Amazon fired him – now he’s trying to unionize 5,000 workers in New York

Christian Smalls is taking on the fiercely anti-union colossus , convinced that a union of only Amazon workers is the smartest way to rally Amazon employees

Christian Smalls has taken on the biggest challenge of his life. Still smarting from when Amazon fired him last year, the 32-year-old is spearheading an effort to unionize more than 5,000 workers at four Amazon facilities in Staten Island, including a giant warehouse.

Smalls is taking a highly unusual route in pursuing this goal; he has founded an independent union, the Amazon Labor Union, convinced that a new union comprising only Amazon workers is the smartest way to rally Amazon employees behind a union after the crushing defeat of an effort to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama earlier this year.

“I believe we’ll be successful,” Smalls said. “New York is a union town. The bus drivers, the sanitation workers, the police, the firefighters, they’re all unionized. Everybody is related or knows somebody in a union.”

But many labor experts say it’s a long shot, considering that Smalls and his nascent union have little organizing experience or expertise and are going up against a fiercely anti-union colossus with $386bn in annual revenues. Smalls’s union is getting its funding through GoFundMe, collecting just $4,500 so far.

Smalls, tall, athletic and affable with a closely cropped beard, says he has learned from the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union’s loss in Alabama. “The fact that we’ve seen what Amazon does gives us an advantage,” Smalls said. “And we learned from the union’s missed opportunities. We’re not going to make their mistakes.” Smalls promises to have a bigger, stronger workers’ committee to educate and mobilize workers to support his Amazon Labor Union.

This isn’t the first time Smalls has crossed swords with Amazon. Convinced that Amazon wasn’t doing nearly enough to protect workers from Covid-19, whether on personal protection equipment or social distancing, Smalls – then an assistant manager at the Staten Island warehouse – led a walkout in March 2020. Amazon fired him that day, saying he had violated social distancing rules. The New York state attorney general, Letitia James, has accused Amazon of unlawfully firing Smalls for speaking out on safety issues.

Several days after Smalls was fired, Amazon’s general counsel mapped out a plan – at a meeting that Jeff Bezos attended – to smear Smalls as “not smart or articulate” and to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement”.

“They said they’d make me the whole face of the union effort against Amazon,” Smalls told the Guardian. “I’m trying to make them eat their words.”

Smalls, who is African American, said the general counsel’s plan “was definitely racist”. The general counsel said he didn’t know Smalls was Black, but Smalls doesn’t believe him.

Explaining his decision to create a new union, Smalls said: “If established unions had been effective, they would have unionized Amazon already. We have to think about 21st century-style unionizing. It’s how do we build up the workers’ solidarity. Established unions don’t really know Amazon and what it is to work at Amazon. Amazon is a home base for me. A lot of people know me here. It’s helping our effort to get cards signed and people on board.”

Smalls’ effort has been joined by other activists, including Derrick Palmer, whom Amazon disciplined for joining Smalls’s Covid protest, and Gerald Bryson, a Staten Island Amazon worker who the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) says was illegally fired for leading a second protest about Covid safety.

Palmer, a packer at the Staten Island warehouse, said: “Most of the people involved with the Amazon Labor Union have lots of experience at Amazon and know what Amazon workers want.”

Even since the Amazon Labor Union’s campaign began on 20 April, Smalls has often spent 10 or more hours a day at the union’s tent, signing up workers. The tent – with a sign saying, “Sign Your Authorization Cards Here” – stands alongside a public bus stop outside Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse. To get the NLRB to hold an election, Smalls’s union will need at least 1,700 signatures (at least 30% of the workers), a total Smalls hopes to reach by late June.

A woman works at the massive Amazon warehouse on Staten Island.
A woman works at the massive Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

“Workers exercising the muscle of coming together to have more of a voice on the job and improve their workplace is a good thing, but winning an NLRB election, especially against a company like Amazon, is a really, really uphill battle,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said, “Amazon workers need unions. I hope that Chris and others around the country will be successful. We look forward to supporting them. If Chris runs out of money, we’d support them and not look for anything in return.”

First hired by Amazon in 2015, Smalls was performing so well that the company transferred him to the Staten Island warehouse to train workers when it opened in 2018. “At first I liked working at Amazon,” he said. “But that obviously changed over the years when I realized there’s some deep systemic issues with Amazon.” He said that Amazon’s injury rate is too high, that Amazon discriminates against older workers in hiring, that female workers are often mistreated, that workers are often fired when they face family emergencies and run out of time off. He also complained of racial discrimination. “I applied to be a manager 49 times and never got it,” Smalls said. “I knew there was some favoritism and racism that take place. A union could help on all these matters, Smalls said.

“Chris is very brave,” Derrick Palmer said. “All of us on the frontlines are very brave.” He added, “A lot of workers want to be in the cause, but they’re scared.”

Although the union effort is just getting off the ground, Amazon is already using many of the same tactics it used in Alabama, sending anti-union texts to workers, posting anti-union signs in bathrooms and surveilling the unionization efforts. Smalls says his union is responding quickly to what he says are Amazon’s falsehoods, such as its claim that if you sign a pro-union card, “you give up the right to speak for yourself”.

“We’re rebutting them as soon as possible,” Smalls said. “We’re publicly exposing them. We share everything on social media. Amazon has been desperate to destroy and discredit the union, and that makes them look bad. It’s backfiring on them.”

Smalls continued: “They already have anti-union signs in the bathroom and professional union busters walking around. They’re the ones overly harassing employees and scaring employees. They’re the ones taking away the voice of employees.”

Amazon didn’t respond to questions from the Guardian, which included asking it to respond to Smalls’s statements about race and age discrimination or mistreatment of women. Amazon has said: “We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment in any form.” Amazon recently announced a plan aimed at cutting injuries in half, saying, “We want [employees] to be healthy and safe.” Amazon often boasts that it has good pay and benefits and says, “We offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire.” In defending its anti-union efforts, Amazon says it’s important that employees understand all sides of joining a union.

As in Alabama, Amazon is telling workers they don’t need a union – or the burden of paying union dues. Smalls’s response: “Unionized workers make $11,000 more per year than non-union workers on average, and who cares if you pay $1,000 in union dues, when you’re making $11,000 more as a union member?”


Steven Greenhouse in New York

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'We are not robots': Amazon warehouse employees push to unionize
Workers announced launch of union push in response to working conditions as company says it does not recognize allegations

Michael Sainato

01, Jan, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
‘People feel intimidated’: the battle to unionize second US Amazon warehouse
Wages and safety concerns are behind the push but the company is fighting fiercely to defeat the union drive, workers say

Steven Greenhouse

29, Sep, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Amazon labor organizers push for second union victory in New York
About 1,500 eligible workers at LDJ5 sorting center on Staten Island vote in union ballot, after recent success at JFK8 warehouse

Michael Sainato

25, Apr, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘I'm not a robot’: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, grueling conditions at warehouse
Employees under pressure to work faster call on retail giant to improve conditions – and take their complaints seriously

Michael Sainato

05, Feb, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Blow to Amazon union drive as New York workers reject latest bid
Warehouse workers near Albany vote against forming a union by nearly two to one margin

Guardian staff and agencies

18, Oct, 2022 @4:43 PM

Article image
‘War of attrition’: why union victories for US workers at Amazon have stalled
A year after a ‘historic’ victory in Staten Island, New York, hope for a wave of union victories is looking less momentous

Michael Sainato

08, Apr, 2023 @8:00 AM

Article image
US judge orders Amazon to ‘cease and desist’ anti-union retaliation
Company must read out public notice to employees at Staten Island warehouse, which won vote to unionize in April

Michael Sainato

28, Nov, 2022 @6:10 PM

Article image
US Amazon warehouse workers prepare for historic union vote
Labor board overturned first election over company’s unfair conduct, giving workers another chance to be the first Amazon facility in US to unionize

Michael Sainato

15, Feb, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Biden gives tentative support to Amazon workers in union push
President does not mention retail giant by name but sends backing to ‘workers in Alabama’ currently voting on unionization

Lauren Aratani

01, Mar, 2021 @5:55 PM

Article image
‘We’re organizing to improve lives’: New York fast-food workers push to unionize
Manhattan-based local union that works with Fight for $15 has launched effort to unionize Chipotle and McDonald’s workers

Steven Greenhouse in New York

30, Sep, 2019 @6:01 AM