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Amazon Union Dissenters Get Detoured By Federal Judge

An internal dispute over leadership of the locally founded Amazon Labor Union looms over the effort to reach a first contract with the anti-union corporation.

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Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls is being challenged by dissenting members of the union.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Union members’ attempt to force the Staten Island-born Amazon Labor Union to hold internal leadership elections hit a bump on Thursday, after a Brooklyn federal judge rejected their demand for a restraining order to bar union leaders from retaliating against dissidents.

U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly of the Eastern District of New York urged the union and the members who sued to settle their dispute, with the help of a mediator if necessary. 

“Everybody stop,” Donnelly said at one point during the hearing. “Because you’re going to have to work this out yourselves.”

Defying expectations, Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers prevailed last year in a vote to form a union, Amazon’s first anywhere in the U.S. Union co-founder and president Christian Smalls, a former warehouse employee, rose to national prominence on the heels of the landmark victory for labor

But since then, a union contract has been out of reach, and discontent has grown among members who have complained about Smalls and his allies’ strategy to continue pushing union elections at other warehouses without a plan to win them, instead of focusing on the contract fight at the Staten Island warehouse, which is known as JFK8.

Amazon has challenged the JFK8 results and, despite orders from the federal National Labor Relations Board as recently as Wednesday, has yet to begin negotiating a contract covering the warehouse’s more than 8,000 employees.

Dissenters Sue Union

The ALU Democratic Reform Caucus, an 80-member group of employees who are challenging Smalls’ leadership, sued Smalls and the union on Monday, accusing its leadership of indefinitely delaying internal elections and of threatening dissidents with legal action. 

The union’s lawyers stated in legal filings that the reformers’ allegations were frivolous and false. 

The plaintiffs countered with evidence they said amounted to a push to shut down their efforts to get a leadership election.

In the courtroom Thursday, the reform caucus’ lawyers cited a May 8 WhatsApp group message from Smalls to caucus member Brima Sylla that read, in part: “reformALU is not democratic it’s a bunch of bull and I’m warning you now keep petitioning against ALU we will take legal action against you as well for false representation of a government certified union so I advise you to Stop ASAP or you will be served along with the rest of them.”

But Donnelly said that Smalls’ messages were “just threats” that were open to interpretation and added the reformers’ petition for a temporary restraining order was “very vague.” Donnelly told the caucus’ lawyers to re-file their petition.

Among the reform caucus’ members are a co-founder and a former treasurer of the union. Lawyers for the group claim in court filings the union walked away from attempts to settle the dispute on the eve of a scheduled meeting with a mediator on June 22. From the courtroom, the union’s attorneys said it was the mediator who recused himself from the case.

Outside the courtroom after the briefing, Smalls told THE CITY that the union “has always been open” to settling the matter with a mediator and described the reform caucus members as “in over their heads.” He said he felt “fine” with Donnelly’s decision.

“It’s unfortunate that they are doing this, because the only winner is Amazon,” Smalls said of the reformers’ lawsuit. “We’ve got to stay focused on our contract fight.”

Seeking Leadership Election

The dissidents’ complaint alleged the union illegally “refuse[s] to hold officer elections which should have been scheduled no later than March 2023,” and sought to force an internal union election before the end of the summer. 

“All along we just wanted democracy in our workplace and in our union leadership,” Brett Daniels, a Reform caucus member and former ALU organizing director, said outside the courtroom on Thursday.

The union’s position is that its current constitution says that the union cannot hold internal elections until securing a collective bargaining agreement with Amazon — a benchmark that could take several years, if it happens at all.

But the reformers claim that a June 2022 constitutional amendment called for elections after the union’s formal certification by the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB officially certified the union in January 2023.

But in court filings, the lawyers for the union claim that the 2022 amendment cited by the reformers “was never completed, let alone adopted.”

Daniels and others began laying the groundwork for the reform caucus after a December 9 meeting in which Smalls told people who did not support him to leave.

“You got a problem with me? Deuces,” he told union organizers in that meeting, The New York Times reported.

The legal dispute is the latest chapter in a rocky few months for the union. In May, ALU co-founder and vice president Derrick Palmer resigned after news of his October 2022 arrest on domestic violence charges became public. The previous month, footage of a December 2022 brawl between Smalls and a JFK8 warehouse worker was published by Insider.

The legal turmoil could threaten to undermine the union’s efforts to pressure Amazon, even as it notched another victory on Wednesday when federal regulators hit the company with a complaint for refusing to bargain with the ALU and ordered the megaretailer to join the bargaining table. 

“It’s a huge relief, a huge victory for us,” Smalls said of Wednesday’s NLRB decision. “This is the news that we want to share and talk about. We don’t want to talk about negative stuff.”

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