Interviews & Profiles
Chris Smalls wants to see the Amazon Labor Union go national
The founder of the history-making union discusses the advantages of grassroots organizing and upcoming fights with the behemoth company.
In the winter of 2021, Chris Smalls took a trip down to Bessemer, Alabama to lend his support to workers at an Amazon warehouse who were voting on whether or not to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Smalls had been fired as an employee at Amazon’s massive warehouse on Staten Island – known as JFK8 – a year prior, after protesting COVID-19 health precautions at the facility, and was emerging as a leading critic of the company’s warehouse conditions. At the time, Smalls said he hoped to take the organizing energy in Alabama with him. “That's my plan, to bring it back up here to New York, and try to organize even my former facility,” Smalls told City & State that February.
But the RWDSU union drive in Alabama failed in 2021, and a redo of the vote last week is still too close to call, with votes in favor of unionizing trailing votes against, and a large number of contested ballots still left to litigate. While RWDSU spent the past year securing a second election in Bessemer and organizing workers there, Smalls has been busy taking his own approach in New York.
In the past year, Smalls officially formed his own independent union – the Amazon Labor Union – successfully petitioned for a union election, and last week won that election, making JFK8 the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the country. Smalls may have picked up some lessons from his trip to Alabama in 2021, but his own effort was unique – not backed by an established union, but independently organized, funded by donations on GoFundMe and driven by current and former employees at the warehouse.
Smalls hasn’t had much time to catch his breath since the win. He’s been celebrating the ALU’s historic victory with his fellow organizers and the 2,654 JFK8 employees who voted to join the union last week. Much of his attention is now devoted to a union election at a second Staten Island Amazon warehouse – known as LDJ5 – happening later this month. And he’s aware that Amazon is likely to put up a fight as it reels from the result the company spent millions to prevent.
Smalls spoke with City & State on Wednesday about the next steps for the Amazon Labor Union and why grassroots organizing was key to their success. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s been a few days since your historic win. What has it been like for you?
Definitely a whirlwind. I’m just consistently doing a lot of interviews. I was able to sneak away to get back to the Amazon building a few times. I was able to go out and rejoice in celebration with the workers in front of the building. Right now, we're gearing up for our second election, and I think we're all excited to get back on the campaign trail.
What’s the vibe on the Staten Island campus – and what are current workers telling you about what it’s been like to return to work since the win?
My organizers are now being treated like little celebrities in the building. They walk in there, people are cheering, people are happy, people are crying, people are rejoicing. It’s beautiful, it’s a great feeling. I’ve still got organizers who haven’t been to work yet, so they’re eager, they’re ready to go back so they can see their coworkers who they helped sign up, because they all made history. I heard that when we won, in both buildings workers inside were cheering and clapping. I still haven’t seen a lot of the people that I helped sign up, so I can’t wait to go back out there later today.
Are you expecting a similar result in the union election later this month at the LDJ5 facility? Are there any major differences between the two warehouses that change your approach to the organizing process?
There might be some differences, for sure. We’re not going to get overly confident, we know that (Amazon is) still union busting every day. So we’re just staying grounded, and we’re going to continue to build this union. We are planning our blitz – what we like to call a blitz – within the last two weeks. I think my team is prepared and we’re ready, and we’re hoping that we'll be successful again.
You did this as an independent union, and there were doubts expressed about whether you could do this independently, without the help of a major established union. But obviously you did what those major unions have failed to do before. To what extent was the independent aspect of your approach actually a strength?
It worked because we are the actual workers of the company, who know the ins and outs of the company. We live the reality of these grievances that people hear about in the media. We are the workers that come from the community that we had to help educate about unions. Hearing information about unions from a coworker that's been there – for example, some of my lead organizers that have been there, like Derrick Palmer, he's a six year vet – just sounds way more convincing than having an established union where they don’t know what Amazon is. They have to learn what Amazon is, how it operates, what's the language, the culture. They have to learn so much to even step foot into the realm of trying to organize the coworker. Compared to us, you know, we are the ones who invested our lives into this company for several years. So it's just a different relationship that we have when it comes to organizing our coworkers. It just worked for us. The independent route, it has no history that Amazon can use against us – no reputation, no bad contracts, they can't use anybody's salary. They can’t use a lot of different propaganda that they would use on traditional unions against their own workforce.
You said on Twitter that you have heard from workers at 50 different Amazon buildings across the country about organizing since your win. Do you hope to expand ALU’s reach to other states, maybe help people set up their own local ALUs?
Yeah, absolutely, that's the plan. We definitely heard from workers, and they’re saying directly that they want to unionize their building. They’re saying that we inspired them. I got emails saying that I lit a fuse under them, I lit a fire. Workers are paying attention now, which is beautiful. And we absolutely want to help them. As soon as we can finish up here in New York, especially with the second election, we’ll have a little bit more leeway to start to branch out. We’ve got people right here in the tri state – New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – that want to start ALU chapters. So we absolutely are going to help people out as much as we can. We hope that this will be nationwide.
How are you feeling about the collective bargaining process that still lies ahead now that you’ve won the union vote for JFK8? Are you predicting a long and strenuous process of negotiating a contract based on what we’ve seen in Amazon’s resistance to this and other unions?
We don't expect Amazon to sit down at the table, especially with somebody like me and the ALU. They're not gonna want to negotiate with us right off the bat. We're walking and chewing bubble gum at the same time. Of course, we're working on our contract proposal right now, but we're also still just focusing on the next two and a half weeks. We’ve got to win this second election, because we want to show workers that it wasn’t a fluke the first time around. We want to make sure that they understand that this union is powerful, and it’s going to continue to grow. Once this election is over, we're going to jump right into forming our negotiating team and bringing in more legal representation. We're in the process of interviewing different lawyers and different people who we want to make sure have the workers’ best interest. That’s what we're doing right now in the short term, and then obviously, we're gonna jump right into it.
We’ve seen some actions from Amazon since the vote – they have suggested that they could try to contest the outcome and company-wide, they’re talking about banning words like “union” from an internal messaging app. What do you think about some of these responses?
This company is the ultimate anti-union machine. They’re going to spend millions of dollars no matter what. And that's expected. So I just don't get caught up in it. I know that we won undisputedly, I don't know how they're going to contest that. The challenge that they’re planning on presenting to the (National Labor Relations Board) doesn’t even make sense. They’re trying to say the board cheated in this election, it’s ridiculous. The election was run completely fairly. And of course, there are some things on our end that we can challenge as well, but we won, so there’s no need to. We're just hoping that the board will make the right decision and dismiss it. But we know – and everybody watching it live knows – that we undisputedly beat Amazon by over 500 ballots.
You’ve had a lot of doubters throughout this process. Do you have any message to them about the win last week and what lies ahead?
My only message is they underestimated who we are and who I am as a person, what I was to this company. I invested almost five years of my life, I was a well-respected supervisor, I opened up three facilities. Sometimes you can’t just prejudge the situation. A lot of people counted us out, and we knew that. It’s unfortunate that people counted us out, but I’m just happy now that we’re able to prove a lot of people wrong. And prove that we can accomplish anything when we come together.
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