By COLIN STAUB
Workers at Amazon’s JFK8 distribution center on Staten Island made history on April 1 this year, when they became the first unionized Amazon center in the United States. Amazon Labor Union (ALU) founder Chris Smalls says most major media outlets had pre-written the story of the union effort failing and had to rewrite it as the votes came in. So how did a few workers form a union and win an election, beating the second-largest company in the United States, a company owned by the world’s third richest man?
ALU president Smalls and vice president Derrick Palmer had a simple answer when they addressed attendees at the Portland Jobs with Justice annual dinner Oct. 6. It took time, sacrifice, and 300 days at a bus stop on Staten Island.
ALU now represents more than 8,300 workers at the JFK8 distribution center on Staten Island.
Smalls and Palmer shared their story in off-the-cuff remarks during the dinner, and fielded questions from the audience.
CHRIS SMALLS: We didn’t know what we were going to start when we first started out. We didn’t want to unionize. We weren’t union organizers. We were just ordinary people.
I was a supervisor, four and a half years. Derrick is still employed there, six and a half.
We just wanted to do the right thing, not just for ourselves but everybody around us at work, to make sure we get home safe to our families. Amazon dropped the ball on that. They ignored the PPE [Personal Protective Equipment like masks, when COVID hit]. We were deemed as “essential workers,” and it didn’t make any sense to us how we were being deemed as “heroes” when we’re not protected ourselves.
So we took a stand. On March 30  we walked out. Two hours after that I was fired, over the phone.
A week after I was fired, Jeff Bezos himself along with his general counsel, David Zapolsky, they all sat in a room and had this smear campaign, calling me not smart or articulate. Also, they said to make me the face of the whole unionizing effort against Amazon. Great idea.
At that moment, we formed our organization, the Congress of Essential Workers. We traveled the country for the first year, going to every Jeff Bezos mansion that we could find on Google.
Alabama was starting their campaign [in Bessemer, with Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union (RWDSU)]. We went down there. We learned some things, we learned some do’s and don’ts. Some opportunities, with the union, without the union, and we decided to come back home to Staten Island.
We started on April 20, 2021, the Amazon Labor Union. We sat outside of JFK8. Two tables, a tent, and a couple of guys. And we started signing workers up for this independent, worker-led union.
I spent over 300 days at a bus stop, talking to workers day and night, hot or cold. Derrick was inside the building. I don’t know how hard it is to become a worker-organizer for Amazon, but I can tell you, this dude, he definitely knows.
To be an organizer at Amazon, or anywhere, you’re being demonized, you’re being attacked by the propaganda, they got $10,000 union busters walking around spreading rhetoric and hatred, and racist remarks. Calling us a bunch of thugs, and calling us nothing but Black Lives Matter protesters. Calling us a bunch of things that obviously will create that hostile work environment.
To defeat the odds that we did… the $4.3 million [Amazon spent on anti-union consultants in 2021], myself being arrested along with other organizers, the amount of times they called the police on us… The over 3,365 captive audiences that they put the workers in. All of that, and we proved with the Amazon Labor Union on April 1, 2022, that no matter how much money, no matter how much anti propaganda y’all have, the power of people when they come together? You can’t defeat that.
That’s the basis of our story. The bottom line is for any industry, no matter where you work, we’re the ones that represent our communities, not these corporations. We know our people better than they do. Amazon don’t know their workers. They don’t know the two and a half hour commutes that we endure, working multiple jobs. Jeff Bezos is not cut from the same cloth as me. We can’t sit in the same room. People ask me that question: “What would you say to him?” I’m like, what is there to say? Take care of your employees? Take care of your employees is the bare minimum he could do.
What we have to do right now as the working class, is we all have to come together. The only thing we can do is withhold our labor, so I’ve been calling for that general strike. All the unions here? Prepare yourselves. We got time. But the window of opportunity is going to close on us. Right now numbers don’t lie: Unionizing in this country is up 70%, right? Because we did that work. So we gotta remind the boss every day, who’s really got the power. And if they forget, you know what we got to do, right? Shut that shit down.
DERRICK PALMER: To go from that walkout to becoming the first unionized Amazon in the United States, is still unbelievable to this day. The amount of work that we put in for this movement, it was a lot. Myself working 10 hours, organizing inside the facility, then going outside to meet my brother across the street in that tent every day. It was an amazing time. It was hard, but we got it done. Amazon doesn’t know how much work we put in. They don’t know their own workforce. All they know is that they feel like they’re on top and we’re at the bottom. But I tell you what, with a union, everyone is level, and workers now are inspired.
Amazon will never be able to understand their workers, and they will never be able to understand the amount of work that we put in. So I think right now, this moment in the labor movement, the fact that we have the first unionized Amazon, we have Starbucks growing, we have Trader Joe’s, I think it’s time that we capitalize off this moment and know that there is no turning back. Established unions, the independent unions, we’ve got to come together and we’ve got to do a general strike.
It’s been a rough journey. And it’s only the beginning. The ALU virus is spreading all throughout America, and there’s nothing Jeff Bezos can do about it.
What advice would you give to someone who’s brand new to organizing, knows nothing about organizing and is taking their first steps?
CHRIS SMALLS: This is a marathon, not a sprint, and as a new organizer, you’re going to have days where you’re going to take some losses. You’re going to have days where you may not get one card signed. We had those moments in our campaign. You know, we had days where workers would just walk past us, laugh at us, you know, say what are we doing out here? We had workers walk past us for two to three months, wouldn’t even take a pamphlet. But the thing about being an organizer, I think the best accountability is availability, it’s just being there when the workers are ready. So even two or three months later, when that worker went to work, and that manager got on their ass for being late? We were there with that union card saying, “We got you.” So it’s always about being there for when the workers are ready. You got to commit yourself for a long marathon fight.
Where do things stand with contract negotiations and actually getting to a tentative agreement?
CHRIS SMALLS: For the last couple of months, we’ve been in court with Amazon back and forth. They filed 25 bogus objections, all shot down. We successfully defeated them in court. Two weeks ago, the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] ruled in our favor. They dismissed all their claims. So now we’re waiting for our final certification. Once we get that final certification, we’re going to file for a motion to bring Amazon to the table right away. So that’s where we stand as far as that. We can’t do anything until we get that certification stamp by the NLRB, which we’re hoping we’ll get in the next couple of days or weeks. As soon as we get it, I promise you I’m calling my lawyers and I’m saying file that motion to bring them to the table right away.