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labor As Amazon Refuses To Bargain, Divisions Have Emerged in the Amazon Labor Union

More than a year after the Amazon Labor Union’s landmark victory at a Staten Island warehouse, Amazon still refuses to bargain with the union. Meanwhile, a reform caucus is pushing for the ALU to hold leadership elections.

Christian Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), speaks during an ALU rally outside an Amazon warehouse in the Staten Island borough of New York, on April 11, 2023.,(Paul Frangipane / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On Monday, July 10, a group of Amazon workers at JFK8, the company’s largest warehouse in Staten Island, filed a complaint in federal court. In April 2022, JFK8’s workers became the first at any Amazon facility in the United States to win a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union election, voting to join the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). The complaint states that the ALU and current ALU president Chris Smalls “refuse to hold officer elections which should have been scheduled no later than March 2023.” They are asking a federal judge to schedule an election for ALU top’s officers by August 30, to be overseen by a neutral monitor.

The ALU Democratic Reform Caucus, the group behind the filing, consists of some forty active organizers at JFK8 and includes several leaders from the ALU’s early days: former ALU treasurer Connor Spence, former ALU organizing director Brett Daniels, and Brima Sylla, a key organizer in the lead-up to the NLRB election. The group began organizing in December 2022, after a contentious ALU meeting during which Smalls told members, “You got a problem with me? Deuces.”

In a statement published on Tuesday, the caucus notes that when workers first began organizing at JFK8, they chose to form an independent union — an arduous task that required them to organize in the eight-thousand-person warehouse without the resources they would have received had they worked with an established union — because “it offered rank-and-file workers a level of autonomy and control that was vital in engaging them through a vicious fight against one of the most anti-union companies in the world: Amazon.”

“ALU’s current leadership is entirely unelected and self-appointed,” the group continues. “Not only do we feel this is unlawful and antidemocratic, it is also a major barrier to organizing workers in support of a contract fight, as democracy is a key element in engaging workers.”

The group alleges that the union’s current executive board amended the union’s constitution to postpone elections that were due to take place after the NLRB certified the union victory in January of 2023. Under the new constitution, leadership elections won’t take place until after workers win a first contract. With Amazon continuing to stonewall recognizing the union, much less negotiating with it, there is no telling how long that will take.

In court filings, the current union leadership’s lawyers argued that the constitutional amendment that would have mandated elections after certification “was never completed, let alone adopted.”

On Thursday, US district judge Ann Donnelly of the Eastern District of New York declined the caucus’s request for a temporary restraining order that would restrict ALU leaders from retaliating against or disciplining members who are party to the lawsuit: eighty-six workers were signed on as plaintiffs (the reform caucus gathered 822 workers’ signatures on a petition calling for an ALU election).

As evidence backing their motion for a restraining order, the group’s lawyers cited a text Smalls sent to Sylla that read, in part, “reformALU is not democratic it’s a bunch of bull and I’m warning you now keep petitioning against ALU we will take legal action against you as well for false representation of a government certified union.”

Outside the courtroom on Thursday, Smalls told the City, “It’s unfortunate that they are doing this, because the only winner is Amazon. We’ve got to stay focused on our contract fight.”

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The decision to file the complaint in court followed months of internal efforts to reform the union, culminating in the breakdown of planned mediation between the union’s executive board and the caucus. That mediation was to have been led by longtime labor organizer Bill Fletcher Jr.

In a memo concerning the collapse of the mediation, Fletcher writes that he was “honored” to have been asked to mediate the dispute, as he “saw this as an excellent sign that both sides understood that the internal conflict represented a matter that was taking the entire union to the precipice.” But while the caucus’s meeting with him to set ground rules was productive, he says that much of the time during a similar meeting with the executive board was spent on the board “explaining to me why they believed that the Caucus was in the wrong.” On June 18, Fletcher Jr was informed by a representative of the board that they had voted against mediation.

“I am concerned that the apparent turmoil within the ALU Board means that little is being done to organize the workers and prepare for the battle with Amazon,” wrote Fletcher. “It is clear that the ALU’s leadership must be reorganized and reaffirmed by the membership.”

Asked to comment on the conflict by the New York Times, Smalls denied that the union’s actions violate the law, calling the complaint a “ridiculous claim with zero facts or merit.” Smalls did not respond to a request for comment from Jacobin.

The filings come the same week as another legal ruling, this one in the ALU’s favor. On Wednesday, the NLRB issued a formal complaint against Amazon for violating the National Labor Relations Act because it “failed and refused to bargain with the union” in the time since the April 2, 2022, election. Amazon has until July 26 to respond to the complaint.

“It’s about time,” Smalls told Motherboard of the decision. “We’ve been patiently waiting, and there’s nothing patient about waiting against a trillion-dollar company while they continue union-busting.”

The timing of the two complaints — one from the reform caucus, one from the NLRB — underlines the predicament in which JFK8 workers find themselves: more than a year after unionizing, their employer hasn’t stopped stonewalling them. A company that flouts the law so brazenly, and with such immense resources in its coffer, is a company that wants to crush the union. That creates a pressure cooker: hemmed in by an intransigent employer, internal union conflicts metastasize.

The best defense against such a recalcitrant employer is a good offense: spreading the union’s roots so they reach throughout the shop floor in Staten Island. To do so requires creating new leaders: every union meeting should be a means of recruiting JFK8 workers who haven’t yet been involved in the ALU to do so. Familiar faces mean failure: every social event should be a recruitment drive, every workplace conflict a demonstration of power.

According to the caucus, that has not been the case as of late: as Spence told Labor Notes, the ALU’s weekly worker committee meetings became biweekly, then stopped altogether in May. Sylla added that the meetings weren’t even reaching quorum, which is ten active workers.

Failing to reach a quorum of ten workers, at a warehouse that employs thousands, means the current approach is not working. Changing that trajectory is easier said than done — even the most well-functioning, democratic union would have obstacles to overcome in building shop-floor power at Amazon, with its high-turnover workforce and union-busting campaign.

But it’s still early days, and if workers can use their historic win to expand one worker at a time, acting collectively, as a union, they can still force one of the country’s most powerful corporations to meet them across the bargaining table, as equals.

That means building upon the expertise workers developed during the union campaign: having systematic one-on-one conversations, not only identifying leaders in each part of JFK8, on each shift, but building them into fighters. That can’t be done if workers do not believe the union is theirs, which requires democracy.

Getting Amazon to the bargaining table will require nothing less than a strike threat. That much has been clear since the ALU won its election, and the company’s continued legal maneuvers show that it remains true. Amazon can, and assuredly will, continue stalling despite the NLRB’s complaints. The labor board’s drastically limited enforcement mechanisms and underfunded budget are no match for an employer of Amazon’s size that is determined to crush its workers (for more proof of that, see Starbucks). Waiting on the courts is a losing strategy.

The task is monumental, but every ALU organizer knew it would be. Are JFK8 workers willing to wear union buttons? Sign petitions? Are they standing up to management incursions inside JFK8? The ALU isn’t the only union organizing this workforce, and others are finding ways to increase the pressure on Amazon: for instance, the Palmdale, California, Amazon drivers who joined the Teamsters in April of this year have expanded their unfair labor practice picket lines to Amazon warehouses on both coasts.

For all the media attention on conflict between the ALU and other unions — and now, internal conflicts within the ALU — the fundamental dispute is between Amazon workers and their employer. Every union that is organizing these workers should be crystal clear in its focus: building a fighting force to contest power on the shop floor. Nothing else matters.


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Alex N. Press is a staff writer at Jacobin who covers labor organizing.

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