Marathon, not sprint: how Chris Smalls challenged Amazon to form an alliance | American unions

“The revolution is here,” said Chris Smalls on a cloudy morning by calling Google Meet last week.

Dressed in a black baseball cap and air capsules, Smalls spoke to the Guardian less than a week after winning a historic victory over Amazon, the second largest employer in the United States – and forming the company’s first union.

For more than two years, Smalls and his co-organizer, Derrick Palmer, campaigned to form Amazon’s first union on Staten Island.

Organizing cooking, bonfires and other small gatherings with Amazon employees, Smalls and Palmer registered more than 4,000 workers for the union vote, with employees voting to form a union with a large margin of more than 500 votes.

While the drive to form a union at Amazon officially began in March 2020, when Smalls topped the job due to pandemic working conditions, Smalls told the Guardian that problems with Amazon started earlier, with no solution seen.

When staff complained about low pay, dangerous working conditions and short breaks, Amazon’s management was complacent.

Chris Smalls and Jason Anthony turned to the media after their victory. Photo: Jason Coal / EPA

“Amazon doesn’t really know its own workers,” Smalls said. “They think we’re all stupid, they think we’re kids,” he added, noting that Amazon sometimes gives workers small treats like lollipops or cupcakes instead of meaningfully addressing their grievances.

Things came to a head when Smalls, an assistant manager at the time, organized a walk due to Amazon’s lack of personal protective equipment, social distancing guidelines and other pandemic protections. Amazon fired Smalls on the same day as the protest, claiming it violated quarantine orders. Smalls claims that he was fired for revenge, and figures such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Attorney General Leticia James criticized his dismissal.

The dismissal motivated Smalls to launch a campaign for an official union on Amazon, a chance for workers to fight the debilitating conditions that remain unresolved.

“The established unions took 28 years to merge with Amazon, and that obviously didn’t work,” Smalls said, adding that many established unions and alleged outside experts did not understand how Amazon worked – or what its employees endured.

Traditional organizing tactics don’t work on Amazon, Smalls said. The secret recruitment was a failed project, “because one worker will be here today, he won’t be here the next day,” Smalls said.

“You have to be honest and candid with this company,” he added.

Smalls is celebrating with union members after receiving the results of a vote to syndicate an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York.
Smalls is celebrating with union members after receiving the results of a vote to syndicate an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York. Photo: Eduardo Munoz Avares / AP

Attracting politicians or celebrities to gather union votes, strategies used during the failed union vote in Alabama, was also not a winning strategy, as many officials “do not even know who these politicians are,” Smalls said.

Instead, Smalls and Palmer turned to their colleagues with more mass methods, creating a collection point for a bus stop that workers use to travel home. There, they distributed food to their fellow employees – funded in part by donations from GoFundMe – and discussed the employees’ complaints.

“We are Amazon workers. We have experience. So it just worked for us, “Smalls said.

As Amazon quickly began harassing workers with anti-union messages, a move Smalls said had the opposite effect as employees felt their independent vote was targeted, Smalls and fellow co-organizers remained patient, waiting for workers to have their own. moments of realization and to register to vote.

“Once they were out of the honeymoon phase, they would come straight to the tent to register,” Smalls said, adding, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Smalls and Palmer, a 6-year-old Amazon veteran who Smalls says has significant influence in the company, also spread their union message through various social groups with demographics that Amazon’s management ignores.

To reveal Amazon’s hired unions, Smalls and Palmer printed signs such as “Most Wanted” and “Chatch a Union Buster,” announcing the name, photo, salary and location of the anti-union workers.

Meanwhile, Amazon, which has spent more than $ 4 million to stop Smalls’ efforts, is escalating its own tactics. In addition to calling Smalls “stupid or articulate” and describing trade unionists as “thugs,” Amazon ordered Smalls and other co-organizers to be arrested for violating the border while leaving food and union supplies.

Amazon officials also tried to appeal to white workers, urging unions to hold protests in addition to Black Lives Matter, according to Smalls.

Smalls also said Amazon is working with other companies, including the landowner of the warehouse and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York, to block their efforts: setting up scaffolding to stop organizers from building a tent, diverting the bus stop so that workers can. you don’t see the Smalls setting and even the bathroom code change.

“Why are you working with Amazon to break up the unions?” Smalls told Amazon contributors against the unions.

Despite Amazon’s efforts, the determination of Smalls and others paid off. In a victory that shocked labor organizers and observers, Amazon warehouse workers voted 2,654 to 2,131 to form a union for the first time.

“The employees I organize with are like my family now,” Smalls said. “Bringing them this victory is the best feeling in the world until the birth of my children.”

Smalls and other co-organizers have begun the process of negotiating a contract, demanding that Amazon not hire or fire employees while negotiations continue. With a second union vote in a separate warehouse scheduled for April 25, Smalls is ready to see another victory.

“I know what I sacrificed,” Smalls said. “I know what they sacrificed to get there.”

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