After winning a historic victory at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in New York earlier this year, the fledgling Amazon Labor Union vowed to take the battle to three more company facilities nearby. Things haven’t gone according to plan. The group lost an election at a warehouse across the street from the first and has paused efforts to organize the other two.
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.
Growing pains are to be expected from a small startup union led by 30-somethings who had never before attempted a union drive. 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 people who have worked with the ALU say its leaders have been indecisive about strategic direction and individual campaign tactics as well as reluctant to delegate tasks or formalize processes beyond periodic meetings and text threads. 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.”
To a degree, the ALU is a victim of outsized 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. It instantly made Smalls a folk hero and invited comparisons to the wave of union victories at Starbucks stores. (The association has always been a bit misleading: A coffee shop might employ two dozen people. Amazon facilities can employ thousands.) 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.
Since losing the second election by a wide margin and suspending organizing work at other Staten Island facilities, the ALU leaders and their lawyers have been spending much of their time defending their prior gains in labor board hearings, currently in their fifth week. With its appeal underway, Amazon has refused to start bargaining talks on an employment contract. The union alleges the company has started firing core supporters. Amazon has denied it retaliates against union members.
Few in the labor movement are comfortable publicly criticizing the ALU, not wishing to undermine a scrappy outfit that pulled off a once-unthinkable victory against a wily, deep-pocketed 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. One muscle was really built. And there was not a consideration of lifting weights on the other muscle.”
In interviews, Smalls and ALU Secretary-Treasurer Connor Spence rejected the criticism 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, who was leading the effort, called Smalls and said she needed him and other senior union leaders to show up more often and lend their newfound celebrity to the campaign. (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. He noted that Wesley had more financial resources than the team behind the JFK8 victory. Smalls added in the interview that he was concerned that Amazon would call the police if he approached the property, a risky proposition given his arrest for trespassing during the JFK8 campaign.
“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.”
Smalls did return to the warehouse complex, including attending a rally with 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 lost resoundingly. The union subsequently stopped gathering union cards from the next two facilities and organizing at LDJ5, where the ALU is prohibited by federal rules from calling another election until 2023.
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.
Then the ALU triumphed at JFK8 and stopped taking calls, Fink said. “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. Hearing nothing back for months, he started signing up workers for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Finally, Littrell was able to get Smalls’ phone number from an acquaintance who saw the union chief at an Arizona rally.
A few phone calls and Twitter direct messages later, Littrell, who is 22, went public last week with an effort to organize his warehouse under the ALU umbrella. “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. But Littrell says the ALU leader said nothing about money, just a pledge to send signature cards, T-shirts and, eventually, aid from volunteers.
Former ALU member Mat Cusick said he tried to create a process to more effectively communicate with would-be allies. He compiled a list of Amazon workers across the country who had reached out and started preparing a welcome packet that included tips on organizing, contact numbers of union leaders, union stickers. “Just something cool to make you feel like you’re a part of the ALU,” he said.
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But Cusick never got approval to mail the package out. This was typical, according to several ALU volunteers, who recall union leaders seeming to approve projects, only to shelve or abandon 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. On his way out, Cusick published a blog post accusing the group of being secretive and anti-democratic.
Spence said the union has offered many organizers advice and hopes to be more helpful during a Zoom call for Amazon workers, originally planned for June but postponed until August. The aim is to support workers who have already started organizing their facility, he says, rather than seed new branches with ALU volunteers. “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, who helped organize Microsoft Corp. contractors in the 1990s and 2000s, empathizes with those challenges. “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, who is 34, is also 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. And Smalls has told associates that the media is to blame for turning him into a celebrity. But Dana Miller, a JFK8 employee and onetime ALU organizer who clashed with union leaders before being expelled last year, says the road-tripping has come at the expense of on-the-ground work. “We haven’t seen anyone here keeping up the campaign,” she said.
Critics also say the ALU needs to 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. During the union drive, leaders brushed aside recommendations to consult accountants or set up a legal entity to manage and track the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised through fundraising appeals. Unions are required to precisely track and report income and spending to the Department of Labor. Spence says the ALU will issue its first report sometime next year. The union retained an accountant after its victory, he said, and today works from set budgets. “We didn’t have any money to mismanage, because we didn’t have any money,” Spence said of the JFK8 campaign.
Dissent is inevitable inside a fledgling organization of youthful idealists. But four former ALU members say Smalls becomes confrontational when challenged. Miller recalls Smalls ranting at her during a dispute. And after leaving the union, Cusick says he ran into Smalls at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago. He says Smalls pushed and threatened to fight him, which Smalls denies. Days later, Smalls took to Twitter to call Cusick a clown and accuse him of stealing money from workers. Cusick denies that.
In the interview with Bloomberg, Smalls said his critics are making up lies to discredit the ALU and exaggerating their contributions to the union. “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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