A dissident group within the Amazon Workers Union, the only certified union in the country representing Amazon employees, filed a complaint in federal court Monday seeking to force the union to hold a leadership election.
The union won an election at a Staten Island warehouse with more than 8,000 employees in April 2022, but Amazon challenged the result and has not yet begun contract bargaining.
The rise of the dissident group, which calls itself the ALU Democratic Reform Caucus and includes a co-founder and former union treasurer, reflects a growing divide within the union that appears to have undermined its ability to pressure Amazon. The split also threatened to sap the wider labor movement of the momentum generated by last year’s high-profile victory.
In its complaint, the reform party argues that the union and its president, Christian Smalls, are illegally “refusing to hold officer elections, which should be scheduled no later than March 2023.”
The complaint asks a federal judge to schedule an election of the union’s top officers for no later than August 30 and to appoint a neutral monitor to oversee the election.
Mr. Smalls said in a text message Monday that the complaint was a “ridiculous claim with zero 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 filed.
The complaint states that under an earlier version of the union’s constitution, a leadership election was required within 60 days of the National Labor Relations Board’s certification of its victory.
But in December, the month before the labor board’s testimony, union leadership presented a new constitution to the membership, which planned elections after the union ratifies a contract with Amazon — an accomplishment that could take years, if it happens at all.
On Friday, the reform party sent the union’s leadership a letter presenting its proposal to hold snap elections, saying it would go to court on Monday if the leadership did not accept the proposal.
The reform group is made up of more than 40 active organizers who are also plaintiffs in the legal complaint, including Connor Spence, union co-founder and former treasurer; Brett Daniels, the union’s former organizing director; and Brima Sylla, a prominent organizer at the Staten Island warehouse.
The group said in its letter that approving the proposal could “mean the difference between an ALU that is strong, effective, and a sign of democracy in the labor movement” and “an ALU that, in the end, became exactly what Amazon warned workers about. It would become: a business that takes away the voices of the workers.”
Mr. Smalls said in his text that union leadership was working closely with his law firm to ensure that its actions were legal, as well as with the US Department of Labor.
Jeanne Mirer, a lawyer for the union, wrote to a lawyer for the reform party that the lawsuit was frivolous and based on falsehoods. She said Mr Spence “improperly and unilaterally” replaced the union’s founding constitution with a revised version in June 2022, and that the revision, which called for elections after certification, was never formally adopted by the union’s board.
Retu Singla, another lawyer of the union, said in an interview that the constitution never became final because there were disagreements about it within the leadership of the union.
Mr. Spence said he and other members of the union’s board revised the constitution while consulting extensively with the union’s lawyers. A second union official involved in the discussions confirmed his account.
The split within the union dates back to last fall, when several longtime Amazon Labor Union organizers became disillusioned with Mr. Smalls after a lopsided loss in a union election at an Amazon warehouse near Albany, NY.
In a meeting shortly after the election, organizers argued that control of the union rested in too few hands and that the leadership should be elected, giving ordinary workers more input.
The skeptics also complained that Mr. Smalls had forced the union into elections without a plan for how to win them, and that the union needed a better process for determining which organizing efforts to support. Many organizers worried that Mr. Smalls was spending too much time traveling the country making public appearances rather than focusing on the contract fight on Staten Island.
Mr. Smalls later said in an interview that his trip was necessary to help raise money for the union and that the critics’ preferred approach — building labor support for a possible strike that could bring Amazon to the bargaining table — was counterproductive because it could . emergency workers who feared losing their livelihoods.
He said the labor movement should not turn its back on workers at other warehouses if they try to unionize. A top union official employed by Mr. Smalls also argued that holding an election before the union had a more systematic way of contacting workers would be undemocratic because only the most committed activists would vote.
When Mr. Smalls unveiled the new union constitution in December, scheduling elections after a contract was ratified, many of the skeptics walked out. The two factions have operated independently this year, and both sides hold regular meetings with members.
In April, the reform caucus began circulating a petition among workers at the Staten Island warehouse calling on the leadership to change the constitution and hold snap elections. The petition was signed by hundreds of workers at the facility.
The petition soon became a sticking point with Mr. Smalls. In an exchange with a member of the reform party on WhatsApp in early May, copies of which are included in Monday’s legal complaint, Mr Smalls said the union would “take legal action against you” if the party did not drop the petition.
The tensions appeared to ease later that month after the union leadership under Mr. Smalls proposed that the two sides enter mediation. The reform party meeting accepted the invitation and suspended the petition campaign.
But according to a memo the mediator, Bill Fletcher Jr., sent to both sides on June 29 and seen by The New York Times, 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 the workers and prepare for the battle with Amazon,” Mr. Fletcher wrote in the memo, referring to the executive board of the union “This situation seriously weakens support among the workers.”
Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.