Is Chris Smalls the Future of Labor?

ItChris Smalls is speaking about real property from his ground-level apartment on Staten Island. Wearing immaculate Air Jordans and boxy sunglasses, surrounded by half-empty pasta boxes and a pot of old mac and cheese, the leader of the first successful union drive in Amazon history is talking with Julian Mitchell-Israel, the ALU’s field director. Maybe, Mitchell-Israel muses, the union’s next headquarters could be in a bodega.

Smalls said it with the slightest shake of his head. “We’re a big union. Not a bodega union.”

By conventional standards, the Amazon Labor Union—just a year old and less than 10,000 members strong—isn’t actually that big. This is not true when compared with its established unions which have hundreds of thousand of members. That’s part of what made its victory over a very big, very powerful, and fiercely anti-union company so audacious.

Smalls (33), almost two years ago, was fired by Amazon. He helped the ALU win a vote to unionize the Staten Island warehouse JFK8, which is the biggest facility in New York City. It was the first crack in Amazon’s formerly impenetrable anti-union armor. The co-organizer, Derrick Palmer, Smalls, had no professional organizing experience and were not affiliated with any established labor organizations. They also did this without large amounts of money. They raised $120,000 via GoFundMe in comparison to $4.3 million Amazon spent to try to beat them.

The possibility of a victory such as this is unimaginable up until now. Unionization efforts “never ever win against Amazon, and this was a union that didn’t exist two years ago,” says John Logan, Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. “No one thought they had a chance.”

The pandemic revealed glaring inequalities that have led to a fresh labor reckoning. Starbucks workers in the US have been voting to unionize for several months. New York delivery drivers formed a labor coalition. Atlanta Apple Store employees just requested a union. But the Amazon Labor Union’s victory over one of the world’s most formidable companies is the most significant yet.

Smalls claims that the success was due to a completely new approach to labor organizing. “This is the new school,” he says as Mitchell-Israel orders 800 chicken wings to feed Amazon workers on their break. ”Old school” is Big Labor, the existing 20th-century union infrastructure. “The ALU represents the new face, the new-school style of 21st century organizing, ” he adds. “Where younger adults are taking charge and putting workers in the driver’s seat.”

Smalls means “workers” in the specific sense—as in, people employed by Amazon—and not “workers” in the general sense, which is often used as a catchall term in labor circles to mean anyone who isn’t in management. Smalls is not merely a deviation from well-worn progressive rhetoric, which may be motivating college-educated Liberals but has little impact on Amazon employees. “We don’t go home and turn on CNN, we don’t go home and turn on Fox,” he says, noting that Amazon workers are often too tired to follow politics. “If I brought AOC and Bernie out here, I would have to inform the workers who they are and what they represent.”

Smalls may be organizing out of a black Chevy Suburban packed with iced tea bottles and rolling papers, but it’s clear that Amazon underestimated his savvy. In a memo that leaked shortly after his firing, Amazon lawyers said that Smalls was “not smart, or articulate.” But Smalls’ understanding of what it’s like to work at Amazon is one reason why he and Palmer succeeded where larger, more powerful unions have failed. Only last year, Amazon beat back a unionization effort driven by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union at a Bessemer, Alabama facility in what was then the biggest labor drive in the company’s history. The union appealed the National Labor Relations Board’s decision, alleging that Amazon had illegally interfered with the election. The final outcome is still in doubt.

Continue reading: Alabama: How Amazon won the Union vote

Smalls has an explanation for why this failed. “The timing, the approach, the campaign—it was just all wrong from the beginning,” he says of the Bessemer union drive. Alabama’s right-to-work laws presented challenges; the plant was new enough that workers weren’t as disillusioned as at JFK8.

What’s the most important? The drive was organized by an “established union, a third party that doesn’t know Amazon,” Smalls says.

“In order to get it done, you gotta build from within,” he adds. “Not from the outside, but from the inside out.”

NoneCould have predicted that Chris Smalls would be the David to Amazon’s Goliath. Growing up in Hackensack New Jersey with a single mother, Smalls never thought about the struggles of working people. His time was spent playing football and basketball, and writing songs together. He also dreamed of being a rapper. Smalls’ mother worked as an administrator at a hospital, and had once been part of SEIU 1199. But Smalls says the union made so little difference in their lives that she “forgot that she was even a part of the rank-and-file at one point,” he says, adding that she hadn’t remembered organizing for a contract. “A co-worker reminded her.”

He gave hip-hop an opportunity, but after his ex-wife became pregnant with twins, Smalls decided to quit music and seek a steady income. Smalls joined JFK8 after stints in Connecticut and New Jersey at Amazon. As a process assistant, he was responsible for picking customer orders and packing them. He loved his work at first. His team was small and his general manger was Black. He seemed to be interested in helping Black employees advance within the company. “Everybody looked out for one another,” he says.

This culture evolved over the years. The small facility ballooned to thousands of workers, management changed, and what had felt like a workplace full of human beings soon began to feel like a team of “industrial athletes,” as one leaked company memo put it.

“It was all about metrics. It’s not about the person,” Smalls says. “They could care less if that person breaks down.” The work became so physically grueling that after a while “it doesn’t matter what shoes you wear,” he says. “They all become bricks on your feet.”

Smalls’ frustration peaked during the early days of COVID-19. JFK8 employees were asked to continue working even though much of the city was shut down in order to stop the spread of this virus. Publicly, Amazon said the company was taking “extreme measures” to keep workers safe. But Smalls says that people worked “shoulder to shoulder” inside the facility, and that colleagues were coming to work sick. “Everybody was just worried that this is a life-or-death situation,” he says.

Palmer and he staged a walkout protest in March 2020. He was then fired. Palmer was given a warning. In a statement, Amazon said Smalls was fired for “violating social distancing guidelines.”

Continue reading: Andy Jassy on Figuring Out What’s Next For Amazon

In response, Smalls and Palmer decided to stage demonstrations to advocate for workers’ rights. They did things like protest outside of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ mansions. But when the union drive in Alabama failed, “that’s when we decided to unionize,” Smalls says. “We went down there, we saw something that we thought we could do better.”

It all started withThis is a dual-pronged strategy. A small group of people would meet at the bus stop outside the building to provide food and assistance for hungry or exhausted employees. Palmer, who was still working at the company would manage the break room. “I used to listen more than anything,” Smalls says, adding that the campaign was more about educating workers and “explaining what a union can provide.”

They began calling themselves the Amazon Labor Union in April 2021. One organizer used TikTok to spotlight the company’s anti-union propaganda, and posted videos of organizers stationed outside the facilities in the freezing cold. Union members made it a priority to promote human connections among workers. The union gave out free food and weed to smalls, as well as pamphlets. Organizers also set up bonfires for people who need warmth during breaks.

“We had a compassionate, humanizing, caring type of campaign,” Smalls says. “We played the tortoise and the hare.”

It took months. Bezos traveled to space, thanking Amazon customers and employees because “you guys paid for all this.” (Smalls recalls signing up a lot of people that day.) Some organizers got jobs at Amazon specifically to unionize—a labor strategy known as “salting.” It helped the union stay in touch with workers on the inside. “As organizers, we have to try to be some of the best employees, because otherwise you’ll get fired,” says Justine Medina, a “salt” who joined Amazon to help with the organizing effort.

The tortoise was growing in popularity. Amazon responded strongly, forcing its employees to attend anti-union meetings. Workers were reminded that their dues would be deducted from their paychecks and that they could not trust unions to protect them. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees,” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel told TIME in a statement. “Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

But organizers say that the ALU’s approach kneecapped Amazon’s efforts to portray them as outsiders. “As long as we’re putting in the time, we’re putting in the love, we’re making it about building human connections, that message doesn’t resonate with people,” says Mat Cusick, an ALU organizer who works at a delivery facility next to JFK8.

Smalls, who was not shocked but thrilled when JFK8 decided to unify, was happy. “I knew that we were going to win. I never doubted it,” he says. “That was the best feeling in my life next to my kids’ birth.”

On a blusteryApril morning saw ALU organizers greet workers who came to LDJ5, an Amazon facility in Staten Island. They are set to vote on unionizing April 25. Flyers, lanyards, and chicken wings were given out by the organizers. The food was stacked on tables featuring posters of a sweating robot, with the words: “We’re not machines, we’re human beings.”

According to Smalls, all Amazon facilities in the United States contacted Amazon Labor Union after the JFK8 election. Smalls says the first way to determine if the dam is broken will be through the LDJ5 election. The union has been the subject of significant political attention. Before the vote was held, Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited to support it.

If the organizers’ prospects are uncertain, one thing is clear: Smalls and the ALU are charting a new path forward for worker-led unionization outside of the established structures of organized labor.

“Many of the labor unions are very disconnected from the workers that they serve,” says Medina, adding that many of the officers in the big labor unions are “out of grad school.”

“They mean well,” she adds. “But there’s just a slightly different class composition.”

Experts say that the activism of the past few years—from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter to walkouts at major tech companies— has seeped into organized labor. The new model is “young people organizing young people, it’s non-white people organizing majority non-white workforces,” says Wilma Liebman, who served as chair of the National Labor Relations Board under President Obama. “Unions clearly have to adapt to the changing demographic of the workforces.”

Support is flooding the Amazon Labor Union. According to an advisor, Randi Weingarten of American Federation of Teachers promised a six-figure contribution that could be used by the ALU for better office space. Sean O’Brien of the Teamsters Union told TIME that organized labor as a whole needs to “rally around this victory,” and that it creates an opening for a broader labor offensive against behemoths like Amazon.

“The Teamsters are gonna make a run at Amazon,” O’Brien says. “Our role in this whole thing is to provide them as much support and resources as needed, so that if they ever do get to the bargaining table, there are area standards that are met and kept.”

While Smalls is grateful for the help, he’s made sure that the other unions know who felled the giant. “They understand that this is our territory, and they’re giving us support with no strings attached,” he says. “They have to learn from us.”

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