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“Our Big Push Was for Union Democracy and a Plan to Win”: An Interview with the Amazon Labour Union Democratic Reform Caucus

Two years after the historic victory at JFK8, Amazon workers voted in a referendum in their union. They want to hold new elections and revise the constitution, as part of a struggle to make ALU more democratic and militant. Left Voice spoke with two organizers to discuss the struggle in ALU.

Luigi Morris

March 20, 2024
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DeSean McClinton-Holland / New York Times

In 2022, Amazon workers on Staten Island made history. The JFK8 warehouse in New York voted to unionize, forming the first U.S. union in the company’s history — an independent union known as the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), representing over 8,000 workers.

Since then, Amazon has been intransigently refusing to start contract negotiations. Union-busting tactics, such as the persistent firing of pro-union activists, continue at JFK8 and other facilities. Amazon even filed a case arguing that the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that enforces labor law, is “unconstitutional.”

Two years after the historic victory, the JFK8 warehouse remains Amazon’s only unionized workplace in the United States. ALU lost the elections at LDJ5 in Staten Island and ALB1 near Albany. These results were a product of the intense anti-union activities, but also a reflection of ALU’s approach under the leadership of Chris Smalls.

Under Smalls, the ALU pursued a strategy that relied on a combination of factors: the hatred towards Jeff Bezos, the huge impact of the ALU victory, the image of Chris Smalls, and the support of progressive Democrats. But without rank-and-file organizing, worker’s democracy, direct action, and class independence, it is not possible to win against a trillion-dollar company.

A sector of workers have been expressing discontent about the direction that the new union is taking, especially regarding democracy and militancy. The ALU Democratic Reform Caucus (ALUDRC) called for a referendum about electing a new leadership and revising the constitution. According to ALUDRC, a majority voted in favor of holding the referendum, which is expected to happen in the middle of the year. 

An example that many workers look to is the Amazon Labor Union-KCVG Constitution that “was drafted and democratically adopted by hundreds of KCVG workers, following input from more than 500 workers.”

To hear more about the referendum and the fight for a more democratic and militant union, we spoke with Connor Spence and Sultana Hossain, who are members of the Democratic Reform Caucus. 

Connor is a founding member of the ALU and is fighting to be reinstated after being fired in December 2023 for organizing. Sultana was also recently fired for her union organizing after four years of working for Amazon.

What led the ALU Democratic Reform Caucus to call for a referendum to have internal union elections?

Connor: Shortly after our election in 2022 at JFK8, ALU kind of stumbled and was failing to make progress. We had serious disagreements with the direction the union was going: we thought that organizing wasn’t being done on a level that needed to be done, and the structure of the union was severely flawed. 

There were a lot of internal disputes that resulted in the forming of a reform caucus within ALU, which is comprised of most of the original ALU organizers and a lot of rank-and-file leaders from the building, like Sultana, who originally didn’t really want to be part of ALU because of the way that it was representing itself to the workers. When the reform effort came about, it attracted a lot of people like Sultana. Our big push was that there needed to be more democracy in the union — workers need to be in control of the decision-making, there needs to be more transparency, and we need a credible plan to win. And that was the platform of our caucus. 

We also wanted what was originally promised during the campaign: that there’d be elections for the leadership positions in ALU. Right after the JFK8 victory, when all the leadership was interim, the promise was that they would have to fight for their positions again in another election with a much larger pool of voters than the first time. But that never happened. 

Eventually, we did reach a settlement with our union’s executive board that created this framework for how we could have elections. And the first part of that process was to have a referendum among the JFK8 workers. The question was: should ALU have officer elections? The choices were yes or no. We just had that referendum last week, and a majority of the people who participated voted yes, in favor of having elections. Now we will have elections in June or July, depending on certain logistical barriers. 

Why is it important to put up this fight for basic union democracy?

Sultana: I think the core of the caucus, in our ideology, is that union democracy is very important. We believe the rank and file should have a say in everything that happens in the union. Without union democracy, you can’t really serve the interests of the members. Meanwhile, you also don’t have a framework for fighting corruption within the union or ousting self-serving officials. So it’s important to have union democracy. It’s everything that this caucus stands for and fights for. This referendum is a testament to that. We gave workers, the members of ALU, an opportunity to say whether or not they want democracy in this union, and we got an overwhelmingly supportive vote. 

That is something we have been aware was the case at JFK8. You know, we had hundreds of people sign on to a petition last summer on whether to have these elections. So this referendum is just a testament to what the rank and file believes in general, which is that we should all have a say in what happens in our union if the union is meant to represent us.

How is this process to democratize the union connected to the fight for a contract?

Connor: Well, I think that one of the things we have to address is basically what our contract fight with Amazon is going to look like, and what kind of contracts we’re going to try to get from the company. And all those demands, those have to be surveyed from the members. Nobody can just make those up for people. We have to figure out what people feel strongly about. So that’s a democratic process. 

As far as creating pressure to put on the company to get those demands, we’re going to have to engage in collective action. That’s also democratic process, as far as planning what kind of action people want to take, when to start it, and how long to do it. These are all decisions that need to be made by the group of workers that’s participating. It can’t come from the top down. So basically, every aspect of what we do, we have to figure out how to do it collectively, how to do it in a way that all the people participating can have a say. So that means that whatever we do around collective action and collective bargaining, there are a series of democratic steps that need to happen to make those things possible.

Sultana: A lot of the organizing that was required leading up to this referendum was letting workers know that in no way does speaking up for union democracy take away from the contract fight. That argument is something we had to dispel as part of our outreach — [we had to argue] that union democracy is essential to win a strong contract. 

There have been moments where workers have been deterred from being involved in this referendum because they think it’s taking away from the contract fight if we’re focusing on electing union leadership. But it’s been important to us to emphasize that we will never win a strong, fair contract without true union democracy. They go hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other. So that’s what we’ve been saying in our conversations with workers. Organizing involves thousands and thousands of conversations, and fighting misinformation, and educating the rank and file on their rights. And that’s what we do: educating workers on their rights.

Can ALU become again a source of inspiration for the millions of workers who want to fight for better working conditions and union democracy?

Connor: It’s obviously important that we have a successful union fight at Amazon. Our win in 2022 galvanized so many people. A lot of the independent unions that popped up — Trader Joe’s, for instance — saw our win as inspiration. Amazon is the country’s second largest employer, probably soon to be the first. So winning a good contract and getting good working conditions at Amazon is going to be like the tide that lifts all boats. It’s going to show that it’s possible for everyone else. But we also want what we are doing here to be the model of how it can be done in other places.

In order to take on Amazon, we need to basically put an unprecedented amount of pressure on this company. It’s a trillion-dollar company, and the organizing we have to do is going to have to operate at such a high level — we need a high degree of worker involvement and engagement. And there’s simply just no way to do that without forming an organization where the workers are involved in the decision-making process. There’s no top-down union structure that’s going to be able to take on Amazon. That’s our position on what kind of organizing needs to happen.

The fight right now in America with the working class is basically against large corporations like Amazon. It’s Amazon. It’s Starbucks. It’s Trader Joe’s. It’s SpaceX. So in order to take them on, it requires a lot of organization — nationwide campaigns and strike action in a lot of cases. In our view, the only way to achieve that level of organization is through true rank-and-file democracy.

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Luigi Morris

Luigi Morris is a member of Left Voice, freelance photographer and socialist journalist.

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