‘The revolution is here’: Chris Smalls’ union win sparks a movement at other Amazon warehouses

Gloria Oladipo
Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, helped co-ordinate the triumphant unionization effort at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, warehouse. Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

Apr. 6, 2022

Staff at more than 50 locations have contacted the organizers as a second warehouse is set to vote on a union later this month

Staff at more than 50 Amazon warehouses have contacted the organizers of last week’s historic vote establishing Amazon’s first-ever union, expressing interest in setting up unions of their own.

“The revolution is here,” said Chris Smalls, who helped coordinate the triumphant campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York.

In a win that shocked labor organizers and observers, Smalls and his co-organizer Derrick Palmers succeeded where many other attempts had failed, winning a staff-wide vote to establish the union by 2,654 to 2,131.

The union is a first for Amazon, which is the second largest employer in the US and fought hard to prevent the result. The company launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to stop their efforts, which began in March 2020 when Smalls led a walkout at a Staten Island warehouse over pandemic working conditions.

He was laid off the same day. Amazon alleged that Smalls violated quarantine requirements; Smalls says he was dismissed as retaliation for his protest.

His firing sparked widespread outrage on social media, including from political figures such as the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

Smalls went on to form the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a group of current and former Amazon employees seeking to unionize. For the next two years, Smalls and Palmer rallied Amazon workers through a series of bonfires, barbecues and other small gatherings near the warehouse. Smalls was a ubiquitous presence at the local bus stop, where he spoke to workers daily. The campaign raised money largely through GoFundMe donations, without major support from top labor organizations.

Meanwhile, Amazon escalated its own anti-union efforts, spending more than $4m to fight the campaign. Hired labor consultants delivered anti-union messages to Amazon employees, while a leaked message from Amazon executives discussing their strategy for stalling the union effort described Smalls as “not smart, or articulate”.

Amazon even had Smalls and other organizers arrested for trespassing while they were delivering food and union materials to the warehouse parking lot.

But the tenacity of the organizers paid off after workers chose to unionize by a margin of more than 500 votes, out of nearly 5,000 employees.

A second Amazon warehouse is now set to vote on its own union on 25 April. Smalls and other organizers are beginning the process of negotiating with Amazon management for a contract, and have issued a demand that Amazon desist in hiring or firing while talks continue. They also said they were talking to other groups of Amazon warehouse staff around the country, as well as employees at other businesses, about how to start unions of their own.

“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.”

[Top photo: Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, helped co-ordinate the triumphant unionization effort at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, warehouse. Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP]