“He’s not intelligent or articulate.”
A top Amazon lawyer used those terms to describe former warehouse worker Chris Smalls.
Smalls had led a walkout at the start of the pandemic in 2020 to protest working conditions at the warehouse where he worked on Staten Island, New York. On the same day, he was sacked.
A few days later, the document with those stinging sentiments was released. Smalls, on the other hand, would remember the words. They became the fuel that propelled him to lead one of the most dramatic and successful grassroots labour campaigns in recent history.
“When I read that memo, it inspired me to start an organisation,” said Smalls, who was celebrating the Amazon Labor Union’s historic victory on Friday, which made the warehouse Amazon’s first unionised workplace in the United States.
Friday’s victory would come almost two years to the day after he was fired.
Amazon stated at the time that Smalls had broken quarantine and safety regulations. Smalls, on the other hand, claimed he was fired in retaliation for his activism. The New York attorney general launched an investigation, sued Amazon for the incident, and even attempted to rehire Smalls.
Smalls didn’t sit still after being fired, and he quickly founded the Amazon Labor Union.
Meetings at a bus stop, barbecues, and GoFundMe funding Smalls had no union background and relied on no established labour groups for funding and organising power.
Instead, he used GoFundMe to raise funds for the operation. Smalls and his co-founder Derrick Palmer, who is still employed at the warehouse, contacted his coworkers.
Workers congregated at the bus stop where they boarded the bus. They’d wait there to talk to workers on their way home from work. They’d light a bonfire and serve s’mores to get people talking. Workers were invited to cookouts.
“We hosted over 20 barbecues, giving out food every week, every day, whether it was pizza, chicken, or pasta,” Smalls explained. At several of these meetings, he even brought home-cooked food from his aunt.
They talked to workers about battling for their rights, about the arduous toll of the job, about how you’re on your feet for hours, performing really repetitious, physically demanding work. Concerning the infrequent and excessively brief pauses.
No one anticipated this scrappy grassroots campaign to triumph over the big corporation. A initial attempt did, in fact, fail. Smalls, on the other hand, persisted, eventually reaching the 30 percent threshold required to hold a vote.
Smalls was arrested by Amazon for trespassing.
Meanwhile, Amazon spent millions of dollars on labour experts to combat the union initiatives. The corporation arranged forced meetings with warehouse workers to persuade them to vote no.
Earlier this year, Amazon arrested Smalls and two other organisers for trespassing as they were delivering food and union pamphlets to the warehouse parking lot.
Amazon’s argument to employees is that it is already a great place to work in the absence of a union. It provides competitive pay as well as generous benefits such as health care coverage for full-time employees and college tuition reimbursement.
Smalls’ efforts, on the other hand, were clearly fruitful.
Almost 5,000 workers voted, and the vote to form a union was won by a large margin — more than 500 votes.
Amazon sought to diminish the union movement two years ago, when the company announced that Smalls would be “the face of the entire union/organizing movement” as part of its public relations strategy.
That is exactly what occurred. Smalls, on the other hand, has become the face of one of the most successful union drives in recent history.
Amazon has also suffered a humiliating defeat.
“Amazon doesn’t become Amazon unless people help it,” Smalls said. “And we’re the ones who make Amazon what it is.”
Editor’s note: Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR and also distributes some of its content.