut you off and give your routes to another DSP."
Managers at two DSPs in California – who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation – said they would be supportive of union efforts, but were concerned that Amazon would simply cancel their contracts if their workers unionized.
The Teamsters have anticipated this challenge.
In May, they filed a complaint with federal labor regulators saying that Amazon should be recognized as a joint or sole employer of the Palmdale workers, in a bid to force the company to negotiate directly with the union rather than with BTS.
Amazon did not comment on the Teamsters complaint.
As the summer approaches in Palmdale, Amazon delivery drivers are bracing once more for months of punishing heat.
"I am worried about heat stroke, about routes being too long," said Dorian Arnold, one of the newer BTS drivers – having joined after last year's heatwave – and a member of the union.
"It's quite grueling to spend eight or nine hours in a tin van with no AC." – Thomson Reuters Foundation