The Amazon Labor Union Took On America’s Most Powerful Company—and Won

In 2020 Chris Smalls was fired for organizing a walkout in protest of Amazon’s COVID safety procedures. Now he’s the president of the first Amazon union in the country.

Christian Smalls only got two hours of sleep the night before the vote count began, but he was on track to pull off one of the biggest upset victories in the history of the American labor movement, and he was cracking jokes.

Smalls, the president of the Amazon Labor Union, had just stepped out of the National Labor Relation Board’s regional office in downtown Brooklyn. Upstairs, in a windowless room, six lawyers representing Amazon, one lawyer representing the union, and a few observers from both sides watched NLRB bureaucrats hand-count thousands of union ballots. Only a few hours into the ballot count, the union was leading Amazon 738-600. 

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“I love watching their lawyers squirm up there,” Smalls told me. “They’re drinking mad water right now, so I love it.” 

The unionization effort at JFK8, New York City’s giant Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island that employs 8,300 workers, was only the second election at an Amazon warehouse in the U.S. Amazon defeated the first effort, in Bessemer, Alabama, handily. Few people from the organized labor movement expected the scrappy independent ALU to succeed, because of its lack of experience and funding, the warehouse’s size, and Amazon’s aggressive campaign to stop it. 

After the first day of counting ended with the union leading Amazon 1,518-1,154, I met workers at one of their campaign outposts, an unassuming art gallery next to a barber shop in East Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Most of the workers were in their early-to-mid 20s and many identified as leftists, including communists and anarchists. Some organizers were eating bodega sandwiches, others danced to Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” and drank mango White Claws. A few hours in, Smalls drove up in his black Chevy Suburban, and the room erupted into cheers. 

“This just feels like the greatest victory I've ever been a part of,” Julian “Mitch” Israel, the union’s 22-year-old field director and a native of Park Slope in Brooklyn who got a job at Amazon in Staten Island in early 2022 after reading an article about Smalls in the socialist magazine Jacobin, told me. 

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The next morning, April Fool’s Day, the union’s lead continued to widen, at times by more than 500 votes. A little after noon, the election had been called in favor of the union. The final tally: 2,654-2,131—a winning margin of 523. ALU had become the first union in U.S. history to successfully win a campaign against Amazon, the country’s second-largest and fiercely anti-union employer. 

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The union spent only $120,000 raised on GoFundMe, according to Smalls. Last year, Amazon spent more than $4.3 million on anti-union consultants nationwide, only a part of the total cost of its anti-union campaign, which included fliers, banners, Instagram and Facebook ads, mailers, brochures, text messages, videos, and legal representation from several of the nation’s leading anti-union law firms. 

When the final vote was counted, the scene outside the NLRB’s office exploded in celebration. Workers jumped up and down, embracing, and chanting “ALU.” Dozens of reporters and observers with cameras, notepads, and cell phones out scrambled on top of each other for a piece of the action. 

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Smalls, in a red sweatsuit and red Yankees cap, popped a bottle of champagne, telling reporters: “We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space, because while he was up there, we were signing workers up.” Amazon workers burst into cheers. 

"How many tables has Jeff Bezos flipped today?” Brett Daniels, a JFK8 worker and ALU organizer, asked his co-workers. 

News of the union’s victory traveled quickly on social media to Amazon associates working the conveyor belts at the Staten Island warehouse. “Everyone in the warehouse knew immediately,” one worker organizer who was on shift but used PTO to leave the warehouse after receiving the news, said. “I got fist-bumps and handshakes.”

“This is an astounding result,” said John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University. “Amazon is the most important company in the global economy and it’s the most fearsome anti-union company in terms of its wealth, sophistication, and its efforts to keep unions out. With ALU, it also does seem to turn all of the conventional organizing wisdom on its head. They did it without a huge union or experienced organizers.”

Nearly exactly two years earlier, in late March 2020, New York City descended into the darkest moments of the COVID outbreak. ICUs filled to capacity and hundreds of New Yorkers died each day. Smalls, an aspiring rapper and JFK8 process assistant, led a small walkout in protest of Amazon’s COVID safety procedures. Days later, he received a termination phone call for violating the company’s quarantine policies. 

Chris Smalls leads a protest and walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30, 2020 in New York City. Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In a memo obtained by VICE News that circulated to then-CEO Jeff Bezos following the walkout, an Amazon executive wrote of 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.” 

In the following months, Smalls and a group he subsequently formed called the Congress of Essential Workers traveled across the country to lead protests outside Bezos’ mansions and penthouses in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and Beverly Hills. The protest outside Bezos’ $23 million residence in Washington featured a guillotine. At some of these protests, only a handful of people showed up. In early 2021, an inspired Smalls and some of the future Amazon Labor Union organizers also traveled to Bessemer, where the first Amazon union election in U.S. history was underway. 

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Smalls grew up in New Jersey, and was first hired as a picker at the launch of an Amazon warehouse in Carteret, New Jersey, in 2015. In 2017, he left behind family and friends for an opportunity at a new Amazon warehouse in Windsor, Connecticut, with the expectation that he would be promoted. 

“Within the year, I was terminated for allegedly stealing two minutes of company time,” Smalls wrote in an email to JFK8 workers on the eve of the election. At least 5,600 people read the email, sent in both Spanish and English, according to the union. “After being out of work for six weeks, I was reinstated when they realized that they had made a mistake: I never stole any time, to begin with.” (Emphasis his.) He later transferred to JFK8 in Staten Island after its grand opening in 2018, but he continued to face difficulties getting promoted. 

The path to ALU’s successful campaign, one of the most significant labor victories of this century so far, is highly unorthodox and will be debated, scrutinized, and studied by labor scholars and organizers for years to come. We don’t know how exactly ALU and Smalls, who only a month earlier was carried off JFK8 in handcuffs by the NYPD, did it. But 21 interviews with ALU leaders, rank-and-file members, labor experts, and ALU’s attorneys detail a yearlong battle between one of the most powerful companies in the world and a group of people who wanted to make it a safer, more fair place to work.    

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“I don’t have a vendetta against Amazon; they have one against me,” Smalls wrote in the email to JFK8 workers. “My only intention has always been to make sure that everyone is taken care of and protected. I grew tired of seeing this company fail us. I grew tired of seeing good people come and go.”

Pandemic heroes, struggling to live

The working conditions at Amazon that sparked organizing have been chronicled in dozens of investigations and reports: Amazon cutting off COVID pay two months into the pandemic, skyrocketing injury rates, a lack of transparency about COVID outbreaks in warehouses, firings by algorithm, grueling productivity quotas, no time to use the bathroom, and constant surveillance. Starting pay at JFK8 is $18.25 an hour, a wage many workers at the warehouse cannot afford to make ends meet with. In June, Motherboard covered the story of an Amazon warehouse worker at JFK8 who sleeps in her car and showers at Planet Fitness because she cannot afford rent in New York City. Last week, a pro-union JFK8 worker said he was voting for the union to “get back on my feet,” after being evicted. 

Amazon warehouse workers also commute many hours to JFK8, some from as far as Jamaica, Queens and Pelham Bay, Bronx. "Me and a group of seven girls commute from the last stop on the 6 train in the Bronx," a JFK8 warehouse worker told Motherboard in June. "Our commute is 3 hours and 15 minutes, and no, Amazon does not reimburse us or acknowledge that."

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For nearly a year before the election, Smalls and his best friend, Derrick Palmer, ALU’s vice president, both 33, camped out under a tent near the S40/S90 bus stop outside JFK8, which sits on a massive logistics complex on the outer marshlands of eastern Staten Island. They collected thousands of union authorization cards from workers between April and October 2021. 

Smalls barbecued and passed around platters of seafood ziti, potato salad, pizzas, hamburgers, and hot dogs, and, at one point, free pot. Workers set up chairs and played the guitar during the night shift. Some days, the tent attracted hundreds of workers who stopped by for food during shift change while organizers agitated them about their working conditions and passed out union literature. The literature included leaflets about how many thousands of dollars Amazon’s anti-union consultants were getting paid per day,  surveys that asked workers to rank their priorities, and news articles printed out from the internet. The articles included stories about Amazon doubling base pay for corporate employees, the city of Rotterdam dismantling a historic bridge so Jeff Bezos’ yacht could pass through, and a Motherboard report that Amazon’s anti-union consultants in Staten Island called organizers “thugs.”  

In May, Amazon installed a chain-link fence that blocked the area where the union had set up. "We had our tent set up at a nice location where we could interact with workers who are coming on and off the bus to and from three different warehouses," Palmer told me in May. "Because of the fence, we had to move to an area where we're only able to interact with workers from one facility.” The MTA also temporarily moved the bus stop, padlocked the adjacent bathroom, and installed security cameras. 

In October, ALU filed for a union election at JFK8 and the surrounding complex of three smaller Amazon warehouses, which employ more than 10,000 workers, but withdrew its petition after the National Labor Relations Board said the union needed more signatures to qualify for an election, a moment that many ALU members now say was a point where they thought the union campaign would fall apart. 

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But Smalls was committed to getting enough signatures to qualify for an election, and switched his strategy to focusing on two warehouses, JFK8, the city’s only Amazon fulfillment center, and LDJ5, a sortation center. Smalls and other organizers would camp out at JFK8, sometimes for 36 hour stretches, to collect union authorization signatures during multiple shifts of workers pouring in and out of the facility. 

The labor board requires unions to collect authorization signatures from at least 30 percent of eligible voters to qualify for a union election. Both warehouses successfully met that threshold in early 2022, and organizers say at that point, workers at the warehouses began to take ALU more seriously. LDJ5 will hold its election in late April. 

ALU also briefly tried knocking on the doors of associates’ residences, but abandoned that strategy after feeling like it “wasn’t resonating with workers.” In 2020, the union that organized workers in Alabama came under heat after losing the election for not conducting house visits. Professional union organizers, such as Jane McAlevey, have frequently said “successful campaigns require house calls—unannounced physical visits to workers’ homes so the conversation can be had away from the company’s watchful eye.”  Yet, ALU succeeded without using these and other traditional organizing methods such as structure tests that gauge and track participation. 

Smalls says he barely slept for weeks at a time. Although he no longer works at JFK8, there hasn’t been a day in months when he hasn’t stood outside agitating workers about their working conditions. 

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Many key people in ALU’s effort had no prior experience with unions. Karen Ponce, a 26-year-old Brooklyn native who worked at a Popeye’s before starting at JFK8, said all she knew about unions at first is what Amazon said about them in anti-union propaganda, but it didn’t take her long to realize that Amazon could treat its workers a lot better. She specifically cited her long, expensive commutes to JFK8, and Amazon’s habit of hiring up for the holiday season, then firing workers for minor infractions, like coming back a few minutes late from a bathroom or lunch break. In November, Ponce joined the union and enlisted as ALU’s secretary.

Karen Ponce. Image: Pieter Colpaert

“We were there in the pandemic, and during that time, oh, we were such great heroes, and essential. They made these massive profits and it's like, what about us?” she said. “We're still struggling to live. Jeff Bezos goes to space. He has a yacht and all of these great things, but what about your workers? He loves his customers, he loves himself, but who’s going to speak for the workers?”

Angelica Maldonado, a 26-year-old packer from Staten Island and the chairwoman of the ALU organizing committee, spent nearly all of her free time in recent weeks camping out near at the warehouse, aiming to talk to at least 10 new workers a day, and targeting shifts where the union felt support was weak. 

“People really appreciate the thought of food, especially from their culture,” said Maldonado, who is half Barbadian and half Ecuadoran. “Once we started bringing in African rice and empanadas, I had new moms and aunts. That must have been when things really started resonating. We were really thoughtful. If you show people you’re really on their side, they won’t disappear on you.” Lots of people at JFK8, she said, “can’t afford lunch every day.”

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Organizers told Motherboard that during phone-banking, they contacted every worker on a list provided by Amazon at least once, and roughly 60 percent of workers indicated strong or moderate support for the union. They then went through the list a second time targeting undecided voters. 

Workers queue to cast their vote to unionize, outside an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island on March 25, 2022. - Under hazy skies and in the calm of morning, workers waited patiently in line outside the JFK8 warehouse Friday for a say on whether to establish Amazon's first US labor union. Image: ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

“You got to chip away at people; you can’t just expect them to flip on the first conversation,” Cassio Mendoza, a 23-year-old Amazon warehouse worker at JFK8 and ALU organizer, told me at the victory party. 

Another important tactic, organizers said, was getting process assistants (PAs), workers who essentially lead their teams, on the side of the union, because they were often seen as leaders and had close relationships with management. “We thought the PAs were a lost cause. But if you get PAs on your side, then that hurts Amazon,” Maldonado said. “At the end, we had PAs wearing ALU shirts.” 

Even some of the workers at JFK8 who wore anti-union “vote no” shirts weren’t really against the union, according to Maldonado. “There were a lot of people saying, ‘We’re just wearing this shirt because it’s free and so we don’t get our nice clothes dirty,’” she said.

How Amazon’s anti-union strategy backfired

Few people in organized labor took ALU’s campaign seriously at the start, but once they say that they had qualified for an election, an enormous feat at a warehouse of JFK8’s size and turnover rate, the established labor movement began to lend a hand. UNITE HERE offered up its offices in Manhattan and United Food and Commercial Workers provided its Staten Island union hall for phone-banking. Workers also phone-banked at the campaign’s headquarters, a worker’s apartments near JFK8 in Staten Island. Near the end of the campaign, a veteran former United Food and Commercial Workers union organizer, Gene Bruskin, who helped organize a successful union drive at a 5,000-worker Smithfield plant in North Carolina in 2008, one the highest-profile union battles of the past 50 years, offered unlimited free Zoom consultations for ALU workers. “We wanted him because he organized a Smithfield plant of our size and won,” Mendoza said. 

Seth Goldstein, a staff attorney for Office and Professional Employees International Union, got involved early, offering his pro bono legal services to ALU and filing more than 40 unfair labor practice charges on behalf of the union with the national labor board against Amazon since last May.

Many of the organizers had also studied American labor history, in particular, tactics used by militant labor organizers in the sit-down strikes of the 1930s and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which later became the CIO in the AFL-CIO. A favorite piece of literature among some ALU organizers has been “Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry,” a 1936 pamphlet about tactics for organizing unions by William Foster, a former leader of the U.S. Communist Party. 

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“There’s a lot of practical advice in it,” said Mendoza. “Foster writes that ‘every effort must be made to draw the widest possible ranks of the workers into the activities of the leading, decisive committees.’ That was pretty much our strategy the whole time: Put workers in the driver’s seat on decisive committees, not on bullshit committees.”

Eventually the organizing committee swelled to some 100 Amazon associates. Many of its leaders had worked at Amazon for years, making them veterans at a company with 150 percent annual turnover, according to a New York Times analysis

ALU has said that it would fight for a $30 minimum wage, two paid 30 minute breaks, abolished mandatory overtime, and more paid time off. On April 2, a day after the union declared its victory, it sent a letter to the general manager of JFK8 demanding to “immediately meet with Amazon.com Services LLC to commence collective bargaining” in early May. 

“We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” Amazon said in a statement in response to the union’s victory.  “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”

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Labor experts say that Amazon could challenge the results of the election and stall on contract negotiations. 

“​​I would be surprised if they don't challenge it,” said Frank Kearl, a staff attorney at Make the Road New York who represented an ALU organizer who was fired during a 2020 walkout. “This is a company that challenges unemployment insurance applications for people who got fired because they needed to use the bathroom too much because they were pregnant. For them, time is also a weapon and they can delay the certification of the results. They can delay the negotiating process. They can delay, delay, delay.” 

Amazon has sought to crush unionization campaigns for years, considering organized labor an existential threat to its business, which prides itself on “customer obsession” and getting millions of items of merchandise delivered to customers in two days or less. It has spared no expense in its fight against unions across the world, including hiring Pinkerton operatives—from the notorious spy agency known for its union-busting activities—to gather intelligence on warehouse workers.

In the final days of the union campaign, Amazon bombarded its warehouse workers with anti-union propaganda, including flyers, mailers, Instagram ads, Facebook posts, brochures, videos, phone calls, posters, mandatory meetings, a website, text messages, and notifications on Amazon’s AtoZ app, the platform its workers use for scheduling. The resounding message was “Vote No.” Motherboard published a non-exhaustive survey of this material. 

“I did think we were going to win but then they chipped away at our support over the last couple of weeks. They were going hard,” Mendoza said. “Workers who have been organizing for months, all of a sudden they’re sitting next to me like ‘I don’t know what to think… it just seems like so much negativity.’”

“The propaganda they spread, the lies they spread about me, personally, you know, using smear campaigns and letters and stuff. It was ridiculous,” Palmer said.

“Amazon has spent millions on millions of dollars trying to stop the ALU,” Smalls wrote in his email to JFK8 workers. “It would take only a fraction of that to pay every JFK8 worker $30 an hour. It is easy to see why this has not happened yet. Amazon has always put profit over people.”

Leading up to the election, Amazon also called the NYPD on Smalls, resulting in the arrest of Smalls and two other workers who were delivering lunch to workers on Amazon property. In leaked audio of anti-union meetings, Amazon’s anti-union consultants threatened its workers that they could make the minimum wage if they voted to unionize.

“A PA who hated my guts, who yelled at me in the cafeteria when organizing to get signatures months ago, as soon as they saw the arrest they said ‘That’s not right.’ He said, ‘We’re not going to let that happen,’” Brett Daniels, a JFK8 warehouse worker and ALU organizer, told me. Daniels said that the PA has been organizing for the ALU every day since, even on his days off.  

After learning about the ALU drive last year, Daniels, an Arizona native and self-identified communist who was working at an Amazon warehouse near Phoenix, moved across the country, signed a lease on an apartment in Staten Island, and got a job at JFK8. Since then, his house has been an unofficial campaign headquarters, where workers have phone-banked, strategized, and slept in-between. 

Following the unfair labor practice charges that Goldstein filed, the board found that Amazon had illegally confiscated and told workers they could not distribute union literature and surveilled workers’ unionization efforts. According to a federal complaint, Amazon’s anti-union consultants at JFK8 said in May that the ALU union drive would fail because union organizers were “thugs,” and said it would be “futile” to vote for a union because a union would “never happen here.” 

At a party celebrating the ALU's victory, Chris Smalls's younger brother Demetris gifts him a framed early sign Chris made when first protesting covid conditions at JFK8. Image: Lauren Kaori Gurley

“I think that Amazon’s anti-union meetings backfired,” Goldstein told Motherboard after the union’s victory. “I think workers didn’t want to be told how to vote and they didn’t like to see their coworkers threatened or arrested. That was a major error by Amazon.”

"I’ve been outside of JFK8, every day, for eleven months and counting,” Smalls said in his email to JFK8 workers sent on the eve of the election. “I’m one of you still, although I no longer work inside the building. From Tier 1 to Tier 3, I know exactly how it feels. I know the good and bad days. I know the long commute on the bus from New Jersey, 3 hours each way. What else I know is that Amazon doesn’t keep its promises. Having a backbone and committing to one of their ‘principles’ will get you terminated. Look on the walls of the warehouse and you will see ‘work hard, have fun, and make history.’ For Amazon, that is a myth. But building the Amazon Labor Union has proven that their slogan can be true."

“LDJ5,” Palmer said when I asked him what’s next. “We got another election coming up in a month.So we're going to celebrate tonight and then get back to work tomorrow.”

Tagged:

JFK8, Amazon labor union

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