The green logistics firm GoBolt says that “protecting the planet is built into our DNA,” but that progressive sentiment doesn’t extend to its workers. After a group of delivery drivers in Ontario successfully unionized, the company abruptly fired them all.
Cofounder and CEO of GoBolt Mark Ang during day two of Collision 2023 in Toronto, Canada. (Harry Murphy / Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images)
Recent strike successes and bargaining victories for workers across North America are certainly encouraging. However, these victories are unlikely to make bosses embrace union organizing. In fact, many companies may respond by becoming even more anti-union. Indeed, this is the unfortunate reality for twenty-three parcel delivery drivers at GoBolt’s facility in Markham, Ontario, who were fired while trying to bargain for their first contract.
The reasons for this kind of intransigence from a company like GoBolt are deeply rooted in its business model. GoBolt vows to “disrupt” the logistics industry. Since forming in 2017, originally as a storage company, GoBolt has experienced substantial growth, including its expansion into the United States, and has secured CAD $222.5 million in funding. It is worth noting that some of its funding comes from government-owned entities such as the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada. GoBolt provides deliveries for such major companies as Frank and Oak, Ikea, Lululemon, and Zara. For rapidly growing start-ups like GoBolt, unions are no doubt perceived as obstacles to further rapid expansion.
GoBolt prides itself on its environmental sustainability, declaring on its website that “protecting the planet is built into our DNA.” It aims to build the first sustainable vertically integrated supply chain network. The company has also set a goal of achieving carbon-neutral deliveries by December 2023 using an electronic vehicle (EV) van fleet. And, as a way to give back to the community, GoBolt assists its business clients in redirecting old furniture to the Furniture Bank, a charity in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) that aids those with low incomes in furnishing their homes.
However, beneath these outwardly progressive policies lies the harsh reality of the modern logistics industry for its workers. A company’s professed environmental friendliness doesn’t always ensure fair treatment of their employees. In some cases, the emphasis on eco-consciousness serves as a cover for ongoing labor exploitation. This cynical manipulation of environmental concerns capitalizes on the public’s assumption that a company’s environmental conscientiousness implies ethical conduct.
Anti-Union Letters from the Boss
Dan O’Hara, one of the drivers terminated by GoBolt, sheds light on the challenging working conditions, stating, “There was a lot of arbitrary discipline. Van safety was an issue too, these vans were just not properly equipped for the Canadian winter.” O’Hara explains that the primary catalyst for the unionization effort was the company’s attempt to transition from an hourly wage of $20 to a per-parcel rate.
O’Hara and the other drivers estimate that this pay cut would result in a daily loss of $40 to $60. However, this restructuring of pay rates was ultimately never implemented. “On the day they tried to introduce [the pay structure change],” O’Hara notes, “we walked out. We spooked them enough with the walkout that it never was implemented. Knowing they could do that to us at any time was really the spark for the union.”
“[GoBolt] wanted to convince us we’d make more money. A lot of us had doubts about that. They said they were collecting data to show how we could make more. They never showed us the data even though some drivers asked to see it,” explains Lemoy Whyte, another of the fired drivers.
“The day before the voting was set to take place, we all got an email directly from Mark Ang, the CEO of the company informing us its our right not to vote for a union. There was one line where he said we hope you vote no. We were all taken aback by that,” says Whyte.
“[Ang] had been at the building many times, but he had never addressed us before in person.” Whyte explains that if Ang had chosen to convey something as simple as appreciation for their hard work, the workers’ reaction would have been more positive. However, since this was the first time he had directly addressed them, it actually fueled their determination to vote yes.
The Union Vote
In June, the drivers achieved a resounding victory in a union certification vote, with a final count of twenty-six in favor and two opposed. As a result, they became members of Teamsters Local 938.
“We thought that bargaining itself was going relatively smoothly and that the company had basically agreed to a union framework, it was just a matter of negotiating our concrete demands,” O’Hara says. “But there were weird signs. After certification, discipline became more heavy handed. They started restricting things such as shift changes and denied requests for time off, even in cases of significant life events like family deaths.”
The most notable change following certification, according to O’Hara, was a sharp increase in the use of contractors driving gas-powered vans. These contractors began handling an increasing volume of package deliveries, eventually taking over the majority of the deliveries. The commitment to carbon neutrality — a promise delivered on the back of the use of the EV fleet — appeared to no longer be a priority.
“We were all fired on the night of September 28 — we were supposed to have another bargaining meeting the next day,” says O’Hara. “I was confident in the way things were going. They were following the law in terms of setting up a union. It was a complete reversal. I was flabbergasted,” Whyte says.
To say that workers were caught off guard by the announcement is an understatement. On September 28 — when they were terminated — one of the drivers had just been married earlier in the day, while another was on their way to their honeymoon.
In response to an email request for comment, GoBolt communicated the following to Jacobin:
GoBolt recently made changes to reflect the evolving needs of our business and support our mission as a sustainability-driven, third-party logistics provider. As such we are transitioning to a fleet operator model to continue to deliver the quality and continuity we’ve established, and also allow for more flexibility, scale, volume and sustainability.
With over one thousand employees in Canada and the United States at GoBolt, the termination of drivers in the Markham warehouse raises concerns about the fate of hundreds of jobs. Furthermore, the shift to using contractors to provide vehicles and drivers casts doubt on the company’s sustainability claim. The GoBolt Drivers Union shared evidence on their Instagram account showing that the EVs are no longer in use since the firings.
Gun, Meet Foot
Ironically, GoBolt’s termination of drivers and increased dependence on contractors will very likely hamper its efforts to enhance efficiency, undermining its carbon cutting. “I would love it if we could be involved in the restructuring of their operations. It would be very beneficial to GoBolt mainly because we do the last mile delivery across the GTA. Us drivers have all the insight and all the data and all the advice on how things could be improved because we know the job inside and out,” says Whyte.
The alleged union busting at GoBolt matters for several important reasons that will shape the future of the labor movement. Organizing within the logistics sector play a pivotal role in the organizing of worker power and addressing the needs of the modern working class in our post-Fordist era characterized by flexibility and just-in-time production. It is also a further reminder not to buy into the hype from “socially conscious” corporations.
The developments at GoBolt will also significantly influence the trajectory of logistics-sector decarbonization. This transformation can take two distinct paths: one that ensures a just transition, protecting the interests of workers, and another that amounts to greenwashing, where workers exploited but a slightly lower carbon footprint is achieved. If the latter scenario prevails, then winning working class support for decarbonization efforts becomes more difficult.
Recent polling data shows significant opposition to the carbon tax and its future increases among Canadians. Unionizing green industries and demonstrating that they can provide good jobs is essential to winning support from workers for a zero-carbon economy.
The labor movement and environmental activists should closely monitor this situation and extend their support to the terminated workers. As more companies adopt green technologies and new companies emerge to offer them, we can anticipate more confrontations like the one at GoBolt in the future. While these conflicts may appear as isolated incidents, they collectively contribute to a broader issue where the fate of the working class and the well-being of our planet are at stake.
This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.