How Chris Smalls Built a Labor Movement That Led to the First Amazon Workers Union : NPR


Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, takes part in an interview at Amazon’s fulfillment center in the borough of Staten Island in New York on October 25, 2021, after previously handing in ‘representation permission’ forms at the National Labor Relations Board in New York.

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How Chris Smalls Built a Labor Movement That Led to the First Amazon Workers Union : NPR

Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, takes part in an interview at Amazon’s fulfillment center in the borough of Staten Island in New York on October 25, 2021, after previously handing in ‘representation permission’ forms at the National Labor Relations Board in New York.

Craig Ruttle/AP

“He is neither intelligent nor eloquent.”

Those are the words used by a top Amazon lawyer to describe former warehouse worker Chris Smalls.

Smalls had gone on strike early in the pandemic in 2020 to protest working conditions at the Staten Island, NY warehouse where he worked. He was fired the same day.

The memo that contained those biting words was leaked a few days later. But the words would stay with Smalls. They became the fuel that drove him to lead one of the most spectacular and successful grassroots labor campaigns in recent history.

“When I read that memo, it motivated me to start an organization,” Smalls said, celebrating Friday’s historic Amazon Labor Union victory, making the warehouse Amazon’s first unionized workplace. in the USA.

Friday’s triumph would come almost two years after the day he was fired.

At the time, Amazon said Smalls violated quarantine and security measures. But Smalls said he was fired in retaliation for his activism. The New York Attorney General investigated and sued Amazon over the incident and even sought to get her job back.

Smalls did not sit still after being fired and formed the Amazon Labor Union soon after.

Meetings at a bus stop, BBQ and fundraising via GoFundMe

Smalls had no union experience and did not rely on any established task force for funding and organizing power.

Instead, he raised money for the operation through GoFundMe. Smalls and his co-founder Derrick Palmer – who still works at the warehouse – reached out to their colleagues.

The bus stop used by the workers became their gathering place. They were waiting there to talk to workers returning home from their shifts. They were going to make a bonfire, with s’mores, and get people talking. They invited the workers to barbecues.

“We’ve had over 20 barbecues, giving out food every week, every day, whether it’s pizza, chicken, pasta,” Smalls said. He even brought homemade food from his aunt to some of these gatherings.

How Chris Smalls Built a Labor Movement That Led to the First Amazon Workers Union : NPR

Chris Smalls (center), president of the Amazon Labor Union, joins his supporters as they march and sing at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Staten Island on October 25, 2021.

Craig Ruttle/AP


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Craig Ruttle/AP

How Chris Smalls Built a Labor Movement That Led to the First Amazon Workers Union : NPR

Chris Smalls (center), president of the Amazon Labor Union, joins his supporters as they march and sing at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Staten Island on October 25, 2021.

Craig Ruttle/AP

They spoke to workers about the struggle for their rights, about the exhausting toll of the job, how you stand, doing very repetitive, very physically demanding work, for hours on end. About the breaks that are few and too short.

No one expected this rambling grassroots campaign to emerge victorious against the giant corporation. Indeed, a first attempt failed. But Smalls persevered, eventually reaching the 30% threshold needed to hold a vote.

Amazon had Smalls arrested for trespassing

Amazon, meanwhile, has spent millions of dollars on labor consultants to fight union campaigns. The company held mandatory meetings with warehouse workers, urging them to vote no.

Amazon even had Smalls and a few other organizers arrested for trespassing while delivering food and union materials to the warehouse parking lot earlier this year.

Amazon’s argument to workers is that it’s already a great place to work, union-free. It offers a competitive salary and generous benefits like medical coverage for full-time employees and full college tuition.

But Smalls’ efforts have clearly paid off.

Nearly 5,000 workers voted, and votes to form a union were won by a significant margin — over 500 votes.

Amazon had wanted to downplay the labor campaign two years ago when, as part of its public relations strategy, the company said it would make Smalls “the face of the entire labor/organizing movement. “.

And that’s exactly what happened. Except today, Smalls became the face of one of the most successful labor campaigns in recent history.

And Amazon suffered an embarrassing loss.

“Amazon doesn’t become Amazon without people,” Smalls said. “And we make Amazon what it is.”

Editor’s note: Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR and also distributes some NPR content.


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