Strains Emerge Inside the Union That Beat Amazon
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Author: Noam Scheiber
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New York Times

One year after its surprise victory at a Staten Island warehouse, the only union in the country representing Amazon workers has endured a series of setbacks and conflicts that have caused longtime supporters to question if it will survive.

In interviews, a dozen people who have been closely involved with the Amazon Labor Union said the union had made little progress bringing Amazon to the bargaining table, to say nothing of securing a contract. Many cited lopsided losses at two other warehouses, unstable funding and an internal feud that has made it difficult for the union to alter a strategy that they considered flawed.

At the heart of the feud is a dispute between the union’s president, Christian Smalls, and several longtime organizers.

Mr. Smalls’s former allies complain that he has pursued elections at other warehouses without strong support from workers or a plan to ensure victory. They say he has focused on travel and public appearances while neglecting the contract fight at the Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, where Amazon is still contesting the election result.

The critics, who include the union’s former treasurer and its former organizing director, favor an alternative approach: amassing enough supporters to credibly threaten a strike and pressure Amazon to negotiate. The process could take months but could increase the chances of winning a contract and collecting dues, without which the union is dependent on donations from other unions and third parties.

“We’re talking to workers, having one-on-ones, growing our power in the building,” said Tristian Martinez, a JFK8 employee who began helping Mr. Smalls organize workers early in the pandemic. “That’s where it matters. Chris flying all over world is not going to make us get to a contract any sooner.”

A group of people conversing indoors, including two in red T-shirts with A.L.U. logos.

Tristian Martinez, right, at the Amazon JFK8 warehouse last year. He helped Mr. Smalls organize workers early in the pandemic but has split with him on union strategy and governance. Credit...DeSean McClinton-Holland for The New York Times

For his part, Mr. Smalls said that the union was continuing to push for a contract at JFK8, and that a strike threat was counterproductive because it would alarm workers who feared losing their incomes. Amazon had warned workers that unionizing could lead to a strike during which they wouldn’t be paid.

“We’re not going to play into that,” he said in an interview.

He favors filing for elections at other warehouses without waiting to build majority support, he said, because such support can be fleeting amid high turnover among warehouse workers, and because the momentum and media attention created by an election filing can rally workers to the union’s side.

Mr. Smalls called the revolt by his former allies an attempted coup and emphasized that many of the dissidents are white while the union leadership is largely Black, as are many workers. (Ruel Mohan, a mixed-race worker involved with the union who is one of the critics, said of the rift: “I didn’t see anything that had to do with race.”)

At a tense union meeting in December, Mr. Smalls told longtime organizers that they should step aside if they couldn’t get along with him or those loyal to him. “You got a problem with me? Deuces,” he said, using a slang term for “goodbye.” The two factions have been operating independently since the meeting.

While strategic debates and personal rivalries are not unusual in the labor movement, the stakes for the Amazon Labor Union are higher than most. Given the e-commerce giant’s growing sway over industries including retail, groceries and health care, many strategists doubt that organized labor can reverse its decline without gaining traction at Amazon.

That would be a tall order for a union under any circumstances. But the Amazon Labor Union’s fracturing has complicated the task. Labor’s hopes of winning at Amazon now hinge on taking on one of the world’s wealthiest companies — amid growing challenges within the union.

It was only days after the Staten Island victory that the union got its first hint of the struggle ahead. Amazon filed more than two dozen formal objections to the election result, which would tie the union up in hearings into the summer. The company soundly defeated the union in an election at a warehouse across the street the next month, and later restricted off-duty employees’ access to break rooms, which organizers had relied on to recruit co-workers. Amazon said it had made the change to ensure employee safety and building security.

As a guerrilla leader who helped raise an insurgent army from a bus stop outside JFK8, Mr. Smalls had been dazzlingly effective. But he could appear shaky as the president of an organization that formally represented thousands of workers.

Though he was compelling in public appearances and proved adept at raising money from outside groups, he showed little interest in matters of governance or budgeting, three former officials said. Organizers struggled to reach him as he bounded between appointments in places like California, Texas, Nevada and Washington, D.C.

Finally, late last summer, the union appeared to find some stability. Jane McAlevey, a prominent organizer and an author who had been advising the group, led two intensive training sessions to help firm up support among JFK8 workers and pressure the company to negotiate.

According to several people who attended, the sessions lasted about six hours each and included role-playing about how to approach workers, techniques for tracking support within the warehouse and strategies for gradually ramping up protest actions, from circulating a petition up to a strike.

Just before Labor Day, a hearing officer for the National Labor Relations Board recommended dismissing Amazon’s election challenge, a big step toward certifying the union’s victory. A few weeks later, the company announced a raise of 25 to 75 cents an hour at the Staten Island warehouse, an increase whose limited size appeared to frustrate workers and increase interest in the union. At a union-sponsored barbecue soon after, many workers signed a petition demanding that Amazon provide an immediate cost-of-living increase.

But the momentum proved short-lived.

In October, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Southern California filed a petition for an election to join the Amazon Labor Union. In backing the petition, Mr. Smalls broke an agreement with Ms. McAlevey — reviewed by The New York Times — in which Mr. Smalls had committed to scale back his travel and refrain from backing elections at most other warehouses until the union was actively negotiating a contract on Staten Island.

“I was in that meeting,” said Heather Goodall, the lead Amazon Labor Union organizer at a warehouse near Albany, N.Y., known as ALB1. Under the agreement, she said, “Christian couldn’t travel, no more filing after ALB1.” But “what does he do?” she continued. “He goes to L.A.”

Ms. McAlevey withdrew from advising the union not long after. In an interview, Mr. Smalls argued that a worker-led movement should not turn down workers in other buildings, and that Ms. McAlevey’s experience was not directly relevant to Amazon. (He appeared in Kentucky on Saturday to throw the union’s support behind an organizing campaign at an Amazon air hub.)

In mid-October, the union lost an election at ALB1 by a roughly two-to-one ratio. Many Amazon Labor Union organizers and officials had worried that the election, which the union filed for in August, was another case in which Mr. Smalls overextended himself.

Ms. Goodall said that workers and organizers in Albany did not receive the support that Mr. Smalls had promised, and that his visits typically happened without much advance notice and were difficult to plan around.

Mr. Smalls said that the union’s job was to enable workers in other buildings “to take a shot” but that it didn’t control what happened there. “The leaders have to step up,” he said. “They have to educate themselves.”

In an Amazon Labor Union board meeting shortly after the election, organizers complained to Mr. Smalls that the Albany campaign had hurt perceptions of the union’s competence, according to four people who were present. They pushed for a process to determine which warehouses the union would support and to add board members to make the union’s leadership more responsive to their concerns.

The loss “made organizing inside JFK8 harder,” said David-Desyrée Sherwood, a JFK8 worker who also served as a union organizer. “I had workers come up to me and ask, ‘What happened in Albany?’”

As the union prepared to meet again in December, Mr. Smalls appeared to be asserting more control, several workers and organizers recalled.

After winning an election, a union must file a constitution and bylaws with the Labor Department that typically lay out parameters like the method of selecting officers and the length of their terms. The Amazon Labor Union created a constitution in the fall of 2021, around the time it filed for an election at JFK8, and modified it after its victory.

Both versions were largely written by some of the current dissidents, including the union’s co-founder and former treasurer, Connor Spence, and they tended to give ordinary workers considerable influence, with low bars for running for office and amending the constitution.

But before the meeting in December, Mr. Smalls oversaw changes to the union’s constitution that restricted worker input in certain ways. Most notably, the document, on file with the U.S. Labor Department, delayed leadership elections that were to take place within a few months until after the union ratified a contract, a process that can take years if it happens at all.

“Going forward, here’s the structure,” Mr. Smalls said at the meeting, according to a recording shared with The Times. “If you can’t abide by this structure, that’s the door.”

Most of the volunteer organizers in the room walked out, according to a half-dozen people in attendance. Mr. Martinez, the longtime organizer, said he had told Mr. Smalls: “Chris, I cannot support this constitution. We are not leaving the A.L.U. by any means, but we do not agree with this.”

The union’s new director of organizing, Evangeline Byars, said it was pointless to have an election before the union had a more systematic way of interacting with workers in the building.

“Is it going to be democratic? No. Connor and them are just going to come into power,” said Ms. Byars, a former official at a local transit workers’ union who is a paid staff member of the A.L.U.

Since the December meeting, the two factions have largely operated on separate tracks. The dissidents have continued to apply Ms. McAlevey’s organizing model, regularly talking to workers in each department, identifying supporters and potential organizers, and preparing for a possible strike if Amazon refuses to bargain.

Mr. Smalls continues to travel widely — he has visited Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and London this year, appearing at labor protests and speaking events — but attends union meetings regularly. Ms. Byars leads shop steward trainings and said 12 workers had completed the program so far. She said the union began a campaign in January to make JFK8 workers aware that they had access to workers’ compensation.

With no contract in sight, the union remains dependent on funding from outside groups whose appetite for donations appears uneven. The Omidyar Network, a liberal philanthropy group, recently contributed $250,000 to a worker support and education fund affiliated with the union.

But a person familiar with the A.L.U. ’s payroll who declined to be identified for fear of retribution said the union had at times been late distributing paychecks in recent months.

Mr. Smalls said paychecks could be delayed if the union missed its deadline for processing payroll. “Sometimes it happens because our treasurer is a worker,” he said, stressing that the union was financially sound.

But he acknowledged that the union’s funding was somewhat erratic. “It comes in waves,” he said. “We have to get donations. That’s what’s been keeping us afloat. That’s the reason I travel so much.”

Noam Scheiber is a Chicago-based reporter who covers workers and the workplace. He spent nearly 15 years at The New Republic, where he covered economic policy and three presidential campaigns. He is the author of “The Escape Artists.” @noamscheiber

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