“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there, we were signing people up.” – Christian Smalls
Chris Smalls, the fired Amazon worker who is quickly becoming the corporation’s worst nightmare, is currently on the winning side of a union battle most thought couldn’t be won, but he and his group of former and current Staten Island, New York, warehouse workers still have a road ahead of them before they can claim success.
As the Associated Press reported, Smalls helped lead a victory for the Amazon Labor Union Friday, when Amazon workers voted 2,654 – 2,131 in favor of the union despite Amazon executives spending millions on a campaign to quash the whole thing. Amazon pr-union employees in other states weren’t so fortunate.
For example, workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are failing to approve a union so far. “Initial results in that election show the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union down by 118 votes, with the majority of Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer rejecting a bid to form a union,” AP reported, adding that the “final outcome is still up in the air with 416 outstanding challenged ballots hanging in the balance.”
So, why has the effort in Staten Island been so successful where others have failed. Well, Smalls said he believes one reason is that the Bessemer campaign lacked local support. This might be true, because, by all indications, the New York campaign has been a true grassroots effort that undermined Amazon’s narrative that outside “third party” groups were behind the effort to unionize, not Amazon employees.
“They were not perceived as outsiders, so that’s important,” Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements at the City University of New York, said, according to AP.
Smalls said that in March, the ALU raised about $100,000 and was operating on a week-to-week budget, which had been subsidized through community help, aid from other unions and pro-bono work from legal advisors. Meanwhile, Amazon executives had dropped about $4.2 million last year on labor consultants and the company held mandatory meetings to persuade workers that unions weren’t in their best interest.
Here’s how the ALU counteracted Amazon’s deep pockets as reported by AP:
Outmatched financially, Smalls and others relied on their ability to reach workers more personally by making TikTok videos, giving out free marijuana and holding barbecues and cookouts. A few weeks before the election, Smalls’ aunt cooked up soul food for a union potluck, including macaroni and cheese, collard greens, ham and baked chicken. Another pro-union worker got her neighbor to prepare Jollof rice, a West African dish organizers believed would help them make inroads with immigrant employees at the warehouse.
How gangsta is it that while Amazon was making it rain millions in order to quell union efforts, Smalls and his people gained an advantage by giving out free weed and serving food that makes colonizers wish they’d learned to actually do something with all the spices their ancestors appropriated?
In fact, according to organizers, the Staten Island ALU win has been so inspiring that Amazon workers from more than 20 states have reached out to learn how they can get their own union efforts off the ground. But right now, Smalls and his colleagues are focused on the daunting effort of reaching agreements with Amazon officials in labor contract negotiations.
“The number one thing is going to be fighting for the contract,” Smalls said. “We have to start that process right away because we know the longer drawn out the contract is, workers will lose hope and interest.”
It should be lost on no one that two years ago, a memo was leaked revealing that a top Amazon attorney characterized Smals as “not smart or articulate.” We all saw the remark as dog-whistle racism, but Smalls saw it as motivation.
“When I read that memo, that motivated me to start an organization,” he said, NPR reported.
And now, here we are.