‘We just unionized Amazon’: How two best friends beat the retail giant’s union-busting campaign

Christian-Smalls-and-other-Amazon-Labor-Union-organizers-by-Hiram-Alejandro-Durán-The-City-040922-1, ‘We just unionized Amazon’: How two best friends beat the retail giant’s union-busting campaign, News & Views
Christian Smalls, center, and other Amazon Labor Union organizers celebrate their successful vote at MetroTech Center in Brooklyn Friday. Derrick Palmer is in the purple shirt to the right. – Photo: Hiram Alejandro Durán, The City

Two best friends who led a drive to organize workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., made history Friday, April 9, after a majority voted to form the first Amazon union in the U.S. Democracy Now! spoke with Christian Smalls, interim president of the new union and former Amazon supervisor, about how he led the effort after Amazon fired him at the height of the pandemic for demanding better worker protections. 

“I think we proved that it’s possible, no matter what industry you work in, what corporation you work for,” says Smalls. “We just unionized Amazon. If we can do that, we can unionize anywhere.” 

Amy Goodman: Workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island celebrated Friday after they overcame a multimillion-dollar union-busting campaign and voted decisively in favor of joining the newly formed Amazon Labor Union, the first Amazon union in U.S. history. More than 8,300 workers at the warehouse were eligible to vote. The effort was led by Christian Smalls, who is now interim president of the Amazon Labor Union.

Christian Smalls: We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space, because when he was up there, we were signing people up. 

Yes. Good morning. Thank you for having me. Wow! Every time I hear or see those videos, it still takes a lot out of me, because it’s unbelievable, what we accomplished. We started 11 months ago, a grassroots, worker-led movement, just Amazon workers, former, current, like myself, just trying to do the right thing – once again, no resources, no major backing, just a bunch of ordinary people just coming together from all over the country. 

We had different people flying in to help us out, some of the comrades that I traveled the country with, advocating with. And 11 months ago, we started something that we really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, but we just knew that it was working for us. 

You know, we were consistently talking to our workers every single day – me, unfortunately, not being able to go inside the building. It was just a combination me and Derrick on the inside-outside game: you know, me at the bus stop connecting with workers, earning their trust, building relationships; Derrick actually inside the building, talking to workers every day in his department, taking over his old department. 

You know, things like that helped us get us to this point. And I’m just ecstatic and excited to be the interim president and lead us to victory. It’s wonderful to see, and I’m happy to just once again share this experience with the entire world.

Derrick Palmer: Yeah. You know, at first, it was like – it was very discouraging, hearing that Chris got fired, just for doing the right thing, for standing up for all of us. You know, so I had a tough decision to make. 

And at the time, there wasn’t a lot of jobs available. So I said, “You know what? I think I’m going to make it my business to organize from within at JFK8.” 

And I feel like that played a vital role. You know, a lot of workers were talking about Chris, being scared about the coronavirus, and then ultimately speaking up about the coronavirus because of what happened to Chris and other organizers that were terminated. 

So I made it my business to talk to them, to ease that tension, to still let them know that – you know, what I feel was illegal. So, you know, just organizing within building, building relationships with other workers, making them comfortable, and just playing that role until we were ready to unionize. And I think that played a key part to our victory on April 1.

Amy Goodman: I wanted to go to this leaked audio recording obtained by The City newspaper from a meeting last Tuesday, when Amazon workers met with an Amazon workforce staffing manager named Eric and an employee relations manager, who presented slides on the, quote, “reality of dues and the subject of union life.” This is a short clip from the recording.

Eric: We talked last week about dues. Remember that dues are paid by employees, and that’s the only source of income or funding toward the needs to pay salaries and expenses. These things may not be anything you want, but they mean a lot to unions. So, will the ALU priorities match yours? The collective bargaining can select any negotiation. Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. And what’s important to you may not be important to someone else.

Amazon worker: Oh my god, yo, I can’t …

Eric: So, a union contract could leave you with the same things you have now, like vacation time, paid parental leave, wages, health benefits, 401(k) for injuries, and resources for living. Or it could give you more or less than what you have right now. It is important to remember that negotiations are always a give and take. To give something, you give up something. And here’s why they matter. What is important to the ALU may not be important to you. They will be willing to trade your priorities for one of theirs.

Amazon worker: That’s not true.

Jennifer-Bates-Amazon-warehouse-worker-in-Bessemer-at-rally-in-Birmingham-Alabama-by-Stephan-Bisaha-2021, ‘We just unionized Amazon’: How two best friends beat the retail giant’s union-busting campaign, News & Views
Labor and Civil Rights struggles have always been intertwined. Bessemer, Ala., was the site of anti-racist union organizing with the mine, mill and smelter workers in the 1930s, and in 2021 became the first home of the historic fight to unionize Amazon, set in motion by Black women. Here, warehouse worker Jennifer Bates, a lead organizer of the effort, vows at a rally in Birmingham to keep fighting for the union. Last year’s efforts failed following enormous pushback from Amazon. – Photo: Stephan Bisaha, NPR

Derrick Palmer: Yeah, I mean, these captive audience meetings, they’re pretty much designed to discourage workers from signing up for unions. So, you know, what I witnessed with multiple captive audience meetings is that the message that they’re trying to relay is that you can’t speak to your manager once you become – once a building becomes unionized; you can lose certain benefits from joining a union; the ALU is inexperienced – all different type of points that they try to convey to these workers, which ultimately scares them. 

So, having myself and other organizers on the inside pretty much counteracting all the messages that they’re trying to present to the workers, you know, played a vital role. So, they’ve had so many different other things that they were talking about, as well, saying that your personal time could be the same, you can lose pay, as well – so, a lot of threatening things that they were trying to do.

Amy Goodman: So, Derrick, what are your plans now? ALU has won this enormous victory. What are your demands?

Derrick Palmer: Well, just having better benefits, better pay, you know, like sick time. Those are the basic things. Also job security. You know, Amazon has a 150 percent turnover ratio at JFK alone. So, people that come and commute from all these different boroughs, their jobs should be secure. It shouldn’t take them three hours to get to work, and then, when they get there, they could possibly be fired. 

You know, the possibilities of that are very high. So we have to make that change, and also recruiting more workers to get involved with the union, becoming shop stewards. 

So we want to have shop stewards in different departments, so that we have workers representing other workers and that we can create an environment where our demands and the workers’ needs are appreciated. So, if you have these workers on the inside being more involved with the union, then now you create a powerful force that ultimately can’t really be stopped, and Amazon has to abide by these rules.

Amy Goodman: And, Chris, do you plan to organize other warehouses? I mean, you actually have one – I mean, yours is what? Eighty-five hundred people. You have one right across the street.

Christian Smalls: Yeah, absolutely. We have another election in a couple of weeks that we are already preparing ourselves for. We’re right back out there. I was at the bus stop yesterday. You know, we’re right back to the same thing we were doing. 

And we absolutely got contacted by thousands of workers in the last 48 hours from all over the country. So, absolutely, this is just day one for ALU. Myself and Derrick, between us, we opened up several different buildings. We want to absolutely organize those. We’ve got people reaching out that, you know, watched and pay attention. 

And I’m ecstatic about what’s next. I know this is the catalyst for the revolution against Amazon, the same way it’s been happening with Starbucks. So, we’re going to have that same effect.

This is an edited version of the original transcript, first published by Democracy Now! Read the full interview at democracynow.org.