NEW YORK — Chris Smalls spent most of the last 11 months in a tiny tent across the street from Amazon’s Staten Island 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center, where he was fired after protesting the company’s lack of protections during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, Smalls, 33, stood in front of a phalanx of reporters and television cameras in the red sweatsuit that had been his uniform during the campaign to unionize Amazon’s first warehouse in the United States. The reporters wanted to know how he felt, what demands the new union would make of Amazon, what message he had for the company’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, who also the owns The Washington Post.
“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space,” Smalls said, “because when he was up there, we were signing people up.”
A few seconds later, Smalls turned serious, noting that a leaked email from an Amazon executive in 2020 described him as “not smart or articulate.” They said they wanted to make him the face of the union campaign, saying that workers wouldn’t want to follow his lead and that he would fail. “They called us a bunch of thugs. They tried to spread racist rumors,” he said. “Tried to demonize our character, but it didn’t work.”
Smalls’s appearance in the immediate aftermath of the resounding 2,654-to-2,131 victory — a 523-vote winning margin — drove home a big reason for the success of a campaign that almost all seasoned labor experts and union officials said would fail. The workers saw Smalls and his small band of volunteer organizers as authentic. Smalls, blunt, unorthodox and sporting a grille of gold teeth, was one of them.
Almost all the workers who came out to celebrate the victory complained of the harsh conditions at the Amazon facility: the low wages, the lack of job security, the absence of sufficient air conditioning in the summer, the constant monitoring of their productivity and the short breaks. But the union’s main draw, the workers said, was that it was founded and run by people like them who often spent their afternoons and evenings with Smalls in his tent across from the warehouse.
“After I would finish my shifts, I’d be so hungry, they would give out food and doughnuts,” said Tristan Dutchin, 27. “They were really down to earth. I was going through some crazy treatment inside of Amazon … they go through the same excruciating treatment.”
Dutchin came to hear the vote count with Karen Ponce, 26, another worker and union supporter who commuted two hours each day with him from Brooklyn to the Staten Island facility. Ponce said she didn’t initially support the union because she was afraid she might get fired, but was motivated to join after her sister was dismissed from the company for an unexcused absence and Ponce was given disciplinary write-ups for taking too many bathroom breaks and for not working quickly enough.
“They wrote me up for not keeping up their exploitative pace,” she said.
In a statement Friday, Amazon said that it may file objections to the outcome and that it was disappointed in the results “because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.”
Previously, the company has said it fired Smalls for violating coronavirus protocols. And the company has defended its safety record, particularly during the pandemic.
As Smalls and the Staten Island workers were celebrating their success on Friday, a larger, better-funded effort to organize a union at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., was failing for the second time.
The Alabama union effort employed scores of paid outside organizers who didn’t work for the company and didn’t always understand the workers’ struggles, said Derrick Palmer, who had been with Smalls since the earliest days of the effort. The Staten Island effort relied on only 24 volunteer-worker organizers, all of whom were Amazon employees.
“This proves our method is a better method,” Palmer said. “You got to be on the inside. You got to understand these workers all the way.”
Within an hour of the victory, most of the reporters who had come out to document the union victory had left. Smalls, Palmer and a few Amazon employees stood in the cold outside the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office where the votes were cast.
Palmer checked the GoFundMe that they had been using to run the union campaign. It was up to $54,818, about $20,000 more than the day prior. “Someone just donated $5,000,” he said.
The donor, Hasan Piker, was a well-known Twitch streamer, YouTuber and political commentator who hailed from New Jersey just like Smalls and Palmer. But Palmer said he had never heard of him. “I’m going to have to look him up,” he said.
A few feet away, Smalls was fielding congratulatory phone calls on the surprise win.
“We made history,” Palmer said. “This is one of the proudest moments of my life.”
After the victory, Amazon’s lawyers, who were watching the vote count, reached out to shake his and Smalls’s hands, a move that Palmer said took him by surprise.
Soon he and Smalls and their still-fledgling and underfunded union, which was borrowing office space from a local branch of the Unite Here union, would be negotiating a new contract with them on behalf of thousands of fellow workers who wanted better pay, a more forgiving sick leave policy and a less oppressive system for monitoring their work.
“There’s got to be some pressure,” Palmer said of his feelings. “But our confidence is going to push us through.” The area outside the NLRB building was now cold and mostly empty. Palmer was scheduled to be at work the next day at 7:15 a.m. but was planning to take a vacation day.
He needed some time to process the win. And he wanted to celebrate.