After securing a landmark victory in New York at Amazon.com Inc.’s warehouse, the Amazon Labor Union fledgling organization vowed that it would continue the fight to win the war to the benefit of three other companies. Things haven’t gone according to plan. They lost an election in a warehouse just across the street and have halted all efforts to organize the second.
The retreat reflects the travails of a grassroots organization struggling to secure its gains against a legal onslaught from one the world’s richest and most powerful companies. Amazon has appealed the election and zeroed in on what it deems illegal ALU tactics—including handing out marijuana to workers—that could ultimately prompt US labor officials to order a do-over election.
A small, startup union managed by 30-somethings who have never attempted to organize a union drive is expected to experience growing pains. But former members of the organization worry the ALU risks squandering its position at the vanguard of an emerging movement to unionize workers at Amazon, America’s second-largest private employer.
Five ALU employees have said that the ALU’s leaders are indecisive on strategic direction, campaign strategies and formal processes. They also refuse to delegate or formalize tasks beyond text messages and periodic meetings. Led by fired Amazon employee Chris Smalls, the ALU hasn’t expanded its leadership ranks outside of a close-knit group of insiders, these people say, leaving it short-staffed to organize the four facilities it had initially targeted, never mind aiding Amazon workers around the US who reached out seeking help unionizing their own workplaces.
“ALU is in a very difficult position,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University. “They need coalitions, they need support from other unions to withstand the legal battle that comes next. I don’t think that they have the resources to be the one organizing everywhere. Now, they have to deliver a contract for their workers.”
Unfortunately, ALU’s success has not been up to the high expectations. Its April victory at Amazon’s Staten Island JFK8 facility, which gave the union the authority to bargain on behalf of thousands of workers, was the biggest victory for US organized labor in a generation. Smalls became a household name and was compared to the wave that saw union victories at Starbucks. This association was misleading. One coffee shop could employ two dozen. Amazon facilities may employ hundreds. But three months later, workers from just two Amazon facilities—one in Kentucky and one in upstate New York—have agreed to organize under the ALU banner, and the union is struggling to expand its reach at home.
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After losing the second election, which was a narrow victory, Staten Island organizers have stopped organizing. ALU leaders, along with their attorneys, spent much time trying to defend their previous gains at labor board hearings. This is their fifth week. Amazon refused to enter bargaining negotiations on an employment contract despite its appeal. Union members claim that Amazon is firing its core supporters. Amazon denies that the company retaliates against union members.
The ALU is a controversial organization that few in the labor movement like to publicly critique. They are not trying to discredit a small outfit that won a historic victory over a deep-pocketed, wily opponent. But some labor leaders and activists are beginning to worry that the union’s approach, built around Smalls’ star power and personal story, is ill-suited to expanding the union into an organization capable of weathering Amazon’s counterattacks and winning a contract for workers it represents.
“There was a prowess in manipulating the media ecosystem around their organizing, that both spoke to the public and at the same time reflected that back to the workers,” said someone familiar with the ALU’s strategy, who asked for anonymity to protect relationships in the labor movement. “That’s not necessarily sufficient for building the rigorous, disciplined infrastructure to run and operate a union. The muscle that was actually built was the one. And there was not a consideration of lifting weights on the other muscle.”
Smalls, ALU Secretary-Treasurer Connor Spence, rejected criticism in interviews and asked for patience. “We are working as hard as we can,” Spence said. “People are naïve about what exactly goes into making a moment like this possible.” Spence, who helped persuade an initially reluctant Smalls to start the union, said the focus now is on consolidating the ALU’s gains and making improvements for workers at the facility, including representing workers in talks with managers.
“We’re going to prioritize JFK8,” he said. “If we fail at JFK8, then all of this is for nothing.”
Back in April, after the ALU’s surprise victory at the Amazon fulfillment center, many supporters believed it was almost a foregone conclusion that the union would prevail at a second facility right across the street. But only a week after Smalls and his allies opened a celebratory bottle of champagne, organizers at the much smaller LDJ5 sortation center were worried that the worker support simply wasn’t there.
Maddie Wesley was in charge of the effort and called Smalls. Smalls said that she wanted him and other union leaders to be more frequent and to help with the campaign’s new celebrity. (Some of the call’s contents were reported earlier by the Washington Post.) Smalls declined her request, arguing that it wasn’t the best use of his time. Smalls noted that Wesley was more financially resourced than the JFK8 team. Smalls said in interview that Amazon could call the police on him if he approaches the property. Smalls’s arrest during JFK8 for trespassing was a concerning prospect.
“Chris was being pulled to be on all these shows, which he felt like he had to do to speak to this big victory,” said Gene Bruskin, a labor veteran who advised the ALU during its elections. “I think it was just more than they could handle. They don’t have any staff.”
The smalls returned to the warehouse compound, and attended a rally alongside Senator Bernie Sanders (and Representative Alexandra Ocasio Cortez). But their presence didn’t resonate with the workers, who were being bombarded by Amazon’s fierce, 24/7 “vote no” campaign. A week later the ALU won decisively. In the aftermath, the union stopped collecting cards and organized at LDJ5, the ALU’s federally prohibited location from calling another election.
Efforts to expand beyond New York haven’t fared much better. Dozens of Amazon workers around the country have sought the ALU’s help to organize their own workplaces, with some encountering what they deem disinterest and disorganization. Joseph Fink, who works at an Amazon Fresh grocery store in the company’s hometown of Seattle, was eager for union representation as the store’s employees struggled to get benefits they say they were entitled to. Having decided not to affiliate with the United Food and Commercial Workers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Fink met with the ALU and mulled starting a branch focused on Amazon’s grocery stores.
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Fink stated that then the ALU won at JFK8. They stopped answering calls. “The moment that election was over, they completely dropped us.” In the end, Fink decided to go it alone, having already started a group called Amazon Workers United that now claims members at company stores along the West Coast. (Spence says the ALU remains open to working with them and that an ALU-affiliated lawyer helped one of Fink’s co-workers fight termination.)
Matt Littrell, who wants to unionize a warehouse in Campbellsville, Kentucky, repeatedly reached out to the ALU through the contact form on the group’s website. He started to sign up employees for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers after not hearing back from them for several months. Finally, Littrell was able to get Smalls’ phone number from an acquaintance who saw the union chief at an Arizona rally.
Littrell was 22 when he made the announcement last week to share his efforts to organise his warehouse in ALU. “Chris is such a charismatic, cool person,” Littrell said. “We hit it off really well, got some brainstorming about further actions.” In the interview, Smalls said the ALU will provide whatever Littrell and other organizers need, including financial assistance. Littrell claims that the ALU leader did not mention money. He pledged to send T-shirts, signature cards and eventually help from volunteers.
Mat Cusick was an ALU former member. He said he wanted to make it easier to connect with his potential allies. Cusick compiled a contact list of Amazon workers from across the nation and began to create a welcome pack that included information about organizing, tips for union leaders, stickers, and more. “Just something cool to make you feel like you’re a part of the ALU,” he said.
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Cusick didn’t get approval to mail out the package. According to ALU volunteers, this was a common occurrence. They recall that union leaders would approve certain projects only to abandon or shelve them. “They weren’t trying to actually organize those workers” at other facilities, said Cusick, who has clashed with Smalls and other ALU leaders and was ultimately expelled from the union. Cusick posted a blog post accusing Smalls and other ALU leaders of being anti-democratic and secretive on his way out.
Spence stated that the union offered valuable advice to organizers and hopes to help more during the Zoom call for Amazon workers. The Zoom call was originally scheduled for June, but has been postponed until August. He says that the aim of this Zoom call is not to plant ALU branches but rather support those who are already organizing their own facility. “We didn’t like that we couldn’t just immediately jump on these opportunities,” he said. “If these people are pro-union now, they’re still going to be pro-union in August.”
Marcus Courtney helped to organize Microsoft Corp. contractors during the 1990s and 2000s. “Of course you resist the idea of structure,” he said. “You didn’t win with structure. The only way they’re going to be able to build and grow is they need structure. But it’s going to take time to get there.”
Cusick and some other former ALU members reserve much of their criticism for Smalls, who they say relishes his celebrity more than running Amazon’s first homegrown union. Smalls has spent much of the time since the union’s win on an extended roadshow, including stops at the White House, the Labor Notes conference in Chicago and cities from Cleveland to Phoenix, where he has documented rallies and meetings on his Twitter account under the hashtag hotlaborsummer. Smalls (34 years old) is writing an autobiography.
Veteran organizers say Smalls’ travels can raise public pressure on Amazon to come to the bargaining table, one of the few tools in the union’s arsenal given relatively pro-management US labor laws. Smalls also claimed that the media has made Smalls a household name. Dana Miller (a JFK8 employee, and onetime ALU activist who clashed last year with union leaders, claims the road-trips are at the expense on-the-ground labor. “We haven’t seen anyone here keeping up the campaign,” she said.
Critics claim that the ALU must professionalize its operations. Smalls and his executives have resisted calls for more financial transparency, according to seven people who worked with the ALU and Smalls’ predecessor group, The Congress of Essential Workers. Leaders ignored recommendations to hire accountants and set up legal entities to track hundreds of thousands raised via fundraising appeals. The Department of Labor has to be able to accurately track the income of unions and to provide reports on spending. Spence said that the ALU would issue its first report in early next year. He said that the union hired an accountant following its victory and now works within budgets. “We didn’t have any money to mismanage, because we didn’t have any money,” Spence said of the JFK8 campaign.
In a young organization of idealists, there is always room for disagreement. However, four ex-members of ALU say Smalls is confrontational when she’s being challenged. Miller remembers Smalls cursing at him during a dispute. Cusick claims that he met Smalls after he left the union. Smalls, he claims, threatened to beat him and pushes him. Smalls disputes this. Smalls called Cusick “a clown” and accused him of embezzling money from his workers. Cusick refutes that.
Smalls stated that his critics lie to discredit ALU members and overstate their contribution to union in an interview with Bloomberg. “They didn’t do anything for the ALU, that’s the real story,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a plan. We’re going to go through with our plan.”
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