NEW YORK — Chris Smalls emerged from the office of a federal regulator on Friday, clad in a red sweatshirt and Yankees hat, and triumphantly popped a bottle of champagne.
“Words can’t describe this feeling,” he said.
Thousands of workers at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse on Staten Island voted to join the Amazon Labor Union on Friday, marking the first U.S. Amazon warehouse to vote to join a union in a federally recognized election.
It was a momentous moment — not only had Amazon workers voted to join a union but they also voted to join the independent effort organized by Smalls. The Amazon Labor Union, which Smalls formed after he was fired from the company, is not backed by any national union with a depth of resources and connections. Instead, it’s made up almost entirely of current and former Amazon workers with an upstart mentality and an inside view into how Amazon operates.
“We had over 20 barbecues, giving out food every single week, every single day, whether it was pizza, chicken, pasta, home-cooked. We all contributed giving out books, literature, giving out free weed because it’s legal,” he said, laughing, on Friday outside the National Labor Relations Board office. “We did whatever it took to connect with those workers to make their daily lives just a little bit easier, a little bit less stressful.”
Smalls, interim president and lead organizer of the Amazon Labor Union, started working for Amazon in 2015 and moved to JFK8 from another warehouse in 2018. After a co-worker tested positive for the coronavirus in March 2020, Smalls organized a strike at the warehouse.
Smalls, who lives in Newark, felt as though Amazon was not taking precautions to keep his co-workers safe as the coronavirus rampaged through New York. Amazon fired him that day, claiming that he was violating social distancing rules.
Since then, Smalls has become one of the most vocal advocates for Amazon workers’ rights — and a thorn in the side of the massive e-commerce company.
The win Friday came as a surprise to many who had cited the difficulties of organizing a large union-opposed company like Amazon, especially by an independent, nascent union.
“It’s really a jaw-dropping result,” said John Logan, chair of the labor and employment studies department at San Francisco State University. “There really is no bigger prize for unions than winning at Amazon, and the fact that no one thought the ALU had a chance really makes it even more incredible.”
In April 2021, Smalls, now 33, helped launch the independent union effort, seeking to organize the thousands of Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island. After starting the Amazon Labor Union, Smalls became the poster boy for the opposition against Amazon.
He was a former member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters before joining Amazon, as well as a rapper early in his career before giving that up to support his two children.
He decided to make this union independent and worker-led, as he felt that it would give him the best odds against Amazon.
For the last 11 months, he has spent most of his days outside the JFK8 warehouse, handing out food to workers before and after their shifts and collecting signatures for the union, he said. The union is seeking a $30-an-hour minimum wage and better working conditions, longer breaks and better transportation to and from the Staten Island ferry dock.
He’s not done yet. The union will need to bargain a contract with the company, and the ALU is organizing a second Staten Island warehouse. That smaller warehouse will hold an election at the end of April.
In 2020, Amazon’s top legal executive suggested the company’s senior leaders fend off workplace safety criticism by trying to turn the focus on Smalls.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky wrote in an email. In a statement at the time, Zapolsky called his comments in the leaked email “personal and emotional.”
Smalls addressed the Amazon executives who tried to discredit him during his victory speech Friday.
“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.”
Lerman contributed reporting from California.