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The dangerous unselfishness of the Amazon labor union leaders

Amazon distribution center union organizer Chris Smalls, wearing baseball cap, celebrates after getting the vote results to unionize workers at the warehouse on Staten Island in New York. (Eduardo Munoz Avarez/AP)
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Here’s to Chris Smalls and his best friend, Derrick Palmer.

As co-founders of the first Amazon labor union, the two 33-year-old Black men have given a much-needed boost to the labor movement in this country. And, on the 54th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., they have breathed new life into King’s last and perhaps most important speech.

“The issue is injustice,” King told the crowd gathered at Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968. He was speaking in support of striking sanitation workers, but he was also laying out a blueprint for fighting economic injustice throughout the country.

“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” King said. “Be concerned about your brother … either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

The next day, King was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Smalls and Palmer were born 20 years later. Both New Jersey natives, they aspired to become successful — as rappers or basketball players or actors. They tried community college but that didn’t work out, so they settled for just making a living, working hard for wages at Amazon’s mammoth Staten Island warehouse in New York until they could come up with a new plan.

And somehow, by the time Amazon workers had voted to form the union on Friday, both men had come to personify King’s call for a fearless commitment to economic justice.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and warehouse employees began getting sick, Smalls and Palmer could have quit their jobs, walked away and not looked back. But they stayed, and tried to help their co-workers get safety equipment and public health information from management.

In March 2020, Smalls’s efforts got him fired — supposedly for violating quarantine policy.

“My concern was us bringing this virus back to our communities and our family,” he said in one YouTube interview. Not just concern for his family or Palmer’s family. The families of all of their co-workers.

“Believe it or not, unionizing Amazon was still not on my agenda,” Smalls said in a statement that he posted online as part of his organizing efforts. “I just wanted to help inspire others to organize and demand Amazon do better.”

But that same week, Amazon’s top legal executive began a smear campaign against Smalls, attempting to portray him as “not smart or articulate,” according to a leaked email.

Smalls later said company officials “tried to demonize our character, but it didn’t work.”

Some might have decided that a public relations fight with a corporation that owned media (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post) was a no-win situation. Not Smalls or Palmer. Smalls set up a union organizing shop at a bus stop near the Staten Island warehouse while Palmer continued working — and organizing — on the inside.

“I’ve been eating and sleeping out of what I call my union van (his personal SUV) for the past 10 months,” Smalls said in the YouTube interview. “We’ve been out there organizing 10, 12 hours — I’ll stay out 24 hours if we have some kind of deadline to meet. That’s the kind of dedication it takes. When you’re going up against a trillion-dollar company, take a day off and they get the one up on you.”

The men were raising money on GoFundMe — more than $120,000 — and serving home-cooked meals to Amazon workers at the bus stop, talking to hundreds of people a day. Most were like them — young men and women of color.

Amazon reportedly spent $4.3 million last year on anti-union consultants.

I’d never heard of union organizers operating like that, so I sought insight from William Lucy, a former secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. Lucy had been in Memphis the year King was killed, also supporting the sanitation workers, who were members of AFSCME.

Smalls’s mother, a hospital worker, is a member of AFSCME.

“Taking on Amazon and winning is incredible,” Lucy said. “What Amazon will do is give their employees everything — except a voice in the process that speaks to the conditions of their work. But what good is even $50 an hour if the work conditions are going to make you age before your time? It’s significant that there was no union convincing them to organize; they convinced themselves that they needed a voice.”

A Washington Post analysis found that Amazon warehouses have some of the worst safety records of big box operations. Employees complain about low wages, lack of opportunity, racial and gender discrimination, and dangerous work conditions — pretty much the same things that caused the sanitation workers in Memphis to strike.

“These buildings are massive, almost a million square feet,” Smalls said in another interview. “Each facility would be the size of 14 NFL football fields. It was pretty much like walking the state of Rhode Island every single day. You have a gym membership? You might want to cancel it because you’re doing about 10 to 12 hours of calisthenics every single day.”

For roughly $18 an hour. (The union would like to see that rise to at least $30 an hour. Amazon tech workers can pull down as much as $360,000 a year in base pay.)

Chuck Hicks, past president of the D.C. chapter of AFSCME, was also following the organizing efforts at Amazon.

“I think it’s particularly impressive to see these young Black men realize how valuable the union is for them and also their families,” he said. “I’m sure they faced many obstacles. This was no cakewalk.”

Hicks quoted Robert F. Kennedy, also slain in 1968, to describe the mind-set behind the organizer’s achievement:

“Some men see things as they are, and say why. I dream of things that never were, and say why not.”

King had put it another way in his final speech.

“I can remember when [Black people] were just going around … scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.”

With dangerous unselfishness, Smalls and Palmer are showing the way.

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