Reform Caucus in Amazon Labor Union Sues Board to Hold Leadership Election

One yr after the landmark union victory on the Amazon warehouse JFK8 on Staten Island, New York, the brightly coloured posters that after adorned the glass on the iconic bus stop in entrance of the plant are gone.

This was the bus cease from which Chris Smalls, Derrick Palmer, Connor Spence, Gerald Bryson, Jordan Flowers, and others launched an rebel that received an unprecedented union authorization election on the 8,000-worker warehouse.

The posters have been changed by a torn letter dated January 17, 2023, asking the corporate’s legal professionals to start bargaining and acknowledge the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) because the unique bargaining agent.

However Amazon remains to be refusing to acknowledge the union, a lot much less start negotiations. And elections to unionize different amenities with ALU have been unsuccessful up to now.

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Within the face of this stalemate, two approaches have emerged, and they’re in battle. The present management, together with Smalls, appears devoted to helping members individually, and, for some time, emphasised supporting different warehouses making an attempt to prepare.

The opposite strategy, advocated by the 80-worker ALU Democratic Reform Caucus, is to extend the warmth on the store flooring to push for a contract.

Right now the caucus filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court docket in Brooklyn to “reform ALU’s structure and to carry an election for officers,” in accordance with a press launch.

“Undemocratic and Unlawful”

Caucus members say they’ve run into battle with the union’s board, which was self-selected at the start of the struggle and has appointed new members to its personal ranks however has by no means been put to a vote.

Earlier than resorting to a lawsuit, caucus members say they spent eight months on inner efforts to reform the union’s governance and maintain elections for key management posts.

That effort was capped off by a failed try at mediation by veteran labor educator and organizer Invoice Fletcher. The ALU board had agreed to mediation and even urged Fletcher as a mediator — then reversed course and rejected mediation earlier than it may start.

“I’m involved that the obvious turmoil throughout the ALU [Executive] Board signifies that little is being executed to prepare the employees and put together for the battle with Amazon,” wrote Fletcher in a memo to the caucus and board after the mediation plan fell by means of. “It’s clear that the ALU’s management have to be re-organized and re-affirmed by the membership.”

The caucus characterizes the union’s organizational construction as “undemocratic and unlawful.” Members by no means had an opportunity to ratify the structure, they argue. The union was slated to carry elections after the Nationwide Labor Relations Board licensed its victory within the authorization election at JFK8, however the structure was amended by the leaders to permit for an election to happen solely after the union ratified a contract.

That purpose appears farther away than ever.

A Shift in Union Tradition

Caucus members say they’re main the organizing contained in the warehouse with a bench of fifty energetic organizers and a whole lot of supporters. Their purpose is to construct energy to win a robust contract.

“With a view to do the form of organizing essential to tackle Amazon and get a robust contract, democracy is essential,” mentioned Connor Spence, a co-founder of the union and its former treasurer, through textual content message. “Rank-and-file employees must be engaged, collaborating on technique, surveying calls for, and fascinating in store flooring motion. Most significantly, they should have a say in who their leaders are.”

Brima Sylla, one of many 86 plaintiffs on the lawsuit and a member of the reform caucus, counterposed that imaginative and prescient to what he described as a union whose management now kicks members out of its Wednesday employee committee conferences once they increase questions.

Ultimately conferences turned biweekly, after which in Might they stopped altogether, Spence mentioned.

“They weren’t getting the quorum, which is 10 energetic employees,” mentioned Sylla. As a substitute of going to membership conferences, he mentioned, employees began going to the bus cease.

Sylla, an immigrant from Liberia, labored the evening shift within the lead-up to the historic election at JFK8; he was key in organizing the “sure” vote amongst African employees. He used to show highschool economics and world historical past at a non-public faculty on Staten Island, however misplaced his job in the course of the pandemic and got here to Amazon to assist his spouse and 4 youngsters.

Sylla mentioned he has been stunned by the extent of disrespect and yelling geared toward rank-and-file union members by the union’s management.

“Amazon by no means revered us,” he mentioned. However one of many key ideas of ALU’s scrappy organizing tradition was that the union, against this, did present respect — or did for some time.

“We created our personal tradition,” said Smalls at a Folks’s Discussion board occasion final yr. “Amazon has its personal tradition that’s run fully on metrics, numbers — no human interplay. We interacted. We introduced a human side to it. We cared for each other. We confirmed the employees daily that we cared for them. Even when they disliked us, we didn’t argue; we didn’t sit there and get into fights… We caught to the problems and constructed off of that commonality.”

Service vs. Organizing

Spence describes the union’s present orientation as servicing the members. “Employees see the e-board and employees because the union,” he mentioned through textual content message. “Everyone seems to be appointed [by the board], from stewards as much as officers, and there [is a] large emphasis on ‘providing’ issues reminiscent of connecting individuals with a employees comp legal professional somewhat than having organizing conversations, figuring out points, recruiting leaders, and organizing store flooring actions.”

He mentioned the shift started as soon as Evangeline Byars, a former officer at Transit Employees Union Native 100, turned the union’s director of organizing. Byars told the New York Occasions in March that having an election could be pointless as a result of the reformers would win. “Is it going to be democratic? No,” she instructed the Occasions. “Connor and them are simply going to come back into energy.”

Gerald Bryson, one of many authentic co-founders of ALU, additionally argued that the reform push is about Spence, telling Labor Notes, “This complete coup is about Connor Spence being in cost. They’d somewhat tear all of it down as a result of Connor isn’t in cost.”

He pointed to a December membership assembly the place caucus members walked out. “Someplace alongside the road, they misplaced that mission that the union is concerning the individuals,” he mentioned, “as a result of they left and walked out on us. They deserted their posts.”

David-Desyrée Sherwood, who joined the union final June, mentioned that members walked out of that membership assembly as a result of Smalls had offered an illegally modified structure. “We had been instructed that that is the structure now,” he mentioned. “We’re not allowed to vote on it. I imply, these had been his phrases precisely: ‘If you happen to don’t prefer it, there’s the door.’”

Bryson additionally invoked the racial composition of the caucus to discredit what he describes as “seven white individuals” in a majority-Black office. The lawsuit filed in the present day has 86 Amazon employees signed on as plaintiffs.

“The vast majority of the individuals who walked out in the course of the December assembly had been individuals of shade,” mentioned Sherwood, who’s Filipino. “Additionally, the caucus because it at the moment stands is extraordinarily various, so it’s a declare that actually doesn’t have any advantage.”

Bryson questioned the knowledge of even having a caucus. “Caucuses are fashioned when you’ve gotten a contract, and also you need to change issues,” he mentioned.

“On the finish of the day, unions are purported to be democratic organizations that ensure that employees have their voices heard,” mentioned Sherwood. “And we’re not seeing that within the slightest with how issues have been working.

“I’m an enormous supporter of the caucus and the motion to have elections and let individuals resolve democratically who they need to lead the union and lead the struggle towards Amazon.”

Requested concerning the failed mediation, Bryson mentioned the issue was that Fletcher set the bottom guidelines and determined who might be a part of the hassle; co-founder Jordan Flowers and a former JFK8 employee, Tristan Lion, couldn’t be concerned. In line with the caucus, the one individuals excluded from mediation had been ALU employees, and the sticking level was their demand to carry a management election.

Michelle Valetin Nieves, the ALU’s vice chairman, directed all inquiries to one of many union’s attorneys.

“Did You Actually Win?”

Final week once I visited JFK8 to interview employees, nobody talked about Smalls by identify, however they remembered fondly the tradition of solidarity and care — the sharing of meals and organizers responding to employee complaints exterior the warehouse or within the cafeteria.

Discuss of the union was on everybody’s lips as they waited on the bus cease after their shift or took a break on benches exterior the power. In additional than 20 interviews, the problems that rose to the highest had been office situations and Amazon’s refusal to cut price.

Kenny Oretuga mentioned he had voted for ALU as a result of he wished a lift in pay and extra day without work. He continues to assist the union and blames Amazon for stonewalling.

“Amazon is making an attempt to minimize the efforts of the union,” he mentioned. “Amazon is large, and they’ll resist so long as they will.”

Briana Lewis remembered when the ALU started organizing. She had simply began working at Amazon. “The union was in all places,” she mentioned. “They’re exterior in entrance of the constructing. They had been making calls.”

A relentless chorus amongst employees if an issue arose, was, “‘Go to the ALU individuals. They’ll enable you with no matter.’

“Now I really feel prefer it dried out. The labor union received, however I really feel like, yeah, they received on paper. Amazon remains to be standing and so they barely converse concerning the labor union inside. So did you actually win?”

The mammoth warehouse now employs someplace between 5,000 and eight,000 employees. The reform caucus gathered 822 signatures on a petition calling for an election of ALU management.

The reformers say they’ve by no means been higher organized within the warehouse, and regardless of the interior discord, employees nonetheless need their union — only one that brings the struggle to Amazon.

“Time Off Job”

The working situations have solely gotten worse with write ups for “time off task” (TOT), i.e. any second that’s not spent working. Handheld radio-frequency scanners observe and file employees’ productiveness right down to the minute, and managers use the data to punish employees who fall under their quotas. Dozens of employees at JFK8 blamed TOT for what Lewis described as “random write-ups.”

“In case your abdomen hurts and you might be within the rest room, they’ll write you for TOT,” she mentioned. “It’s write-up after write-up.”

Typically the write-ups come as surprises. “I’ve recognized loads of individuals who have gotten fired over write-ups that they by no means even knew about,” she mentioned.

Felicia Value has solely been right here for 3 months. Turnover is sky-high; like a lot of her co-workers, she had labored for Amazon earlier than, however in one other warehouse. To make it to the far west of Staten Island, she commutes three hours from Coney Island.

Although she hasn’t linked with the ALU but, she mentioned that she needs to become involved; it will be good to have a store steward in conferences with administration to get lodging.

“We’d like a union,” she mentioned. “If my physician is saying that I can’t carry out this sure exercise, I shouldn’t need to argue and shuttle with [management] about what my physician’s notice is saying.”

Fianthen Barkley voted for the union final yr after which left Amazon; she’s been working there on and off for the reason that facility opened in 2018. The day of my go to occurred to be her first day again, and she or he was a bit anxious, pacing forwards and backwards by the bus cease. However she has saved up with information by means of the Residents app and speaking with different members of Staten Island’s tight-knit Liberian neighborhood.

Barkley mentioned Amazon “needs every part out so quick — it’s orders, orders, orders, orders. However on the finish of the day, after we clock out” — she made heaving appears like an exhausted employee struggling to catch her breath — “we’re drained, and what are we getting out of it?”

“You see me in my scrubs?” she requested, telling me about her second job as a house well being aide. “I’m coming from a complete different job, and it shouldn’t be like that. I ought to have the ability to persist with only one firm.”

This story was initially revealed at Labor Notes.

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