One year after the landmark union victory at the Amazon warehouse JFK8 on Staten Island, New York, the brightly colored posters that once adorned the glass at the iconic bus stop in front of the plant are gone.
This was the bus stop from which Chris Smalls, Derrick Palmer, Connor Spence, Gerald Bryson, Jordan Flowers and others launched an insurrection that won an unprecedented union authorization election at the 8,000-worker warehouse.
The posters have been replaced by a torn letter dated January 17, 2023, asking the company’s lawyers to begin bargaining and recognize the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) as the exclusive bargaining agent.
But Amazon is still refusing to recognize the union, much less begin negotiations. And elections to unionize other facilities with ALU have been unsuccessful so far.
In the face of this stalemate, two approaches have emerged, and they are in conflict. The current leadership, including Smalls, seems dedicated to assisting members individually, and, for a while, emphasized supporting other warehouses attempting to organize.
The other approach, advocated by the 80-worker ALU Democratic Reform Caucus, is to increase the heat on the shop floor to push for a contract.
Today the caucus filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn to “reform ALU’s constitution and to hold an election for officers,” according to a press release.
‘Undemocratic and illegal’
Caucus members say they’ve run into conflict with the union’s board, which was self-selected at the beginning of the fight and has appointed new members to its own ranks but has never been put to a vote.
Before resorting to a lawsuit, caucus members say they spent eight months on internal efforts to reform the union’s governance and hold elections for key leadership posts.
That effort was capped off by a failed attempt at mediation by veteran labor educator and organizer Bill Fletcher. The ALU board had agreed to mediation and even suggested Fletcher as a mediator — then reversed course and rejected mediation before it could begin.
“I am concerned that the apparent turmoil within the ALU [Executive] Board means that little is being done to organize the workers and prepare for the battle with Amazon,” wrote Fletcher in a memo to the caucus and board after the mediation plan fell through. “It is clear that the ALU’s leadership must be re-organized and re-affirmed by the membership.”
The caucus characterizes the union’s organizational structure as “undemocratic and illegal.” Members never had a chance to ratify the constitution, they argue. The union was slated to hold elections after the National Labor Relations Board certified its victory in the authorization election at JFK8, but the constitution was amended by the leaders to allow for an election to take place only after the union ratified a contract.
That goal seems farther away than ever, although on July 12 the NLRB issued a complaint against Amazon for its failure to bargain with ALU.
A shift in union culture
Caucus members say they are leading the organizing inside the warehouse with a bench of 50 active organizers and hundreds of supporters. Their goal is to build power to win a strong contract.
“In order to do the kind of organizing necessary to take on Amazon and get a strong contract, democracy is key,” said Connor Spence, a cofounder of the union and its former treasurer, via text message. “Rank-and-file workers need to be engaged, collaborating on strategy, surveying demands, and engaging in shop floor action. Most importantly, they need to have a say in who their leaders are.”
Brima Sylla, one of the 86 plaintiffs on the lawsuit and a member of the reform caucus, counterposed that vision to what he described as a union whose leadership now kicks members out of its Wednesday worker committee meetings when they raise questions.
Eventually meetings became biweekly, and then in May they stopped altogether, Spence said.
“They were not getting the quorum, which is 10 active workers,” said Sylla. Instead of going to membership meetings, he said, workers started going to the bus stop.
Sylla, an immigrant from Liberia, worked the night shift in the lead-up to the historic election at JFK8; he was key in organizing the “yes” vote among African workers. He used to teach high school economics and world history at a private school on Staten Island but lost his job during the pandemic and came to Amazon to support his wife and four children.
Sylla said he has been taken aback by the level of disrespect and yelling aimed at rank-and-file union members by the union’s leadership.
“Amazon never respected us,” he said. But one of the key principles of ALU’s scrappy organizing culture was that the union, by contrast, did show respect — or did for a while.
“We created our own culture,” said Smalls at a People’s Forum event last year. “Amazon has its own culture that is run completely on metrics, numbers — no human interaction. We interacted. We brought a human aspect to it. We cared for one another. We showed the workers every day that we cared for them. Even if they disliked us, we didn’t argue; we didn’t sit there and get into fights. … We stuck to the issues and built off of that commonality.”
Service vs. organizing
Spence describes the union’s current orientation as servicing the members. “Workers see the e-board and staff as the union,” he said via text message. “Everyone is appointed [by the board], from stewards up to officers, and there [is a] huge emphasis on ‘offering’ things such as connecting people with a workers comp attorney rather than having organizing conversations, identifying issues, recruiting leaders, and organizing shop floor actions.”
He said the shift began once Evangeline Byars, a former officer at Transport Workers Union Local 100, became the union’s director of organizing. Byars told the New York Times in March that having an election would be pointless because the reformers would win. “Is it going to be democratic? No,” she told the Times. “Connor and them are just going to come into power.”
Gerald Bryson, one of original cofounders of ALU, also argued that the reform push is about Spence, telling Labor Notes, “This whole coup is about Connor Spence being in charge. They’d rather tear it all down because Connor isn’t in charge.”
He pointed to a December membership meeting where caucus members walked out. “Somewhere along the line, they lost that mission that the union is about the people,” he said, “because they left and walked out on us. They abandoned their posts.”
David-Desyrée Sherwood, who joined the union last June, said that members walked out of that membership meeting because Smalls had presented an illegally changed constitution. “We were told that this is the constitution now,” he said. “We’re not allowed to vote on it. I mean, these were his words exactly: ‘If you don’t like it, there’s the door.’”
Bryson also invoked the racial composition of the caucus to discredit what he describes as “seven white people” in a majority-Black workplace. The lawsuit filed today has 86 Amazon workers signed on as plaintiffs.
“The majority of the people who walked out during the December meeting were people of color,” said Sherwood, who is Filipino. “Also, the caucus as it currently stands is extremely diverse, so it’s a claim that really doesn’t have any merit.”
Bryson questioned the wisdom of even having a caucus. “Caucuses are formed when you have a contract, and you want to change things,” he said.
“At the end of the day, unions are supposed to be democratic organizations that make sure workers have their voices heard,” said Sherwood. “And we’re not seeing that in the slightest with how things have been operating.
“I’m a huge supporter of the caucus and the movement to have elections and let people decide democratically who they want to lead the union and lead the fight against Amazon.”
Asked about the failed mediation, Bryson said the problem was that Fletcher set the ground rules and decided who could be part of the effort; cofounder Jordan Flowers and a former JFK8 worker, Tristan Lion, couldn’t be involved. According to the caucus, the only people excluded from mediation were ALU staff, and the sticking point was their demand to hold a leadership election.
Michelle Valetin Nieves, the ALU’s vice president, directed all questions to one of the union’s attorneys.
‘Did you really win?’
Last week when I visited JFK8 to interview workers, no one mentioned Smalls by name, but they remembered fondly the culture of solidarity and care — the sharing of food and organizers responding to worker complaints outside the warehouse or in the cafeteria.
Talk of the union was on everyone’s lips as they waited at the bus stop after their shift or took a break on benches outside the facility. In more than 20 interviews, the issues that rose to the top were workplace conditions and Amazon’s refusal to bargain.
Kenny Oretuga said he had voted for ALU because he wanted a boost in pay and more time off. He continues to support the union and blames Amazon for stonewalling.
“Amazon is trying to play down the efforts of the union,” he said. “Amazon is big, and they will resist as long as they can.”
Briana Lewis remembered when the ALU began organizing. She had just started working at Amazon. “The union was everywhere,” she said. “They’re outside in front of the building. They were making calls.”
A constant refrain among workers if a problem arose, was, “‘Go to the ALU people. They’ll help you with whatever.’
“Now I feel like it dried out. The labor union won, but I feel like, yeah, they won on paper. Amazon is still standing and they barely speak about the labor union inside. So did you really win?”
The mammoth warehouse now employs somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 workers. The reform caucus gathered 822 signatures on a petition calling for an election of ALU leadership.
The reformers say they’ve never been better organized in the warehouse, and despite the internal discord, workers still want their union — just one that brings the fight to Amazon.
‘Time off task’
The working conditions have only gotten worse with write-ups for “time off task” (TOT), i.e., any moment that is not spent working. Handheld radio-frequency scanners track and record workers’ productivity down to the minute, and managers use the information to punish workers who fall below their quotas. Dozens of workers at JFK8 blamed TOT for what Lewis described as “random write-ups.”
“If your stomach hurts and you are in the bathroom, they’ll write you for TOT,” she said. “It’s write-up after write-up.”
Sometimes the write-ups come as surprises. “I’ve known plenty of people who have gotten fired over write-ups that they never even knew about,” she said.
Felicia Price has only been here for three months. Turnover is sky-high; like many of her co-workers, she had worked for Amazon before, but in another warehouse. To make it to the far west of Staten Island, she commutes three hours from Coney Island.
Though she hasn’t connected with the ALU yet, she said that she wants to get involved; it would be good to have a shop steward in meetings with management to get accommodations.
“We need a union,” she said. “If my doctor is saying that I can’t perform this certain activity, I shouldn’t have to argue and go back and forth with [management] about what my doctor’s note is saying.”
Fianthen Barkley voted for the union last year and then left Amazon; she’s been working there on and off since the facility opened in 2018. The day of my visit happened to be her first day back, and she was a bit anxious, pacing back and forth by the bus stop. But she has kept up with news through the Citizens app and talking with other members of Staten Island’s tight-knit Liberian community.
Barkley said Amazon “wants everything out so fast — it’s orders, orders, orders, orders. But at the end of the day, when we clock out” — she made heaving sounds like an exhausted worker struggling to catch her breath — “we are tired, and what are we getting out of it?”
“You see me in my scrubs?” she asked, telling me about her second job as a home health aide. “I’m coming from a whole other job, and it shouldn’t be like that. I should be able to stick with just one company.”
This story was first posted at Labor Notes.
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Luis Feliz Leon is an associate editor and organizer at Labor Notes.