“I’m obviously physically exhausted, but mentally, this is motivating,” Smalls told The Washington Post. “I know that we have a huge battle ahead of us, so I got to get right back to it right after we file. But right now, this moment, it’s sort of like a weight lifted off my shoulders. A small one, but still a weight.”
The organizing drive follows a contested union election at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., in April. Though the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) vote failed, an NRLB hearing officer recommended in August that it be set aside and a new election held after finding that Amazon’s tactics improperly skewed election results. A final ruling on the do-over is pending. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
It also marks another milestone in “Striketober,” a moniker labor leaders have used to describe the surge in labor activism this month, including strikes by John Deere and Kellogg’s workers, and a strike authorization vote from Kaiser Permanente workers in California and Oregon. Hollywood production workers brokered a union-friendly contract Saturday night, averting a walkout.
Workers and organizers have seized on a tight labor market and simmering anger toward employers that have not raised pay to reflect, in some cases, record profits during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think all of the different forms of organizing and activity are contagious and make workers realize what they can do if they if they are willing to take action together,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “I think this demonstrates how much Amazon workers want a voice on the job and how disrespected they feel at work. They know that Amazon is making huge amounts of money during the pandemic, and they feel that they’re not treated well and that they don’t have a voice.”
Amazon is a $1.7 trillion e-commerce behemoth whose operating profits soared 33 percent, to $7.7 billion, in the quarter that ended June 30. But workers have long complained about working conditions and low pay.
ALU’s organizers are asking for pay raises “that reflect the value Amazon employees create,” according to the group’s website, along with increases to paid time off and vacation days, and better working conditions such as longer breaks, less mandatory overtime, and shift cancellations during hazardous weather conditions.
Smalls said that the organizing effort got a boost from the dozen or so “salts” on staff — union slang for organizers who apply for jobs at a facility with the explicit goal of unionizing it. Smalls said the salts came from all over the country.
The tactic, which is generally legal but not well received by many companies, can be an effective part of an organizing campaign, as potentially seasoned union hands are able to help grow a campaign from the most powerful place for an organizer — the inside.
Amazon does not think “unions are the best answer for our employees,” spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement, adding that the company has “made great progress in recent years and months in important areas like pay and safety.”
But even as organizers nationwide seize on worker frustrations during the coronavirus pandemic to spark new union and strike drives, the labor movement is haunted by the Amazon loss in Alabama, leaders say. Last week during a National Press Club appearance, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said that “the cards were stacked against us.”
That loss, Smalls said, led him and other Staten Island organizers to eschew established unions and form their own. RWDSU officials, he said, did not spend enough time building trust with workers, and attempts to bring celebrity and political attention — such as a promotional video from National Football League players and trips to rally strikers by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and rapper Killer Mike — to the union drive backfired.
“Workers see through that,” he said.
Instead, he said, he’s set up a tent by the bus stop near the Staten Island warehouses to hand pamphlets to workers. He’s also distributed free T-shirts on special occasions and shows up at the start of shifts with doughnuts and coffee. Over the summer, he held cookouts to feed workers after shifts.
“These established unions, if they had the playbook, it would have been done already,” Smalls said. “We saw that happen in Alabama this year. So why not try something that hasn’t been done before?”
Workers recognize him, too — they’re his former colleagues. Smalls was an assistant manager at warehouses in New Jersey, Connecticut and on Staten Island before he was fired early in the pandemic after organizing a protest over safe working conditions. Amazon said he was fired for violating company quarantine policies after he was exposed to a sick co-worker. Afterward, leaked meeting notes from Amazon executives described Smalls, who is Black, as “not smart or articulate,” descriptions he says are based on racist tropes.
Amazon already has taken aim at ALU’s independent structure — saying the group was ill-funded and inexperienced — to discourage workers from signing authorization cards, Smalls said. Labor leaders have similar concerns behind closed doors, wary that another loss to Amazon could spoil the movement’s momentum. Smalls said ALU organizers are undeterred, and that the independent nature of the union is an advantage.
“The energy is different. The way we organize is different,” he said. “And the way they union-bust, they have to tread lightly because they’re talking about their own workers. When you have workers representing themselves, how do you union-bust that?”
But even as ALU stressed its independence, it said it was being advised by some more seasoned union organizers and legal hands.
Seth Goldstein, a lawyer who represented two workers who were terminated in the midst of a high-profile union campaign at the tech company Kickstarter in Brooklyn, has been providing pro bono legal advice to organizers on what potentially qualifies as unfair labor practices. He said he expects Amazon to respond much as it did in Alabama.
“This is going to be a rough, rough situation,” he said.
Connor Spence, 25, is an associate, making about $18.25 an hour, who’s worked at the Staten Island facility on and off for about four years. He’s helping to lead the organizing drive, a push he said was made necessary by both long-existing conditions at the facility and some vulnerabilities that became apparent during the pandemic.
Breaks remain an issue of contention, he said, as many workers say they are often not long enough to accommodate basic needs such as using the restroom because workers navigate gigantic warehouses with tight time restrictions. Workers also don’t get enough holiday time or allowances for safety during weather events, such as Hurricane Ida, whose remnants caused flooding in New York, he said.
But overall, there is a sense that the company’s success was not trickling down to its workers, Spence said.
“It’s an extremely rich and powerful company, but workers don’t get a fair share of the value we create,” he said.