The Amazon Labor Union scored a momentous victory Friday, giving organized labor its first entry into the e-commerce giant’s U.S. operations thanks to the New York warehouse and the efforts of former employee Chris Smalls.
Employees at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, voted on April 2 to join an upstart labor union in a historic decision despite the efforts of one of the world’s largest companies to stop them.
Many of the employees at the facility are predominantly young, Black, Latino, working-class, and urban.
There were 2,300 yes votes versus 1,855 no votes for the Amazon Labor Union. If the vote sticks and Amazon does not have the result overturned, the company will have to start contract negotiations with its workers.
For more than 25 years, Seattle-based Amazon has managed to keep unions out of its U.S. operations.
Smalls, 33, led the New York effort to unionize after workers filed a petition requesting an election to form a union outside the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional office in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Oct. 25, 2021, Al Jazeera reported.
“Chris Smalls, fired from Amazon almost two years ago to the day, just popped champagne outside the NLRB offices where he and his peers won one of the greatest labor victories in a generation,” tweeted Pulitzer prize-winning NY Times investigative reporter Jodi Kaulitzer @jodikantor.
Smalls and his friend Derrick Palmer, who currently works at the JFK8 sorting facility, and a handful of others kept the pressure on Amazon to unionize.
Among the workers’ demands are giving hourly workers Amazon stock and raising pay to $30 an hour compared with the current average starting wage of $18 an hour. They also want better working conditions including two paid 30-minute breaks and an hour-long, paid lunch break, as well as transparent promotion policies.
“This is a huge shot in the arm for the entire labor movement,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University. “This is going to inspire workers, not just throughout the U.S. In people’s eyes, Amazon and Walmart are interchangeable as the biggest private-sector employers that everyone thought couldn’t be beaten. It takes one of the biggest and says you can organize anyone.”
Smalls has been battling Amazon over workers’ rights since 2020, when he worked at the Staten Island facility. When colleagues began showing up with covid-19 symptoms, Smalls helped organize an employee walkout there. Amazon told Smalls to stay home because he had possibly been in contact with an infected colleague. But Smalls showed up for a rally and Amazon fired him. This prompted him to file a lawsuit alleging racial bias in Amazon’s covid safety protocols. The case was dismissed.
Smalls continued to protest at the facility and was arrested and charged with trespassing, resisting arrest, and obstructing governmental administration.
“Imagine you have to go against Amazon& NO FIREPOWER. This guy has to go against Amazon& all the Democrats and Republicans kissing on Amazon. He has to go against white and the Black leaders working in stealth for these BIG corporations. Amazon is all up in the WH. FULLY HEDGED,” tweeted The Moguldom Nation CEO Jamarlin Martin (@JamarlinMartin).
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Bezos was concerned by Small’s efforts and reportedly tried to discredit him. In a leaked memo of a meeting, a top Amazon attorney described Smalls to executives, including Bezos, as “not smart, or articulate.” The company sought to create a media narrative around Smalls to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
Smalls said, “Ironically, he said to make me the face of the whole unionizing effort, so I said, ‘OK, that’s a good idea.’”
In a March 2022 interview, Smalls said, “I’ve been dealing with this machine for so many years, almost seven years now. If you’re stressed out and on edge, you’re gonna make the wrong decisions. So you just gotta keep the cool, calm and collected route.”
Other Amazon facilities have tried to unionize as well. A facility in Bessemer, Alabama, tried in 2021 to unionize and failed when the vote fell short, The City reported.
Staten Island warehouse union organizers say this is just the beginning. There’s a second union vote scheduled soon for a warehouse across the street from the first one and the union wants to organize other warehouses in the region.
“I think this is going to be another tidal wave of, you know, efforts going against Amazon, just like Starbucks. You know, we hope that we have that type of effect,” Smalls told NPR.
Photo: Chris Smalls (left), president of the Amazon Labor Union, joins supporters at the Amazon distribution center in the Staten Island borough of New York, Oct. 25, 2021, as he holds “Authorization of Representation” forms that were earlier delivered to the National Labor Relations Board in New York. Union organizers have delivered more than 2,000 signatures to federal labor officials in a bid to unionize workers at Amazon’s Staten Island distribution center. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)