On April 1, employees at an Amazon factory in Staten Island, New York, voted to unionize.
The movement to unionize was spearheaded by two friends, Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer. Smalls tends to be the labor activist who shows up in the media after being infamously fired by Amazon in 2020 over what the company said was a disregard for covid protocol. But Palmer was in the trenches with Smalls and the two labor champions shocked Amazon and America.
On his Twitter profile, Palmer describes himself as “Vice President of Organizing for The Amazon Labor Union.” It is the first union for Amazon in the U.S.
Smalls and Palmer met when they worked at the Staten Island warehouse. Palmer still works at the Amazon JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island.
The two men spent 11 months organizing against Amazon, whose 1.1 million workers in the U.S. make it the country’s second-largest private employer, The New York Times reported. The Staten Island location has 8,000 workers. Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island runs 24/7.
Smalls and Palmer worked to get support and money to mobilize the proposed union. They spent $120,000 overall, raised through GoFundMe, according to Smalls. “We started this with nothing, with two tables, two chairs, and a tent,” he recalled. Amazon spent more than $4.3 million just on anti-union consultants nationwide in 2021, according to federal filings.
Getting the union up and running was basically a two-man battle.
“It was just a combination me and Derrick on the inside-outside game: you know, me at the bus stop connecting with workers, earning their trust, building relationships; Derrick actually inside the building, talking to workers every day in his department, taking over his old department. You know, things like that helped us get us to this point,” Smalls said in an interview with Democracy Now.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Derrick,” Smalls added. “You know, Derrick was — at that time, I had no vehicle. Me and Derrick, we live in the same neighborhood, close proximity of the same neighborhood in New Jersey. And we were riding to work every day, and every day I noticed somebody in my department was becoming ill, whether it was dizziness, fatigue, vomiting. They weren’t — something was wrong. It was a very eerie situation in the building. We didn’t have any PPE. We didn’t have any cleaning supplies. We didn’t have any social distancing. Amazon wasn’t really enforcing any guidelines. Everything was just hearsay.”
It was a struggle and at times, they questioned if they should continue, according to Palmer.
“Yeah. You know, at first, it was like — it was very discouraging, hearing that Chris got fired, just for doing the right thing, for standing up for all of us,” Palmer said. “So I had a tough decision to make. And at the time, there wasn’t a lot of jobs available. So I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to make it my business to organize from within at JFK8.’ And I feel like that played a vital role.”
Palmer said he made it his business to talk to workers. “You know, a lot of workers were talking about Chris, being scared about the coronavirus, and then ultimately speaking up about the coronavirus because of what happened to Chris and other organizers that were terminated. So I made it my business to talk to them, to ease that tension, to still let them know that — you know, what I feel was illegal. So, you know, just organizing within building, building relationships with other workers, making them comfortable, and just playing that role until we were ready to unionize. And I think that played a key part to our victory on April 1st.”
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The union was formed to get Amazon workers better working conditions, higher salaries, and employee benefits.
“Well, just having better benefits, better pay, you know, like sick time. Those are the basic things,” Palmer told Democracy Now. “Also, job security. You know, Amazon has a 150 percent turnover ratio at JFK alone. So, people that come and commute from all these different boroughs, their jobs should be secure. It shouldn’t take them three hours to get to work, and then, when they get there, they could possibly be fired.”
Palmer talked about the importance of stewardship in an environment where the chances of getting fired are very high.
“You know, the possibilities of that are very high,” Paler said. “So we have to make that change, and also recruiting more workers to get involved with the union, becoming shop stewards. So we want to have shop stewards in different departments so that we have workers representing other workers and that we can create an environment where our demands and the workers’ needs are appreciated. So, if you have these workers on the inside being more involved with the union, then now you create a powerful force that ultimately can’t really be stopped, and Amazon has to abide by these rules.”
Photo: Derrick Palmer, left in pink, and Christian Smalls, right, celebrate getting the votes to unionize the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, N.Y., April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)