In just a few short years, Amazon’s warehouse workers have gone from suffering in silence to jobsite walkouts in Minnesota and more recently a full-blown union vote in Alabama. Now it seems another segment of Amazon’s workforce is taking its first steps towards advocating for better conditions.
In an informal driver-led survey shared with Gizmodo, hundreds of U.S. and Canada-based delivery drivers — who transport packages for but are technically not employed by Amazon — describe constant surveillance, to-the-second time crunches, and accelerated work with stagnant pay. And the vast majority say they’d like to unionise.
The survey isn’t an official organising effort, just a preliminary push to generate a consensus that Amazon is their employer and the working conditions are atrocious. “Unionisation is included because it is aspirational,” a driver who conducted the survey told Gizmodo. “And Alabama votes are happening, and it’s a strong show of support for it too.” They’re referring to the swift, historic union vote orchestrated by Bessemer, Alabama warehouse workers — the NLRB will start tallying votes on March 30th to determine if the facility becomes the first unionised Amazon facility in the U.S.
When Amazon started building out its own logistics network, it took a page from the gig company book, first rolling out a sort of delivery version of Uber — “Amazon Flex” — where independent drivers using their own cars would compete for “blocks” of deliveries. Flex (still in existence) was followed by the more robust, franchised “Delivery Service Partners” (DSP) program, which Amazon has framed as an opportunity to “empower entrepreneurs” willing to put up their own funds and pretty much exclusively work for Amazon. The company reported in August 2020 that the program had “empowered entrepreneurs” to form 1,300 such companies, supplying around 85,000 delivery drivers all told.
Contracting isn’t new to logistics, and experts say other major delivery companies have used the practice to keep wages stagnant for decades. But the exploding workforce of Amazon DSP drivers might be well-positioned to make some change.
“Delivery associates” schlepp Amazon packages, usually in Amazon-branded vans (leased from Amazon), wearing Amazon uniforms, while surveilled by Amazon and given brutal quotas from Amazon, which can hand down infractions that can lead to termination. Still, because Amazon keeps them at an arm’s length as subcontractors, they’re denied the ability to form any sort of union which might cover all drivers similarly situated. Amazon told Gizmodo via email that DSPs can deliver for other companies, but only if they’re not using Amazon-branded vehicles.
“Our ability to work safely is impossible,” one contributor to the survey pointed out, citing brutal quotas that aren’t adjusted for extenuating circumstances, like icy conditions or hours spent waiting for a tow truck. “Many of the points I just made will be ignored by Amazon because they will say ‘well, that’s up to your DSP’ or ‘talk to your DSP about more pay or uniforms or whatever,’ they added. “They contract out so that they are never at fault and don’t have to listen to their drivers. We work for Amazon.”
In an email to Gizmodo, Amazon said that the 190 stop count repeatedly cited by survey responders is far higher than average. Amazon said that it requires DSPs to provide $US15 ($19) minimum wage and healthcare coverage for those working 30 hours or more per week.
“There’s a lot of assault on your dignity,” a Canada-based former Amazon delivery driver, who asked to remain anonymous, told Gizmodo over the phone. They started last November and quit this month. “During orientation, I remember asking the driver who was training me about where to use the bathroom. He just laughed and said, maybe you can go to a gas station,” the driver told me. “After a couple of days, I figured out that people were, you know — you take a bottle and you do it in the van.”
Amazon told Gizmodo that the Amazon Delivery app shows drivers nearby bathroom facilities and gas stations and reminds them to take breaks. But cheating workers out of bathroom breaks is, historically, an Amazon thing.
A driver from Fort Worth, Texas, pointed out to Gizmodo over the phone that driving on rural routes makes a necessary pit stop virtually impossible. “I can’t stop and take 20 minutes to find a gas station if I have 180 stops to do in that area, and then take 20 minutes to drive back to the location I was at,” they said. “And then I have a whole 40 minutes wasted, I have dispatch calling me to ask what’s going on.” They said they don’t usually do this, but they’ve often found pee bottles in the back of the next day’s van.
“Wasting” 40 minutes to relieve oneself adds up, the Fort Worth driver added; they’re usually told to come in at 10:30 am, and those who take longest to finish their routes might not clock out til 9:30 pm. The driver said that they feel they have no one to communicate with about quota and timing issues, which are tracked through Amazon’s routing and location surveillance technology. “Some DSPs have HR departments, but it’s not a real HR department — they still have to talk to Amazon,” they said. Like many others, they said the helpline is useless.
Obviously, Amazon is aware of the issue, though it provides no public restrooms or financial support for paid rest breaks. On Monday, Motherboard published a disciplinary guide for DSPs handed down from the company, which lists “public urination” and “public defecation” amongst “defects and violations,” often customer-flagged, that are grounds for suspending a driver’s account and eventual “offboarding.” (DSPs get a notification and may appeal on the driver’s behalf with no guaranteed success.)
In other words, one could get the impression that Amazon gave itself the right to override DSPs and manage or roundaboutly fire their employees. Amazon denied this in an email to Gizmodo, stating that the company shows DSPs customer feedback but that DSPs independently make all personnel decisions.
True, a driver who has been “offboarded” from handling Amazon packages can stay on at, lets call it DSP Trucking LLC. But when the company he works for derives the majority of its profits from delivering for Amazon, it’s unclear what that driver is going to do all day. And then it’s not unlikely that DSP Trucking LLC will go find his replacement.
Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream told Gizmodo over the phone that Amazon creates the recruitment pool for DSPs, which might even set up dispatch centres in Amazon facilities and log in to Amazon’s driver monitoring systems. (One of numerous identical CareerBuilder employment ads announces “various DSPs hiring” and lists a single Amazon delivery facility address.)
Viscelli points out that the DSP model — throwing a bunch of inexperienced drivers into unfamiliar territory at a high-turnover rate — creates parking hazards and sends drivers unsafely scrambling between doorsteps.
To contextualise the dysfunction, Viscelli compared Amazon DSPs to the accounts he’s collected from UPS drivers, who are organised through the Teamsters Union. A UPS driver on a designated ten-year route knows the parking rules, business hours, school times; they can take the physical toll of overtime young and plan for a less high-strain job in their fifties. A UPS driver can make $US80,000 ($103,296) a year with benefits, while the Amazon driver working full-time with no weeks off might make around $US30,000 ($38,736) on minimum wage. “People go there for a career,” he said, “and they have real ownership of their work. I mean, real professionalism.”
All of the above seems to make a pretty good case for organising directly with Amazon, a cause at least one UPS worker has advocated for in order to protect their own livelihood. Considering the defects and violations guide, Amazon likely fails the commonly-referenced ABC test which some state lawmakers have used to measure employee classification.
“For delivery associates to be able to unionise and bargain directly with Amazon, they’d first have to be recognised as Amazon’s employees under the NLRB [National Labour Relations Board],” Brian Chen, staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, told Gizmodo via email. He added that the Trump NLRB’s guidance “took a narrow view of joint employment relationships,” but he suspects the Biden administration might be more worker-friendly.
Harvard professor and labour rights expert Benjamin Sachs advocates for a complete overhaul of FDR-era labour law in order to accommodate such non-employee-employees. (See his “Clean Slate” agenda, designed with former National Labour Relations Board member Sharon Block.) In the shorter term, he said, the National Labour Relations Board could authorise states to allow sectoral bargaining, an expansive bargaining system more common in Europe, which allows workers to bargain with multiple employers so long as they’re performing work in the same sector.
“You can franchise and subcontract anything,” Sachs told Gizmodo over the phone. “More and more companies are getting away with these games that have enormous human costs, that allow companies to maintain control and profits while shedding all responsibility to the workforce.”
Maybe you’re a DA or Flex driver who’d like to tell Amazon how it’s going? You can add to the survey here.