KP Jones / Bloomberg via Getty Images; Craig Rudd / AB
Chris Smalls is the president of the newly formed Amazon Workers Union.
It was Behimot’s first American union, and was born on Friday after a dramatic and unexpected victory by a rock-bottom grassroots movement over the Amazon.
At the center of the campaign was Smalls, who was fired from his job at the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island at the start of the epidemic in 2020 – the same day he walked out on security conditions.
His co-star in the organizing movement is his friend Derrick Palmer, who currently works at the warehouse. Together, the two will lead a union representing about 8,300 workers working in the same warehouse.
In a conversation with the NPR on the Twitter space, Palmer and Smalls talked about their backward journey and the response of workers across the country. Event highlights and edited excerpts are here.
“You kindled a fire under me. I want to unite my building.”
Smalls: I read an email I received from a woman last night. I’m not going to say the name of the building yet, but in Sacramento, California, basically a 24 year old woman emailed me last night and told me. She said … ‘You are kindling a fire under me. I want to put my building together. ‘
We get emails like this, you know, of course they greet us, but most of them say: You encouraged me. I want to merge. How do I get involved? How to start a new chapter?
So we are in touch with more than 50 buildings … I am talking about 50 different buildings across this country, not only in this country but also abroad in South Africa, India. Canada has approached us, the UK. So the world is definitely focusing now and these workers are focusing now, which is the best thing possible, because that is what we plan to do. Like the Starbucks movement, we want to spread like wildfire across the country.
“If I can lead us to victory over the Amazon, what’s stopping anyone in this country from organizing their workplace? Nothing.”
At the Twitter space event, a worker and organizer who identified himself as Ryan with the International Union of Painters and Allied Businesses called the union’s victory over Amazon a “watershed moment.” He asked: “What message are you telling millions of workers across the country, or do you want to be in a union now, but have not had the opportunity or the opportunity? Can you tell them what they can do?”
Smalls: If I could lead ourselves to victory against Amazon, what would stop anyone in this country from organizing their workplace? Nothing. You know, people have to get out of that mood, oh, I’m quit my job. Because when you leave your job, what do you guess? They hire someone else. So you jump from one fire to the next, and doing so will not fix the system.
Craig Rudd / AB
So we, the working class, must realize our value. If we do not go to work, these CEOs will not make money. So, wherever you work in this country, if the workers realize what you are doing, you will realize that you can create something that can be collectively negotiated. I think this is what we saw on April 1st – we were able to share this experience with the world and let everyone know that any ordinary person can eliminate the most powerful company or retailer, big or small.
“2 tables, 2 chairs in the tent”
Little ones: We have no plans. We do not have a sports book. Just knew we were doing something. We know what we need to do … but you’re talking about a few. We are talking about four people who started this. Two tables and two chairs in the tent. And it was. We started registering people. We say, you know what? We are going to register people for this union and see where it goes.
On an established union fighting to organize a warehouse in Alabama
Palmer: We actually went to Alabama and we noticed some things about how they ran a campaign. First, you know, they’m an established union of a certain number of Amazon workers, they’re really organized. So we feel that they are not really interacting with the workers. I feel this is essential for a union campaign, you need to talk to these workers, you really need to understand their pain and what they are doing.
So, we felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities – they were just, not really interacting with the workers as we thought. Just because you have an election coming up does not mean they will win. You still have to engage with them on a consistent basis. So we knew, they seemed unrelated.
So, you know, when we took our corporate initiative, we decided that Amazon workers should organize other Amazon workers … we knew we had to have an unusual approach.
Small: Amazon has been around for 28 years. You know, that’s all. These established unions had 28 years to try. We did it in 11 months.
“We have a regular life, partying, going to work … people who have a habit of doing what ordinary 30-year-olds do.”
Little ones: We lived our normal lives, going to work every day, going home, watching games. We have no intention of doing any of this. That is the honest truth of God.
Palmer: You know, we were regular guys at regular life, partying, going to work and coming home … what normal 30s people do is Amazon really motivated us to get to where we are now. Who knew Amazon would have treated us right? Instead of listening to our concerns, during epidemics, they decided to take their own stand. In the end, I feel like they paid the price … so it set them back. They tried to silence me, Chris and all the organizers and everything they tried to do was act against them.