- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Last April, Christian Smalls, a supervisor at an Amazon facility in Staten Island, New York City known as JFK8, was fired for organizing fellow workers. Chris was a leader, someone who trained other workers; he’d been at Amazon for years when the pandemic hit. When he felt the company wasn’t taking the necessary precautions to keep his coworkers safe as COVID rampaged through New York City, he helped stage a rally outside of JFK8 to protest the unsafe conditions. The company responded by firing him, claiming it was for violating social-distancing rules. New York State Attorney Tish James has charged Amazon with unlawfully firing Chris.
After Amazon fired Chris, Vice obtained a memo from the S-Team (the highest-level Amazon executives) relating to a meeting the team held about the situation. In that meeting, at which Jeff Bezos was present, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky said Chris was “not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position.” Chris has been focused on making Amazon regret that ever since.
In April of this year, Chris helped launch an independent union organizing effort. He is seeking nothing less than the organizing of Amazon’s thousands of warehouse workers at JFK8 and nearby warehouses. The New York Times recently published an investigation focused specifically on JFK8. It details the incredibly high rates of turnover at the warehouse, the firings-by-algorithm, the inability of workers who have been fired to even reach a human being who could explain their termination. It shows a company that is driving its workforce to despair and desperation.
Chris’s organizing effort is a long shot. Established unions with money and infrastructure haven’t organized any US-based Amazon warehouses; Chris is doing it with a few of his former coworkers and a shoestring budget. It’s about as uphill a battle as it gets.
In a recent episode of Jacobin’s new podcast on Amazon, Primer, Alex N. Press sat down with Chris to discuss his experience and recent organizing efforts.
What have you been up to over the past couple of months? I know it involves you sitting under a tent outside of JFK8, which is the Amazon warehouse where you used to work in Staten Island.
For the last two months we’ve been outside of JFK8, my former facility, organizing workers to create their own worker-led union, called ALU, Amazon Labor Union. I’ve been on the ground as the lead organizer, telling my story to the workers who just got hired this year and may have not heard what happened last year.
I’m there trying to help the organizers on the ground talk to workers and get workers to sign union cards. Right now, we’re in the beginning phase. We have to get at least 30 percent of workers to sign cards before we can file for a NLRB election — and once we get there, Amazon will probably dispute it. But I think that we have a great chance here in New York, a union town, to not only get to our election, but actually win this time around.
The Amazon Labor Union is an independent union that you and coworkers started. Tell us about it. A lot of people are familiar with what happened in Bessemer, Alabama, which was an organizing drive undertaken by an established union, the RWDSU, but this is a very different type of effort.
This is worker-led, meaning all the organizers are current workers of JFK8. I’m the only one that no longer works with the company. The rest of them are still current employees and they decided, along with myself, that this is the best route to take instead of going with an established union.
We know the ins and outs of the company. A lot of the lead organizers have been around Amazon for three-plus years — some of them even four, five, six, or seven years. They’re all seasoned Amazon workers. They’re veterans. They have a lot of influence in the building. Not only are they my former coworkers, but some of them are my closest friends. This is a different energy and we felt that this route is the easiest way to become successful after watching Bessemer.
You say it’s the easiest way. Now, obviously, this is a massive battle. Can you take us through the process? To start, these warehouses are inconveniently located, so a lot of your organizing involves you and the other organizers sitting under a tent next to the bus stop by JFK8. What does that environment look like? Obviously, people at Amazon are tired and want to go home before and after shifts.
We’re at the public bus stop right across the street. It’s actually a great location because you have to pass us when you’re taking public transit, and around 80 percent of the building takes public transit. We see a large majority of the workforce. A lot of the workers that we see used to be the employees directly beneath me, so it’s sort of like a reunion.
That’s what I mean by our approach being the easiest way. I was in conversations with a lot of these workers before I was terminated, and that helps get them on board. As far as the bus stop, it’s not like Bessemer, Alabama where the bus stop was down and around the corner. This is literally across the street. We’re visible every day. I think even management can see us from their front windows. It’s kind of fun because it’s a different energy.
A lot of Amazon warehouse workers bring up a sense of exhaustion and even at times shame about this job, because it feels useless. Those things are serious obstacles to organization, and yet you’re doing it anyway. You’re talking to workers every day now. How are people feeling and how do you overcome this sense that it’s too big a fight to win and instead inspire people to join this effort?
Small victories matter, and we’ve had plenty of them beginning last year, before we began the union campaign. We connect people with the victories we had over the year — Amazon vice presidents resigning in solidarity with workers, media attention, the public opinion of the protests we’ve held against Jeff Bezos. We’ve filed about five Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) already. Workers are seeing firsthand the strength of what a union does.
We’ve already had several different changes in JFK8 in the last two months since we’ve been there. The New York Times article that came out a few days ago was substantial because they had to remove all the anti-union stuff in the building. There was no anti-union literature inside for the last week and a half because Amazon was afraid of what was going to be in that article. We put this information into workers’ hands and they see that the strength of the union exists and is beneficial for them. It’s easier for them to sign and it’s easier for us to have that conversation.
You mention anti-union messaging. You launched this organizing effort in late April and almost immediately, Amazon started rolling out that messaging. For example, the televisions in the warehouse say “Do you know what you’re signing when you sign an authorization card?”
You’ve previously mentioned a couple of other things. For example, the fire department showed up to check permits for you outside of the facility. What has Amazon’s response been to the union effort — both at the company level but also among individual JFK8 managers? What are they saying to workers?
They are definitely not wasting any time with us. They brought the same union-busters that were in Alabama up here. One in particular, Brad Moss, has been in the building. He’s the president of TBG (The Burke Group), a labor firm. They’ve also called the cops on us. They’ve called the fire department on us. They’ve effectively tried to get us removed from the property.
It all failed because the fire department, the police, the bus drivers, and the construction workers building the Amazon facilities are all unionized. Amazon is surrounded by unions and none of them want to intervene against our efforts because they know what we’re doing is the right thing for these workers. They know the horror stories of Amazon. They know the horror stories of these workers.
It plays in our favor and backfired on the company. We were able to prove that it was a victory because unions pretty much stick together and all of them have been pretty supportive. As far as the workers being exhausted and overwhelmed by management, that’s also backfiring.
Amazon hit the ground hard drilling anti-union messaging into workers, bringing in union-busters right away. We’re only two months in, and all the things they did in Bessemer six to eight months into the campaign they’re doing to us now. The workers are asking, “Why are they doing this? If it’s really something that they don’t want it’s probably something we need.” That’s why we’re able to continue to get signatures and go in the right direction because Amazon is going too hard at the workers and we’re just taking the cool, calm, collected route. We know that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
You mentioned a specific union-buster. You visited Bessemer during the lead-up to the union vote. Is this someone that you saw there?
I didn’t see them down there, but one of the ULPs that we’ve filed is from a witness who is a part of our organizing committee. She had a conversation with Moss and he was bragging about what he did in Alabama. He said that he was the one who stopped it.
He called us black organizers a bunch of thugs and said we’re nothing but “Black Lives Matter protesters” and that in Alabama the workers didn’t want the union. He’s dividing the workers. We know that he was down there. So, another victory that we’ve had already is that we were able to sue based on the racial rhetoric he’s been spreading. Now, we believe his contract has been terminated.
You mention this guy making racist comments. When we’ve talked in the past, one of your complaints has been about racist discrimination in the warehouses, not only at JFK8. As that New York Times article shows, it’s a company-wide problem. When you were still at Amazon, what were your complaints about what you were experiencing?
Besides the working conditions, it’s definitely been the systemic racism. I was a supervisor for four years there and it was very revealing to read that article because it hit a tough spot for me. It’s frustrating because I was robbed. I applied to be a manager forty-nine times and never got it, and could never figure out why when I had all the qualifications. I did my job well, opened up three buildings, put in the work, spent so much time away from my family and kid. So, for them to have a system designed to stop black and brown people from moving up is disheartening.
It starts at the top, with Jeff Bezos himself. We already knew that there was racism in the company. Just look at the smear campaign that they wanted to wage against me last year, calling me “not smart or articulate.” This is why I have to continue to fight. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, they’re not going to do it for us. They’re not going to stand in solidarity with the black community. We’re going to have to expose all of these things and hold them accountable. That’s what we’re trying to do as well as unionizing these facilities.
People who work at Amazon have sent me stuff like “Black Power” pins that the company gave them to suggest its support during the uprising last summer. But this is a heavily black workforce that is being paid very poorly for the work they do and being managed largely by white people. It’s an egregious hypocrisy at play at Amazon.
That’s also, once again, playing into our favor. When this New York Times article came out, we were immediately putting it into workers’ hands. One of the biggest barriers when it comes to organizing is that the working class is disconnected from all the controversy. They work ten, eleven, twelve hours a day, go home to their families, have to eat, wash, rinse, and repeat. There isn’t time to tune into the media or find the labor movement. So we have to educate, give them the articles, and let them know that what they’re working for is against them.
That New York Times article was a year-long investigation specifically into JFK8 and the findings are upsetting: intentional high turnover, perpetual accidental firings, and people just being left totally in the dark and unable to talk to a human being about their job. How are people at JFK8 responding to that?
When the article came out, it was amazing because there were people who read it on the way to work and when they passed our tent, they didn’t hesitate to sign a union card. We had the article sitting on the table and had made some copies to give to workers, but they had already read it! I was passing it to people and they said “Nope, we got it!”
They were definitely struck by a lot in the article, but one thing that stuck out was the quote by Jeff Bezos basically calling the workforce lazy. He doesn’t care at all whether we stay. It speaks to how we’re looked at as nothing but profit. The high turnover is the number-one reason why we want to unionize, to get job security. So, this article is resonating with workers. It’s going to take time to get it to 7,700 workers in the area but word of mouth and the fact that we’re out there handing it out to them, blasting it on social media, is helping with our union efforts.
You’re talking about how workers are signing cards, and the fact that you’re the only organizer who is not currently an Amazon worker helps build trust. But at the same time, this is a huge warehouse, Amazon is viciously anti-union and has near-infinite resources, and it’s hard to win a union election even with an established union.
You need around 1,700 cards to reach the legal minimum of 30 percent support to file for a union election, but good practice is to get far more than that — you want the vast majority of workers before you file for a vote. How do you expect to get there?
We know the high turnover is against us, that the clock is against us. When we get cards signed, we don’t know how long these workers are going to last at Amazon. We’ve had workers sign and get fired the next day. It happens. The beauty of it is that JFK8 has been around for three years, whereas the building in Bessemer has only been around for a year.
Some of our lead organizers have been with the company for three-plus years. Others transferred from other buildings that have been around for five, some seven years. So we have a lot more worker influence in Staten Island than they did in Alabama. That plays into our favor. I’ve known these workers for years and the lead organizers have known these workers for years and are still current workers.
We have a large committee within the warehouse and we’re building it week by week. I don’t need to be out there every day. The workers are organizing themselves and that’s what we want. We want to create a snowball effect. We built our structure and have our meetings every week, and now workers are starting to take their destiny into their own hands. They’re in the building, as we speak right now, talking about the union. They’re wearing ALU shirts and masks. They’re making statements. They’re putting things on the VOA (Voices of Associate boards). They’re confronting the union busters. We’re getting all the information in real time about what’s going on in the building.
There’s a recent Guardian article about your organizing efforts in which RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum says that he supports you and that the union is happy to give you money if you run out, with nothing expected in return. What is your relationship with RWDSU? People obviously wonder why you’re doing this as an independent union effort rather than with an established union.
I was surprised when I saw that quote. I don’t know what my relationship is with that union, to be honest with you. I reached out to them when I went down to Alabama and I was kind of taken aback that they didn’t want to rally with me down there. I wanted to do a rally that was worker-led. I thought that they were making it too political. Bringing politicians like Nina Turner and Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush is good but a lot of workers at Amazon don’t know them, especially in Alabama.
I said that wasn’t going to be enough to resonate with the workers. I think that at a worker-led rally you connect people’s stories. When I went to Alabama, they hadn’t heard about New York, or about who I was. That was a great conversation to have. I got people to change their mind. I had other workers tell their stories too.
That was the connection we were trying to make: workers to workers. It seemed like the union didn’t want that. I didn’t have a great experience with the union down there, so I was kind of surprised by Appelbaum’s quote in that article. It’s good to know that they support us but I think that we’re going to stay the completely independent route.
We’re raising money with our GoFundMe. We don’t have millions of dollars but I think that the power of the workers and the people is bigger than any amount of money we could get and it’s been working so far. We need a little bit of money but we just need enough to pull off our barbecues, rallies, and events. We don’t need millions of dollars. We just need the peoples’ power and the power of the community behind us.
Have there been any discussions about Amazon rolling out its new wellness program? I’m sure you saw people making fun of “AmaZen,” and this strange phone booth–sized box they’re going to install in warehouses where you can supposedly chill out and listen to soothing noises. Is that being implemented at JFK8?
They started doing this when I was still employed. They had a rollout where you’re at your station working and a message would come up that would say, “Take thirty seconds to meditate.” Thirty seconds is interrupting my flow. When you’re working there, you don’t want to be interrupted. You want to be in your flow. You’re not even trying to think about the time. Some people cover the time on their machines because they don’t want to see it. They just want to get their shift over. To be interrupted to meditate for thirty seconds and you’re working ten hours, eleven hours is just a waste of time. A lot of workers don’t like it.
That’s what we get when you have someone making decisions for warehouse workers who has never been in that work environment and doesn’t know what we’re going through. That’s what happens all the time with this company. They roll out these different things, thinking that it’s going to benefit us, but it doesn’t. What helps workers are longer breaks, shorter workdays, having time to be with their families, higher pay, etc. These things that they’re rolling out don’t do anything. From what I’ve heard, everyone is making fun of it and doesn’t like it.
Before you were fired, you weren’t really an activist. Now, you’re spending everyday organizing your former coworkers. What do you think about what you’ve been through and what you’re doing now? How have you made sense of this transformation?
It’s funny because I say this all the time: Amazon prepared me for this. Even though I wasn’t a manager, I was doing the job of a manager for the last four and a half years. The leadership principles that I had at Amazon made it easier for me to transition over to the activism that I’m doing.
I’m using a lot of the principles that I learned at Amazon, against them. My favorite one is: “have a backbone and commit.” They hated the fact that I use that all the time. But it’s probably why I never got promoted: I had a backbone, I stood up for what I thought was right, and I’m committing to seeing change. Another principle is “see it, own it, fix it,” which is probably one of my original principles — I saw the issues, I owned up to it, and now I’m trying to fix it.
Ironically, when they planned to smear me, they said they wanted to make me the face of the unionizing effort — those were their words. So, in a sense, I’m trying to make them eat those words. I don’t have anything else to do. I’m still unemployed — I can’t really get a job anywhere. This is my full-time job, and this time I’m on a different team.