Christian Smalls, the unlikely union leader who took on Amazon


A file photo of Smalls speaking following the April 1, 2022, vote for the unionisation of the Amazon Staten Island warehouse in New York. — AFP

In his colourful jacket emblazoned with the slogan “Eat the rich”, Christian Smalls is accosted from all sides as he walks by the bus stop where he spent countless hours trying to convince Amazon employees to form a union.

The president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which caused a stir in early April by becoming the ecommerce giant’s first union in the United States, walks the sidewalk he knows so well in a New York industrial area.

He will soon learn if, after the win at the JFK8 warehouse, he has convinced employees of the sorting center located across the street, LDJ5, to unionise. The vote took place from April 25 to 29, and the counting will begin on Monday.

“There are good vibes,” he says.

A week before the result, seasoned trade unionists want to take their picture with him, journalists assail him with questions, and members of his team ask him about the organisation.

He has just shared the podium with two stars of the American left, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and is preparing to lead a new rally.

Smalls, 33, unemployed, worked in the JFK8 warehouse until March 2020. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic, and faced with a still little-understood and devastating virus, he protested against the lack of protection and called for a walkout.

The protest did not draw crowds but it did gain attention, at least at Amazon. Smalls was fired two days later, officially for quarantine violations.

Meals, cannabis and bonfires

According to an internal memo that leaked to the press shortly afterwards, a senior Amazon official said that Smalls was “not smart, or articulate”, and that he should be made “the face of the entire union/organising movement”.

"I demonstrated that," Smalls told AFP two years later.

In the meantime, he protested outside several residences of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to defend the rights of essential workers during the pandemic.

He also went in the spring of 2021 to support activists trying to form a union at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama.

It was after that trip that he and his small team decided to try their luck in New York, on their own terms and without support from a traditional labour organisation.

Smalls became a mainstay at the bus stop, where he waited for shifts to change so he could chat with employees. Others – his friend Derrick Palmer and a few employees persuaded of the need to fight, as well as a handful of activists who deliberately got hired at Amazon to join the struggle – worked the break rooms.

They listened, tirelessly explaining what a union is, bringing in food. To reach the night shifts, they sometimes lit bonfires.

Experts on labour movements said they had little chance of success.

The team had almost no money at the outset: before the first vote, they raised US$120,000 (RM522,420) through Internet fundraising and T-shirt sales, while Amazon spent US$4.3mil (RM18.72mil) to counter their campaign.

With the help of a pro bono lawyer, they officially filed their request for the organisation of a vote after obtaining the signatures of 30% of the employees, when the traditional unions often expect to have at least 50%.

Their leader was a complete unknown.

‘The spark’

With his rapper-inspired style, the African-American activist “doesn't look or dress like a typical union leader”, said Justine Medina, a member of ALU.

But, she said, he is “brilliant, he knows how to inspire, to put people at the role they are good at, how to rally”.

All the media attention “does not get to his head”, she added, calling him “down to earth”.

He did celebrate the union’s victory on April 1, though. Smalls came bounding out of the building where the counting took place, dressed all in red from baseball cap to sneakers, before cracking open the bubbly and thanking Jeff Bezos for going into space while they were campaigning back on Earth.

ALU arrived at just the right moment. After the pandemic brought harsh working conditions for essential workers, and in the midst of inflation, employees are ready to ask for more.

And in a tight labour market, they know the ball is in their court. Starbucks, Apple, Alphabet are also facing unionisation plans.

Smalls hopes that ALU “the spark for a whole movement at Amazon”. – AFP

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