ALU members march in solidarity against Amazon. Chris Smalls in the red on the left. Photo credit: Pamela Drew on Flickr

First Amazon union-approved campaign led by a ‘not smart, or articulate’ former worker

“Amazon fucked with the wrong guy!” A simple, but accurate comment on an Instagram post where Chris Smalls, the interim president of Amazon Labor Union, co-founded a movement that finally won Amazon workers collective bargaining power. 

Along with former coworker Derrick Palmer, and hundreds of Amazon employees, Chris Smalls circumvented Amazon’s Goliath-type energy to organize workers to vote in favor of unionizing at JFK8, Amazon’s largest New York City warehouse located on Staten Island.

“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there, we were organizing a union,” said Smalls at a press conference. In his classic fitted cap and comfortable sports wear, Smalls popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate the first successful attempt of workers ushering in union representation after years of others trying at multiple locations.

His statement assuredly dug into the ego of Bezos who Smalls said had greenlit a smear campaign against him once his pro-union efforts began catching steam. Moreso, it illuminated how Amazon’s racist, short selling of Smalls backfired. A Vice story revealed an internal memo showing that Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, described the former JFK8 employee as being “not smart, or articulate.” Thus, making him an easy target to wage a public relations assault to discredit his validity. Boo-boo for Amazon.

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The resolute and savvy Smalls, who used to make a 3-hour commute each way by bus from New Jersey to Staten Island, did what multiple pro-union efforts could not in  28 years of non-representation at the multinational, tech e-commerce company. To add injury to the bullying conglomerate, the feat comes after Amazon ratcheted up its familiar union-busting tactics against organizers of the ALU, a fully worker-led campaign started by Smalls and other Amazon employees in 2021.

Frequent texts, robocalls and meetings discouraging workers against unionizing were some of the ongoing tactics. This past February, Smalls was held for trespassing, resisting arrest and obstructing a governmental administration. As well, other pro-union Amazon employees were detained by New York Police Department officers as they handed out food to workers in the company’s parking lot.

But fire was met with organizing fury. Months leading up to the vote, the ALU hosted fundraisers, tee shirt giveaways and started a phone bank to educate Amazon employees on the power of unionizing. Leading up to the vote, they held pop outs and even participated in other groups’ efforts as a show of solidarity. On January 22, they joined a caravan in support of grocery workers at Kroger-owned King Soopers.

Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse workers file petition for union election in Brooklyn, October 25, 2021. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Ten toes down

What Amazon did not know was that Smalls comes from a state where confrontational politics are the bread-and-butter of a unique political sphere. There, you must bring backbone and grit. Hailing from Hackensack, New Jersey, the former high school athlete star forwent his rap career to raise twins. 

Smalls grew up a stone’s throw away from Newark, a city with a legacy of bold Black political challenge, and often a hub for north Jersey Black residents. He grew up where high-pitched demands and uproarious accusations are mainstays at nearby town halls. On any given day on major avenues—especially in front of Newark courthouses and cops—be it hot summers or frigid winters, you will more than likely come across a protest.

Management fired Smalls following a 2020 demonstration he spearheaded on “May Day,” the international observation dedicated to protest. Laborers objected to the company’s neglecting to issue or implement quarantine protocols during the height of the pandemic. Smalls alleges that he was told a worker became infected, but management never informed all of the staff. So he used “May Day” to lead members in a walkout with the help of Palmer. 

Subsequently, Smalls was terminated because they said he violated quarantine measures they eventually released months after they let him go.

LU Derrick Palmer talks outside of Jeff Bezos Penthouse at a union protest on September 4, 2021. Photo credit: Pamela Drew on Flickr

The Staten Island Amazon employees joined thousands of Amazon essential laborers who fueled and supplied  the world during COVID-19 quarantine. In the 15 months of the shutdown, Bezos’ fortune increased by $86 billion. With the union efforts of ALU, they will be asking for $30 dollars an hour including several other immediate changes.

Taking pages from unwavering audacious activism, the thirty-something year old father made it his business to agitate Amazon’s brass, all the while activating workers. From throwing barbecues to blasting hip hop in front of JK8 facilities as he bopped to trap and bass drums, Smalls would engage workers as they entered and exited the warehouse. For years, he regularly passed out flyers and talked to his once-fellow colleagues about the value of collective bargaining. 

Added to his campaigning, he used social media as a weapon. From Instagram to Twitter and  Tik Tok, he updated the public on their efforts and outed union-busters when necessary. Eventually, Amazon’s mass staff began to agree and believe in their power, so the collective grew amongst the 5,000 employed at JFK8.

“These laws [are] not protecting the employees, they [are] protecting the employer . . . these laws got to change,” asserted Palmer at a rally. Palmer is the Vice President of the ALU and is still employed by Amazon.

By mid-February, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) approved the ALU’s petition to take their efforts for JFK8’s collective bargaining to the ballot box. Two weeks later, NLRB authorized a second petition for another Staten Island warehouse, LDJ5, giving them the ability to vote on the measure from April 25 through April 29. 

A history of failed promises

This past winter holiday season, *Angelica Gray worked her regular job from 8 am to 6 pm. After she made dinner for her family, she slept for a few hours then went to her Los Angeles-based Amazon side hustle from 10:50 at night to 3 am. Different from her virtual desk job, Amazon’s warehouse job was physical and offered little, if any, time for rest. However, the extra money was needed for Christmas gifts, and to put a dent in her son’s university school fees and apartment.

Some days her son James, who also worked at Amazon and its subsidiary Whole Foods during school breaks, would meet her as he came in from work while she headed out. Other nights, she would pick James up. Though Gray was tired, the pay was decent. Plus, Amazon management said they would keep her after the seasonal period ended. They reneged. 

A mother of three, and whose husband works a graveyard shift, Gray told Ark Republic she was “ecstatic that Amazon workers are unionizing.” For her, this could stop the empty promises she experienced. Her story aligns with Smalls’ and others who report that Amazon has a history of false pledges, along with detrimental workplace policies.

• • • •

While there have been attempts by employees to unionize, the Staten Island victory comes after a huge loss at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama facility (BHM1) last month. Leading up to the vote, Amazon filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board to carry out votes only in-person, but were denied. Their request to carry out voting in person  during a pandemic was emblematic of the repeated BHM1 facility worker complaints  regarding Amazon’s lack of implementing safer working conditions.

In December 2021, the Bezos-built machine also caught flack about its absent safety measures. Six employees were killed following a series of tornadoes ripping through eastern Kentucky. It was discovered that Amazon did not warn workers of the coming storm, and forbade  phones on assembly lines. If workers had their mobile devices, they would have been alerted of the coming twisters.

A group of Democratic lawmakers, led by Congress members like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) demanded explanations from Bezos and Amazon CEO Andy Jassy as to theEdwardsville warehouse failing to alert staffers along with its lack of emergency preparation. “Amazon’s anti-worker and anti-union practices put their workers directly in harm’s way,” wrote Sen. Warren to The Verge.

“Amazon has always put profit over people,” expressed Smalls. Hence, he and his growing wave of laborers work to change the shift in Amazon’s culture. Many others agree. “Every worker has the right to be represented, and this historic victory will help create a fairer, safer, and more equitable workplace. Solidarity with #ALU!” Messaged New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in his congratulatory remarks. 

Whether Bezos likes it or not is not of  Smalls’s concern. As he sees it, Bezos can remain as Gil Scott Heron described, “whitey on the moon.”

*Name of interviewee changed to protect them from workplace reprisals.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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