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Opinion

30 May 2022

Author:
Sharan Burrow, ITUC; Christy Hoffman, UNI Global Union

Amazon AGM sees investor showdown over trade union rights

Amazon.co.uk employee sorts through books and other retail goods at their facility in Milton Keynes, England.

Amazon faced an unprecedented shareholder action last week as investors voted on workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining at their Annual General Meeting. The vote cast was historic as the first resolution of its kind and received a groundswell of shareholder support, with 47% of independent investors voting in favour.

UNI Global Union and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), representing Amazon workers around the world, applaud shareholders for stepping up to send this strong signal that Amazon’s union-busting does not have their mandate. In the wake of business leaders gathering at Davos on the theme of “history at a turning point” we must reiterate our call for action: the crisis faced by workers will only be a turning point if those with the power to change the status quo actually wield it.

Amazon’s violations of trade union rights are a prime test case for whether the discourse on addressing inequality will amount to action, including how investors walk the talk on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues. With more than 1.6 million employees, Amazon is estimated to be the world’s second-largest private sector employer, even without taking into consideration the company’s much wider footprint with dubiously-categorised self-employed drivers, its vast value chain and outsized impact on setting the standards of the future of work.

Allegations of anti-union tactics by Amazon have made headlines around the world, including reports of intimidation strategies, retaliation actions and surveillance systems. Such practices directly contradict Amazon’s own commitment “to non-discrimination and non-retaliation that ensures equal treatment for union and non-union employees”. A report published in May by the Center for Law and Work (CLAW) at Berkeley Law indicates “Amazon’s freedom of association policy, on its face, is non-compliant with international labour standards, and Amazon management’s conduct before and after issuing the policy continues to violate international standards”.

Amazon’s board must respond to this strong signal from their shareholders, backing up what workers around the world have called for from Amazon: for the company to drop their opposition to trade unions, allow workers to freely organise and collectively bargain in good faith.

The shareholder resolution, filed by SHARE (Shareholder Association for Research and Education), representing the Toronto-based Catherine Donnelly Foundation, urges Amazon’s board of directors to review how the company’s actions in the face of union organising efforts align with its stated commitment to freedom of association and collective bargaining and core International Labour Organization Conventions. Many big names among mainstream investors voiced their support in favour. Proxy advisors Glass Lewis and ISS recommended shareholders vote in favour. Major institutional investors including the US$1.8 trillion Legal & General Investment Management (LGIM), US$1.2 trillion Norges Bank, US$1 trillion asset manager Schroders, $263 billion New York City Pension Plans, $250 billion Florida SBA and $312 billion pension fund CalSTRS have also indicated they voted for the proposal. Amazon shareholders also showed support for other landmark resolutions including on tax transparency, working conditions and worker representation on the board.

War on Want, UNI Global Union and GMB protest outside Amazon HQ on Cyber Monday 2019

Amazon’s board must respond to this strong signal from their shareholders, backing up what workers around the world have called for from Amazon: for the company to drop their opposition to trade unions, allow workers to freely organise and collectively bargain in good faith.

Beyond Amazon, the resolution should serve as a wake-up call for companies and investors. Companies should take note and no longer assume shareholders will support – or even look passively away from – violations of fundamental labour rights. While the resolution is a turning point for investor action on labour rights, far too many institutional investors still failed to support it. They too must be held accountable, and have a big role to play in how they manage workers’ capital to protect fundamental rights and address the systemic social and environmental risks of our time.

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation

Christy Hoffman, General Secretary, UNI Global Union