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Logistics Labor Uprising Puts Industry on Edge

Labor unrest in the supply chain suggests an overhaul may well be underway across logistics that extends beyond mere pay increases.  

There have been enough recent headlines to suggest as much with railroad employees readying for a strike this month, until stakeholder stitched together tentative 11th-hour labor contracts. Liverpool dockworkers began a two-week strike last week. The Teamsters marched outside Amazon’s Seattle headquarters last week, making good on a division focused on workplace protections for Amazon warehouse and logistics workers announced earlier this month. 

“Our country is in the midst of a historic workforce transformation,” wrote a team of attorneys for employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson P.C.’s annual Workplace Policy Institute Labor Day Report. “It is the most critical issue facing the American business community today and perhaps the top competitiveness issue of our time.” 

That perhaps speaks to why the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) earlier this month took up protections for gig workers in a policy statement, ensuring it would protect such workers from unfair or deceptive business practices, particularly with the proliferation of technology and apps that have allowed for individuals to pick up anything from warehouse shifts to last-mile delivery routes as independent contractors.  

“Technological advances and novel business models are no license to commit unfair, deceptive or anticompetitive practices,” FTC Office of Policy Planning director Elizabeth Wilkins said when the policy statement was released. “We will use all our tools to protect gig workers and promote fair and competitive market practices in the gig economy.” 

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Littler Mendelson pointed out in its report, not only are workplace dynamics shifting, but a look at how employees are organizing has also changed in the past year, away from what it called a “top-down approach” driven by unions. Instead, social media has become a tool for organizing and “individuals are banding together to form grassroots organizing movements where individual employees are the ones to invite the labor organization to assist them in their pursuit to be represented,” the WPI report said. 

The non-profit Warehouse Worker Resource Center speaks to that shift. The organization, although not new having been established in 2011, advocates on behalf of Southern California warehouse workers and their working conditions. 

The group released a report, the findings of which Amazon has disputed, earlier this month that detailed unsafe temperatures at the company’s San Bernardino air hub.

Elsewhere in the country, Amazon warehouse employees in Staten Island banded together on their own to form the e-commerce company’s first U.S. union. 

The Teamsters earlier this month said it is now actively engaging Amazon employees with its Amazon Division, which was followed up with last week’s Teamsters rally of about 1,000 outside of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. 

Randy Korgan, who was appointed director of the Amazon Division, said at the time of the effort’s launch it’s “ready to create and support direct action by workers across the country to beat back this corporate threat to working people.” 

Railway workers walk through Union Station in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 2022. U.S. rail companies earlier this month began preparing for a possible strike, which has been averted for now with tentative deals now reached with all 12 unions involved in contract negotiations. Those contracts must now go before members to vote on whether they support the new contract terms. Photo by Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Unions rail against locomotive woes

The unrest is not limited to inside companies’ warehouses. 

The potential for a national rail strike, which dominated headlines this month, is still very much a threat should the dozen unions’ memberships involved in the current round of negotiations ultimately reject the tentative deals struck by their leadership. That’s why a group of workers called for informational pickets last week, unsanctioned by the unions, as uncertainty mounts over the specifics of the pending deals agreed to by union leadership. 

Beyond simply what the wage improvements amounted to—it’s a 24 percent compounded increase across the five-year contract, retroactive to 2020—the key concern has been the railroads’ attendance policies. 

“The goal is to have informational pickets, or practice pickets because there still is an opportunity here for this group of workers to use their economic leverage to maximize return from the bargaining process,” said a member of the ad hoc rank-and-file group that’s looking to mobilize railroad workers. 

The individual asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation by employers. 

“This isn’t [about] everybody vote ‘no’ [on the tentative contracts],” the worker said about the driver behind rallying workers across unions. “People are extremely frustrated.”

Locomotive workers are generally scheduled to be at work certain days of the week and other days must be on call, ready to report within a matter of hours if needed. If they, for example, schedule a doctor’s appointment, they can be what’s called “marked off,” meaning they can be disciplined or the absence can be taken into account when evaluating a worker’s overall attendance record.

The unions had asked for 15 paid days off annually to be used as sick or personal days, which would have existed outside of a separate allocation for vacation. The Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), which President Biden established in July to help the two sides resolve their issues, suggested the unions drop their sick leave proposal and that one additional personal day be allocated instead. It’s unclear what was agreed upon in the tentative proposals.

The dispute over attendance policies is further exacerbated by a labor shortage, one the unions have many times now blamed on railroads’ use of the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) operations model for creating unsafe working conditions due to lean staffing. 

“They [employers] use discipline as the stick to compel people to stay on the job, as opposed to using a carrot. And so that’s the problem for locomotive workers,” the worker said, adding there’s a growing number of workers saying they will vote down ratifying the tentative agreements.

Sheet, Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation-Transportation Division (SMART-TD), one of the larger unions involved in negotiations, urged its members not to make decisions on how they will vote based on information from social media or any other unofficial sources until they have received copies of the contract.

Plenty’s at stake should workers choose not to ratify their respective contracts. Railroads began preparing for a national system shutdown last week, which would have had significant implications for all businesses, from agriculture to mall stores. 

The American Apparel & Footwear Association and National Retail Federation had both urged Congress to step in and impose the PEB contract recommendations if the two sides are unable to reach deals. 

In fact, the American Trucking Associations voiced concerns prior to the final tentative deals being struck that extending the negotiation simply moves the question of a possible strike into peak shipping season “when the supply chain is already under added pressure,” ATA president and CEO Chris Spear told members of Congress. 

“Merely delaying a possible strike through Congressional action will simply exacerbate the concerns of consumers and industry,” Spear said, adding that pushing the threat of a strike or lockout to “October or November is arguably worse” than the possible shutdown industry faced earlier this month. 

Said the worker that’s part of the group looking to mobilize rail workers: “Railroaders are not done, and people should stay on their toes because we’re not out of the forest yet.”