“The revolution is here,” said an exuberant Chris Smalls on a cloudy morning via a Google Meet call last week.
Clad in a black baseball cap and air pods, Smalls spoke with the Guardian less than a week after winning a historic victory over Amazon, the second largest US employer – and establishing the company’s first ever union.
For more than two years, Smalls and his co-organizer Derrick Palmer led a campaign to form Amazon’s first union at a Staten Island warehouse.
Hosting cookouts, bonfires and other small gatherings with Amazon employees, Smalls and Palmer signed up over 4,000 workers for the union vote, with staff voting to establish a union by a wide margin of more than 500 votes.
While the quest to form a union at Amazon formally began in March 2020, when Smalls led a workplace walkout over pandemic working conditions, Smalls told the Guardian that problems with Amazon started earlier, with no resolution in sight.
When staff complained of low pay, unsafe working conditions and short breaks, management at Amazon were complacent.
Chris Smalls and Jason Anthony address members of the media after their victory. Photograph: Jason Szenes/EPA
“Amazon doesn’t really know their own workers,” said Smalls. “They think we’re all stupid, they think we’re kids,” he added, noting that Amazon would sometimes give workers small treats like lollipops or cupcakes rather than meaningfully addressing their complaints.
Things came to a head when Smalls, an assistant manager at the time, staged a walkout over Amazon’s lack of personal protective equipment, social distancing guidelines and other pandemic protections. Amazon fired Smalls the same day as the protest, alleging that he had broken quarantine orders. Smalls asserts that he was fired in retaliation, and figures such as Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and New York attorney general Letitia James criticized his dismissal.
Being fired motivated Smalls to begin campaigning for an official union at Amazon, a chance for workers to fight grueling conditions that remained unresolved.
“Established unions had 28 years to unionize at Amazon and obviously that didn’t work,” said Smalls, adding that many established unions and supposed outside experts didn’t understand how Amazon operated – or what its employees endured.
Traditional tactics of organizing didn’t work at Amazon, Smalls said. Rallying staff in secret was a failing project “because one worker will be here today, gone the next day”, said Smalls.
“You need to be out front and outspoken with this company,” he added.
Smalls celebrates with union members after getting the voting results to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York. Photograph: Eduardo Munoz Avarez/AP
Bringing in politicians or celebrities to rally union votes, strategies used during an unsuccessful union vote in Alabama, was also not a winning strategy, as many staff “don’t even know who these politicians are”, said Smalls.
Instead, Smalls and Palmer reached out to their coworkers with more grassroots methods, setting up a gathering place at a bus stop workers used to commute home. There, they handed out food to their fellow employees – funded in part by GoFundMe donations – and discussed employee grievances.
“We are Amazon workers. We have the experience. So it just worked for us,” said Smalls.
Whereas Amazon quickly began hounding workers with anti-union messages, a move that Smalls said backfired as staff felt their independent vote was being targeted, Smalls and fellow co-organizers remained patient, waiting for workers to have their own moments of realization and sign up to vote.
“Once they got out of the honeymoon phase, they would come right to the tent, sign on up,” said Smalls, adding, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Smalls and Palmer, a six-year veteran with Amazon who Smalls said had substantial influence at the company, also spread their union message via various social groups with demographics that Amazon management ignored.
To expose Amazon’s hired union busters, Smalls and Palmer printed out signs with phrases like “Most Wanted” and “Catch a Union Buster,” publicizing the name, picture, salary, and location of where anti-union hires were from.
Meanwhile, Amazon, which spent over $4m to stop Smalls’ efforts, escalated its own tactics. In addition to calling Smalls “not smart or articulate” and characterizing pro-union organizers as “thugs”, Amazon had Smalls and other co-organizers arrested for trespassing while they were dropping off food and union materials.
Amazon management also tried to appeal to white workers by calling union organizing nothing but Black Lives Matter protests, according to Smalls.
Smalls also said that Amazon worked with other companies, including the warehouse’s land owner and the New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), to block their efforts: putting up scaffolding to stop organizers from building a tent, rerouting the bus stop so workers couldn’t see Smalls’ setup, and even changing the bathroom code.
“Why are you working with Amazon to union bust?” Smalls said of Amazon’s anti-union collaborators.
Despite Amazon’s efforts, the resolve of Smalls and others paid off. In a win that shocked labor organizers and observers, Amazon workers at the warehouse voted 2,654 to 2,131 to establish a union for the very first time.
“The workers that I organize with are like my family now,” Smalls said. “To bring this victory to them is the best feeling in the world, next to my kids’ birth.”
Smalls and other co-organizers have begun the process of negotiating a contract, demanding that Amazon not hire or fire any employees as talks continue. With a second union vote at a separate warehouse set for 25 April, Smalls is ready to see another victory.
“I know what I sacrificed,” said Smalls. “I know what they sacrificed to get there.”