One time ago Chris Smalls couldn’t get politicians to answer his calls.
However, on a humid day in the latter part of April two of the most prominent politicians
-senators. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) – were planning a
special visit to Staten Island, New York to spend time with the 33-year old ex- Amazon
Warehouse process manager father of three, as well as the leader of a revived labor movement
that is sweeping across the nation.
He and former coworkers working with the newly-formed Amazon Labor Union (also known as
ALU The group stunned the world in the early days of April when they accomplished what many
believed was impossible: launching one of the very first success-driven US Union campaigns in
Amazon the tech giant that has for years looked at the organizing of workers as a danger in its
own business and has tried everything in its power to keep it from happening.
“I want you to know that what you did is extraordinary,” said Senator. Sanders, along with AOC
was holding an exclusive meeting of strategic planning with the main ALU organizing group. The ALU’s political leaders were in attendance to discuss the union’s plans to expand one day prior
to its second vote in the Staten Island warehouse called LDJ5.
Sanders. Sanders continued, “All over this country people are working crazy hours, with terrible
working conditions, inadequate wages, poor benefits…and what you have done is to take on
one of the most powerful corporations in America owned by the second wealthiest guy in this
Then, a few days later the ALU had to concede its second vote at LDJ5which was large, Smalls
said, due to Amazon’s increased anti-union campaigns. It was a huge defeat, but it’s not
reduced Smalls’s or the ALU’s goals.
“We’re hoping that in the next six months you start to see other unionization drives pop up all
over the country,” Smalls explained to me just a few days after the loss. Amazon employees
working in about 100 Amazon warehouses across the US have approached the ALU inquiring
about ways to launch their own union campaigns according to Smalls and he’s keen to be the
person to guide the efforts.
To achieve this, Smalls and the ALU will require support from the ALU -both financially,
politically as well as logistically to fight the battle for the unionization of Amazon. The stakes are
important: Amazon is the nation’s second-largest private employer and it sets the standards for
standard workplace conditions for many businesses throughout the US. If the ALU succeeds in
gaining the right to expand its warehouses, this can create a new class of workers who are
beginning to form unions, not only at Amazon however but also at other big employers such as
Starbucks, Apple as well as Dollar General, and Dollar General to demand better conditions and
the living environment from employers. If the ALU succeeds depends on the extent to which
Smalls and his group can effectively expand their grassroots organizing efforts to an
international scale and also if they are able to overcome Amazon who spent $4.3 million on
anti-union consultation this year alone, and is likely to keep spending more over the next year.
Within days of the second vote in the union, Smalls testified before an all-party group in
Congress regarding Amazon’s union-busting strategies and urged Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
to redefine union rights as “not a Democrat or Republican thing,” rather, an “workers’ thing” -in a
conversation which went viral. The trip was concluded with a visit to the Oval Office, where he
met with Vice-President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden to discuss the workers’
constitutional rights to bargaining.
Biden, on the other hand, saw Biden the meeting as a chance to strengthen his image as a
staunch supporter of unions, an alliance which he’s been embracing “more aggressively than
any president in modern times” to appeal to the middle class, according to Politico. For Smalls
who Biden humorously described as ” my kind of trouble,” the meeting demonstrated that he’s
got the attention of his fellow members of the White House as he takes his place on Amazon.
Smalls’s appearance in DC demonstrated that despite not having formal public relations
education or media experience He has garnered the attention of the entire nation. His choice of
clothes to wear for the Capitol trip — was a vibrant red, yellow and black jacket that was
embroidered with the”Eat the Rich “Eat the Rich” -The outfit was a national hit.
But, as it turns out in Staten Island, the ALU has to face significant hurdles. After the second
loss in the union vote, Amazon fired two union organizers at a facility nearby in response to
changes in management and reasons for productivity. The company is also contesting the
outcome of the JFK8 victory for the union, accusing the National Labor Relations Board of
favoring the union.
“Our employees are given the option of whether or no join an organization. They have the option
to do so at all times. As an organization we do not believe unions are the most effective solution
for our workers,” said Kelly Nantel an Amazon spokesperson. Amazon. “Our focus remains on
working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”
Smalls and his co-organizers acknowledge that the more than 8,000 employees at JFK8 in the
area where the ALU won its first union victory, are waiting for the results. If the ALU isn’t able to
successfully press Amazon to fulfill certain of the bold demands that the union fought on that
including raising the minimum wage to $30 per hour, making longer breaks timings, and relaxing
Amazon’s demands for productivity limits It might lose the momentum that it took one year to
achieve, and hinder other companies from unionizing.
“We’ve got 10,000 people’s lives in our hands,” Smalls told me in the last week of April.
A new kind of labor leader.
Smalls has proven to be a successful leader largely due to his authenticity, which is in sharp
contrast to the unwelcoming culture in Amazon’s warehouses that rely on software, metrics, or
automated methods to manage the workforce.
I first began talking with Smalls about two years ago, shortly before the outbreak of the Covid-19
pandemic. At that time, Smalls was an assistant to the process (which is basically an assistant
manager at Amazon and began to voice concerns about whether the company was doing
enough, according to him in order to safeguard his fellow employees from the risk of contracting
the disease. In the beginning, Smalls said he was not interested in forming a union.
However, in March 2020, only a few hours after Smalls held a demonstration in his warehouse’s
parking area to demand that Amazon offer better working conditions for employees and working
conditions, Amazon dismissed Smalls for allegedly breaking the quarantine policies of its
company ( Smalls disputes this). The incident attracted a lot of attention, especially after the
publication of an internal memo disclosed that Amazon’s top attorney, David Zapolsky,
described Smalls as a Black person, “not smart or articulate,” and suggested that Amazon ought
to strategically position him as his “face of the entire union/organizing movement” in order to
ensure that it will be unable to succeed.
“When Amazon fired me, it was an easy decision, I had nothing to lose. I lost everything. My
health insurance I lost my job … in the middle of a pandemic.” Smalls said Smalls during an
appearance in Manhattan in late April. “And I’m not being employed anywhere … I was just
dismissed on television. Who’s going to employ the whistleblower?”
Smalls’s demotion — and the way executives were discussing his dismissal behind closed doors
did not match with the Smalls employees at the warehouse who knew who was a gifted and
“I remember his coworkers always laughing … people wanted to work on his team,” said
Angelika Maldonado 27 years old, who worked at JFK8 alongside Smalls and is vice president
of the ALU.
Smalls is also a good-looking man. He’s a working man and hasn’t attempted to hide it when he
transitioned to becoming an official leader in the labor movement. His striking style — vibrant
tracksuits, durags Air Jordan sneakers, and large sunglasses — set him apart from the more
conventional union leaders who usually follow the style that corporate managers do.
“Chris doesn’t dress up in a suit and tie,” Tristian Martinez, 24 an associate of JFK8 who is also
an organizer said to me at an April protest, ahead of the LDJ5 vote. “I think that’s exactly what is
the proper dress code. If you’re speaking on behalf of workers, you need to appear like one of
us. wear a uniform like us.”
In the days leading up to the JFK8 election, Smalls issued a letter to the thousands of
employees, describing how during his seven years with this company, he began as an employee
with the highest performance and was then a demoralized boss, begging Amazon to take steps
to protect the health of his employees.
“I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to organize,” says the letter. It talks about the time in
2017 when the author had relocated to a different state in order to assist Amazon to establish an
additional warehouse and was then shuffled into Staten Island and denied a promotion that he
tried to apply for 50 times. “I was tired of watching the business fail. I was tired of watching the
people go and leave.”
A lot of the employees that joined ALU shared similar experiences to Smalls -they were
recruited to work for Amazon with high hopes and a desire to work towards advancing in the
chain but were disappointed by the high churn rate of employees and soaring demand for
productivity quotas that could cause workers to fear that going to the bathroom could get their
jobs revoked as well as the perceived poor management attitude.
ALU’s Maldonado claimed that one of her colleagues from JFK8 was fired in 2018. JFK8
warehouse was dismissed in 2018 because she was just one minute late. This is just one of the
many instances Maldonado reported seeing employees being dismissed for small delays. This
is an occurrence that is common for Staten Island workers who live in New Jersey or Brooklyn
and suffer long commutes with public transport that can last between two and a half hours. This
is also part of a larger trend Recode has covered throughout Amazon’s warehouses of employees complaining that Amazon’s management style based on metrics can be harsh and uncaring.
Contrary to the Amazon work environment, where unhappy employees have complained about
being treated as ” robots,” Smalls and the ALU has developed an atmosphere of family and
For organizers, many of who have been in their 20s and early 30s, the movement are not easy
and lots of fun. The union’s headquarters is located in a two-bedroom house next to the facility
which two organizers share it has a feel of college dorms and pizza boxes, beers, and
union-related literature scattered about.
“We like to sit down and blast hip-hop music, and we like to order our soul food and eat candy,”
said Maldonado. While campaigning on Staten Island, organizers offered the hungry, exhausted
workers who were leaving their shifts barbecue hot chocolate, empanadas as well as African
rice fried in order to motivate them to engage in conversations.
The growth of the movement and the increased public interest in its cause have made it difficult
at times for Smalls to be the person who is responsible for in-person organizing. Recently,
Smalls has been spending more time talking to the media and speaking at events alongside
other well-known activists such as Dolores Huerta and environmental lawyer Steven Donziger,
as well as having meetings with political leaders. Since Smalls has grown into not only an
individual leader, but a national figure and has become a national figure, it can be difficult for
him to manage his role as spokesperson for the ALU and the requirements of working alongside
his team in the field.
After the warehouse vote defeat on Staten Island, Smalls said he’s now shifting “back to basics”
“Our task isn’t over. I cannot just sit back and forget what I’ve accomplished here and turn into
an international figure. I must stay true to my roots. This is the thing we’re doing,” said Smalls on
the phone recently.
This is the reason why this time in May Smalls held a late Hawaiian-themed celebration for the
ALU’s JFK8 victory at a boat club in the vicinity of the warehouse. There was live music and a
DJ. The event was a celebration and invited all ALU members who work in the JFK8 warehouse
to attend. JFK8 warehouse.
The majority of the ALU’s participants are “overly stressed out,” Smalls said, adding that they
needed to take a break following a calendar filled with organizing. “Not running for a few months
is the most effective thing for us to take for the long run. We’ll take 2 to 3 months off to rest.
When we’ve completed this, we’ll be prepared in mid-summer to go returning to our campaign.”
The organizers will require to provide the remainder. Like the unsuccessful campaign at the
LDJ5 show, Amazon will continue adjusting its anti-union policies.