Amazon delivery drivers unionized and negotiated their first contract with the Teamsters union last week — a huge feat for workers at a company that has used its enormous size and strength to fight off worker organizing. On Friday, they unanimously ratified the contract, which will bring their wages from around $20 currently to $30 by September and would allow them to refuse to do deliveries they consider unsafe.
But that victory is a bit complicated.
The 84 California delivery drivers and dispatchers who unionized appear at first glance to be Amazon employees. They wear Amazon vests and drive Amazon-branded vehicles, have schedules dictated by Amazon, and can even be fired by Amazon. But they’re technically employed by Battle Tested Strategies (BTS), one of approximately 3,000 delivery contract companies that make up Amazon’s extensive delivery network. BTS voluntarily recognized the union after a majority of workers signed union authorization cards and negotiated the union contract.
Amazon has told Vox that its contract with BTS, which exclusively delivers for Amazon, was terminated “well before” workers notified the tech giant Monday, but that the contract hasn’t expired yet. The union said that the delivery people are still working for Amazon and that the contract goes through October, when it typically would auto-renew.
What happens next depends on Amazon, the workers, and the interpretation of outdated US labor law.
As American corporations increasingly rely on contract workers, existing legislation, written for more straightforward employee-employer relationships, puts these workers in a gray area where their rights can be unclear. Even for traditional employees, like those at Starbucks, corporate pushback against unions has made organizing a Herculean task. That means even small wins, like that of the delivery contractor against a giant tech behemoth, are impressive and can provide a pathway forward for how others might unionize in this day and age.
Unionizing on a small scale looks to be one of the many strategies unions like the Teamsters are using to try and gain footing in their uphill battles with giant corporations. It can be easier for unions to organize with individual contract companies, which might not have the explicit anti-union stance and tactics of Amazon. Contractors at other tech companies — like at Google, where a group of 50 YouTube contractors voted to unionize this week — will be paying special attention to what happens with this Amazon delivery union.
At the crux of the delivery driver issue is whether Amazon controls enough of what the workers do to be considered a joint employer.
“If Amazon is able to get away with ignoring the workers’ decision and hiding behind the subcontractor relationships, then I’m afraid we’ll have yet another story of the failure of American labor law,” said Benjamin Sachs, a labor professor at Harvard Law School. “If this leads to a recognition that these drivers are Amazon employees, joint employees, then this could be massively important.”
One element of note: These workers organized in California, which has a lower bar for who is considered an employee, and by extension, who enjoys union protections. For workers there to be considered independent contractors, they must satisfy three conditions: The worker must be free from the company’s “control and direction,” perform work that’s outside the company’s usual business, and be engaged in an “independently established trade.”
Another element that the National Labor Relations Board will likely have to decide is whether Amazon terminated the contract with BTS in order to avoid working with a union, something that would be illegal if they were considered employees. Amazon mentioned that the company had a “track record of failing to perform” but didn’t respond to questions about when exactly it told BTS it was terminating the contract and whether the e-commerce company had been aware of union organizing before then. BTS didn’t respond to an interview request.
Randy Korgan, the Amazon division director for the Teamsters, said the delivery drivers had been involved in “concerted activity” for the last year and a half, in which they communicated with their contractor and Amazon regarding their issues about heat — they frequently deliver packages in near 100-degree weather — and vehicle safety.
The latest Teamsters unionizing efforts appear to be a smart tactic: Rather than facing Amazon and its anti-union resources head-on, organizing smaller subcontracting firms might be a less onerous strategy, according to Robert Bruno, a labor professor and director of the labor studies program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
“It’s an easier way to get in the door, an easier way to start to represent some folks,” Bruno said.
Amazon has directed much of its anti-union efforts — including establishing relationships with policymakers and burnishing its image with union allies through efforts like employing formerly incarcerated people — against the Teamsters and particularly in Southern California, which is a key logistics hub for the company. The Teamsters could leverage its union win and contract there, which includes things like better wages and addressing safety concerns, to convince other contractors and employees to unionize.
This is not the first union victory at Amazon, but it’s the furthest along. Amazon workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted to form an independent union last year but are still fighting to negotiate a contract. Another union vote at a warehouse in Alabama failed.
Teamsters previously unionized Amazon delivery drivers in Michigan in 2017, but they never achieved a union contract. The union alleged that their subcontracting company and Amazon illegally fired workers in retaliation for unionizing, but Amazon was able to escape blame by saying it wasn’t their employer, and the subcontracting company closed up shop in the state shortly after.
“Workers are much more active today in their pursuit to exercise their rights,” Korgan said.
The union is also more prepared, he said, having passed a resolution in 2021 in which it created a division aimed specifically at building worker power at Amazon. Teamsters already represent UPS drivers, who deliver most of the other packages not delivered by Amazon’s network, so they see organizing the rest of its drivers as squarely in their wheelhouse. Korgan says there are other contracting firms like BTS that are “sympathetic” to their workers’ union efforts but many fear retaliation from Amazon.
While the BTS union and contract are certainly important, especially to the lives and livelihoods of those who work there, their greater importance might lie in symbolism.
“People were saying, ‘You can’t organize Amazon, nobody else has been able to organize it,’” Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Vox. “Now the Teamsters could say, ‘Well, we’re doing it.’ I think that will help give momentum to the movement to organize in the logistics industry.”
Update, April 28, 4:30 pm ET: This post was originally published on April 27 and has been updated to reflect the contract’s ratification.