A dissident group within the Amazon Labor Union, the country’s only certified union representing Amazon workers, filed a complaint in federal court on Monday to force the union to hold a leadership election.
The union won an election in April 2022 at a Staten Island department store employing more than 8,000 workers, but Amazon has challenged the outcome and has yet to begin negotiating a contract.
The rise of the dissident group, which calls itself the ALU Democratic Reform Caucus and includes a co-founder and former treasurer of the union, reflects a growing division within the union that appears to have undermined its ability to pressure Amazon. The split also threatened to undermine the wider labor movement from the momentum generated by last year’s high-profile victory.
In its complaint, the Reform Party argues that the union and its chairman, Christian Smalls, illegally “refuse to hold officer elections that should have taken place no later than March 2023”.
The complaint asks a federal judge to schedule an election of the union’s top officials for no later than August 30 and appoint a neutral observer to oversee the election.
Mr Smalls said in a text message on Monday that the complaint was “a ridiculous claim with no facts or merit”, and a law firm representing the union said it would seek legal sanctions against the reform group’s lawyer if the complaint were made.
The complaint says that an earlier version of the union’s bylaws required a leadership election within 60 days of the National Labor Relations Board’s confirmation of the victory.
But in December, the month before the certification by the labor council, the union leadership presented a new constitution to the members who called elections after the union ratified a contract with Amazon – a feat that could take years, if at all.
On Friday, the Reform Council sent a letter to union leaders proposing a snap election, saying they would go to court on Monday if leaders did not embrace the proposal.
The reform group consists of more than 40 active organizers who are also plaintiffs in the legal suit, including Connor Spence, union co-founder and former treasurer; Brett Daniels, former union organizer; and Brima Sylla, a prominent organizer at the Staten Island warehouse.
The group said in its letter that passing the proposal “could mean the difference between an ALU that is strong, effective and a beacon of democracy in the labor movement” and “an ALU that ended up being exactly what Amazon warned workers about. it would become: a company that takes away the voice of the workers.”
Mr Smalls said in his text that the union leadership had worked closely with the law firm to ensure its actions were legal, as well as with the US Department of Labor.
Jeanne Mirer, a union lawyer, wrote to a reform caucus lawyer that the lawsuit was frivolous and based on untruths. She said Mr Spence had “improperly and unilaterally” replaced the union’s founding constitution with a revised version in June 2022, and that the revision, which called for post-certification elections, had never been formally adopted by the union’s board.
Retu Singla, another union lawyer, said in an interview that the constitution was never finalized because of disagreements within the union leadership.
Mr Spence said he and other members of the union board had revised the constitution after extensive consultations with union lawyers. A second union official involved in the talks confirmed his account.
The split within the union dates back to last fall, when several longtime Amazon Labor Union organizers grew frustrated with Mr. Smalls after a lopsided loss in a union election at an Amazon warehouse near Albany, N.Y.
In a meeting shortly after the election, the organizers argued that control of the union rested in too few hands and that leadership should be elected, which would give more input to ordinary workers.
The skeptics also complained that Mr. Smalls was forcing the union to hold elections without a plan to win them, and that the union needed a better process for determining what organizational efforts to support. Many organizers worried that Mr. Smalls was spending too much time traveling across the country to make public appearances instead of focusing on the Staten Island contract fight.
Mr Smalls later said in an interview that his trip was necessary to raise money for the union and that the critics’ preferred approach – building worker support for a potential strike that could bring Amazon to the negotiating table – was counterproductive because it could alarm workers who feared losing their livelihoods.
He said a worker-led movement should not turn its back on workers from other warehouses if they want to unite. A top official hired by Mr Smalls also argued that holding elections before the union was a more systematic way to reach workers would be undemocratic because only the most committed activists would vote.
When Mr Smalls unveiled the new union constitution in December, which scheduled elections after a contract was ratified, many of the skeptics walked out. The two factions have operated independently this year and both sides have held regular meetings with members.
In April, the reform group began distributing a petition to Staten Island department store workers calling on leaders to amend the constitution and call a snap election. The petition has been signed by hundreds of factory employees.
The petition quickly became a point of tension with Mr Smalls. Speaking to a member of the reform faction on WhatsApp in early May, copies of which are contained in Monday’s legal complaint, Mr. Smalls that the union would “take legal action against you” if the caucus did not withdraw the petition.
Tensions appeared to ease later that month after the union leadership led by Mr Smalls proposed that the two sides mediate. The Reform Party accepted the invitation and suspended the petition campaign.
But according to a memo that the mediator, Bill Fletcher Jr., sent to both sides on June 29 and was reviewed by The New York Times, the union leadership withdrew from the mediation process on June 18 without explanation.
“I am concerned that the apparent turmoil within the ALU E. Board means that little is being done to organize workers and prepare them for battle with Amazon,” Mr. Fletcher wrote in the memo, referring to the board of management of the union. “This situation seriously weakens support among the workers.”
Colin Moynihan reporting contributed.