Former Amazon warehouse worker Chris Smalls has made history, successfully unionizing Amazon workers after a years-long battle with the mega corporation’s lawyers. New York is only the first step.
33-year-old Chris Smalls had started off as a rapper and gave it up when he became a father in order to support his twin children. He hopped from Walmart, Target, Home Depot before landing a warehouse position at Amazon in 2015 in New Jersey and eventually in New York.
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Smalls observed how the Covid-19 virus alarmed workers at the retailer’s Staten Island warehouse, who believed that Amazon was not doing enough to address the threat that the virus posed. Smalls would stage a walkout that demanded safeguards for the worker’s health, one demand was for the worksite to be closed.
Smalls was later fired after showing up for work when he was supposed to be on paid leave. But many suspected that his ousting was due to his efforts to advocate for the workers, which garnered the attention of New York’s Attorney General Letitia James who proceeded to look into his firing and embark on a legal battle with Amazon. Amazon claimed that Smalls was not fired for leading the protest, but rather because he had violated a company-imposed 14-day quarantine after he came into contact with an employee who tested positive for COVID-19.
James secured notes from an internal Amazon meeting attended by leaders, one of them being Jeff Bezos himself, that discussed plans to assassinate Smalls’ character and undermine the organizing effort by labeling him as “not smart or articulate.”
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us verse him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” wrote David Zapolsky, Amazon’s General Counsel, in the meeting’s notes that were forwarded within the company. His notes also revealed that the company desired to make Smalls the target of their narrative on the subject and questioning of worker safety.
“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” Zapolsky wrote. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
On Friday, April 1st, Amazon employees in Staten Island voted to unionize, which marked the first union success in the company’s history, especially considering Amazon’s union busting tactics being a part of its history as well.
According to the Associated Press, 55 percent of warehouse workers voted in favor of unionizing, giving just enough for the labor union to succeed. Chris Smalls is now the president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which is independent of any national union organization.
Chris Smalls had also made it clear that New York is just the first stepping stone.
“We already have interests in other buildings,” Christian Smalls, who told CBS News, “In the last 48 hours, I’ve definitely been contacted by workers from all over the country that want to start their own Amazon labor union. We’re going to absolutely help them.”‘
The ALU has a list of demands: higher pay, more promotions, and better working conditions. They are also asking Amazon to raise the pay of associates by 7.5% in order to match the rate of inflation as well as reinstate twenty minute breaks and provide a shuttle for workers.