September 22, 2023
Jeff Bezos in a gray suit speaking on stage

"Daniel Oberhaus, 2019"

Not only did Smalls and his Amazon Labor Union take on the beastliest of corporate behemoth, they did it all by themselves. Rather than choosing to partner with an established union, as other recent labor movements have chosen to do, Smalls and his compatriots chose to form a completely independent coalition. Amazon raked in over $3.7 billion in revenue in 2020. Amazon Labor Union (ALU) raised a tick over $120,000.

Amazon is the most valuable company in the world and the largest private employer in America. Founder Jeff Bezos has a net worth of nearly $190 billion. His multinational corporation has deep roots in nearly every sector of the global economy. From supply chain logistics, to critical cloud computing – after partnering with Bezos’ Blue Origin, Amazon is even becoming a key player in outer space.

Being so critical to the digital and supply chain infrastructure has enabled Amazon to build an extremely lucrative and powerful empire, and in a workers’ rights fight this empire is quite formidable. So many were surprised when, despite a $4 million dollar campaign from Amazon to quash their efforts, a diverse coalition of amateur unionists took on the tech titan – and won.

Led by organizer Christian Smalls, employees at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island successfully voted to unionize Friday after an 11 month effort, which Amazon often aggressively opposed.

Conflicts between corporations and workers trying to unionize are by default contentious. Even the most experienced union leaders typically face an uphill battle, and this was no typical battle.

This was like a modern day David v. Goliath… if it was directed by Quentin Tarantino. Not only did Smalls and his Amazon Labor Union take on the beastliest of corporate behemoths, they did it all by themselves. Rather than choosing to partner with an established union, Smalls and his compatriots chose to form a completely independent coalition made up strictly of Amazon workers from JFK8.

Like David, ALU’s disadvantages were quite clear – they had minimal experience and a budget of only $120,000. But the first Amazon workers union in the country was still able to use the small range of tools at its disposal to hit the corporate giant right between the eyes.

In 2020 Amazon raked in $3.7 billion in revenue. Christian Smalls says since starting the Amazon Labor Union nearly a year ago he’s raised a little over $120,000.

Amazon deployed their considerable resources in the form of union-busting consultants, spending over $4 million on corporate agents tasked with addressing dissent. ALU spent their money on homemade baked ziti, beef patties, and a wee bit of ganja.

Jokes aside, this labor movement succeeded largely thanks to the dedication and strategy choices made by ALU founder Christian Smalls.

Smalls was an Amazon employee at the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island in 2020. He was fired following a walk-out he led demanding better health/safety conditions at the onset of the pandemic. Amazon implied his dismissal was for ‘breaking Covid protocols”

After Smalls’ walk-out Amazon informed him he was in close contact with a co-worker who had tested positive for Covid-19 and he was mandated to quarantine. He was the only employee who attended the protest who was asked to do so. Amazon’s official statement was “We fired Mr. Smalls for putting the health and safety of others at risk, and violations of his terms of employment.”

Internal company documents obtained by The Intercept note the company’s Human Resources Department anticipated Smalls’ firing would be viewed amongst workers as retaliation for his protest.

Amazon’s general counsel David Zapolsky suggested to his friend Jeff Bezos they center their union-busting messaging campaign on Smalls because he is “not smart or articulate.”

Those words might haunt him forever, as they may have been the catalyst the labor movement needed – a truculent Smalls kicked it into overdrive, employing Amazon’s tactics against them, revealing the identities of their double agents, and staging massive organizing campaigns.

Smalls often spent 10+ hours at the union’s labor tent outside of the Staten Island warehouse, feeding workers and encouraging them to sign up for the union. At one point Amazon had him arrested for trespassing.

Despite the uphill battle, JFK8 voted 2654 to 2131 in favor of unionizing, a historical feat.

Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse and campus in Staten Island

In the short term, the move means the workers will be allowed to collectively bargain for things like better wages, improved benefits, more optimal hours and longer/more reasonable break times. Amazon has incurred plenty of public scrutiny for the way they treat their employees, especially with the use of their state of the art digital monitoring tools.

Going forward JFK8’s triumph could be the beginning of an even larger victory for workers’ movements worldwide.

Smalls says he’s had up to 70+ warehouses in the US and in other countries like India and South Africa contact his Amazon Labor Union about forming an ALU chapter.

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