‘Eat the rich’: how the workers took on Amazon, and won
Chris Smalls galvanised a nationwide union battle against the US’ biggest corporation. Now this new grassroots movement, spearheaded by minority communities, is spreading beyond the warehouses.
29 Nov 2022
Chris Smalls walks into Manhattan’s Union Square for Labour Day demonstrations and immediately commands attention. Standing tall at six-foot-two, wearing his Yankee cap, pair of Jordans and bright red jacket embroidered with unabashed ‘EAT THE RICH’ badges, Smalls cuts a larger-than-life character.
Aged 32, and born and bred in New Jersey, Smalls has been catapulted to celebrity status for being behind what some have called “the most important labour victory in the US since the 1930s”.
Anyone attempting to galvanise a nationwide union battle against America’s biggest corporation – Amazon (employer of over one million workers in the US alone) – inevitably takes on this role whether they like it or not. “I’m damned if I do, I’m damned if I don’t,” says Smalls.
On 1 April 2022, an Amazon warehouse located on New York’s Staten Island, known as the JFK8 facility, became the first to officially unionise against Amazon in a historic upset vote. The ballot saw 2,654 workers to 2,131 vote in favour of organising.
“It was one of the best feelings of my life, next to my kids’ birth,” Smalls recalls. “To know that all our hard work and sacrifice had paid off, it was definitely a great feeling.”
The fact that such a small campaign operating on minimal crowdfunding and quite literally organised from a Staten Island bus stop, could take on a global corporate giant in only 11 months, was previously unthinkable. Especially given that Amazon poured $4.3m into anti-unionisation efforts in 2021 alone.
More than just an employee-employer dispute, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) struggle has come to represent a microcosmic stress-test for contemporary capitalism itself. With a tight labour market after Covid-19, 2022 has seen workers across the world increasingly aware of their own leverage. They’re declaring that enough is enough after years of disenfranchisement and declining wages amid a growing cost of living crisis. In the UK for example, which is witnessing the highest inflation rates since the 1970s, nurses have voted to strike for the first time in their history; while planned strikes by civil servants, postal workers, university staff and rail workers suggest the country is heading into a ‘Winter of Discontent’.
With Americans likely to pay the most in 25 years to stay warm this winter against an energy supply crisis, tensions have spread across sectors. Union election petitions in the US increased by 57% in the first half of 2022, taking place at some of the country’s most recognisable private sector corporations: Apple, Google, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Most recently, thousands of Starbucks workers at over 100 branches striked on ‘Red Cup Day’. This month, one of the largest US railroad unions voted to strike just before the holidays.
“The working class can only really rely on itself”Chris Smalls
Smalls is perhaps the most recognisable face of this movement from 2022 – fresh from a past characterised by older, white union leaders. With fascination for his Versace garms and ‘union drip’ – an aesthetic that emerged from New Jersey’s hip-hop scene in the early 2010s, and now a popular hashtag on Twitter – Smalls has been forced to handle a cacophony of in-depth profiles from the front pages of New York Magazine to TIME‘s most influential people of the year.
Yet Smalls is down-to-earth, relaxed and generous. He talks about his three children, two of whom are twins, and discusses his upcoming trip to London to meet UK Amazon workers. Still, he maintains he’s “here to represent the workers. This is not about me.”
ALU’s journey kicked off on 30 March 2021 when Smalls orchestrated a walk-out of around 60 workers from the JFK8 facility during the peak of the pandemic to demand safety provisions and hazard pay. “Our Health is Just as Essential,” read Smalls’ placard.
While the average real wages of Amazon workers fell from $21 an hour in 2000 (adjusted to inflation), to just $15 an hour today amid a cost of living crisis, Amazon’s profits soared by 220% during the pandemic.
Within two hours of the walk-out, Smalls was fired by Amazon over the phone and without warning. Amazon justified his dismissal on the grounds he had broken Covid-19 social distancing protocols – the very reason the walk-out was staged in the first place.
Tensions further escalated when details of a meeting between Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos and general counsel David Zapolsky were leaked to VICE News, which advised that Smalls should become the “face” of the workers’ movement, given he is “not smart or articulate”. The idea was that it would play conveniently into Amazon’s hands.
Amazon’s plan backfired spectacularly. “From that moment on, I pretty much founded the ALU,” Smalls says.
What followed was an 11-month campaign ending in the March 2022 victory. Its success can largely be accredited to this “new school” mode of organising adopted by Smalls and the ALU-JFK8 team. Instead of a ‘top-down’ bureaucratic organisation led by figures from the major unions, this new movement is grassroots, spearheaded by minorities and with women playing key roles.
Social media platforms like TikTok and WhatsApp have also reshaped organisation through live stream communication. A group called Gen Z For Change encouraged a coalition of influencers with a combined following of over 51 million to withdraw business from Amazon until it meets the ALU’s demands.
“Everyone thinks we had these thousand-dollar tactics, but we were just being ourselves”Angelika Maldonado
The ALU’s experimental strategy has confronted a void in the US labour movement that has existed for years. “Sometimes big unions will only take on new shops if they’re in the sector they’re interested in, or if they’re the size that makes it worth their investment,” explains a leader of the Democratic Socialists of America’s EWOC (Emergency Workplace Organising Committee).
The ALU-JFK8 team, by contrast, engaged with individual workers on the shopfloor, one conversation at a time. Angelika Maldonado, a 27-year-old mother of one and a JFK8-ALU worker tells gal-dem: “Everyone thinks we had these thousand-dollar tactics, but basically we were just being ourselves.”
Crucially, Smalls and the ALU team set up a base at the bus stop immediately outside the facility where after shifts workers could “learn about each other” and “build camaraderie”, says Maldonado. They played music, shared food and had bonfires. They all chipped in when their co-workers needed taxis for hospital appointments. They confided in each other about work grievances, creating trust and loyalty for the ALU’s committee.
“We couldn’t afford basic needs,” Smalls explains. “Even buying lunch everyday, paying for transportation, you know it all adds up… the cost of living in New York and New Jersey – forget about it. I had to have a second job at an NFL stadium on top of my full-time Amazon job.”
Given Amazon’s 150% turnover rate with workers, and a policy that (only until recently) prevented workers from gathering on site for longer than 15 minutes before or after shifts, the bus stop played a pivotal role towards organisation.
The ALU also made specific efforts to engage the diversity of workers at JFK8, Maldonado explains. Spanish-speaking members, for example, were assigned to speak with the Latine workers. They would give out “free food reflecting the culture of the workers”, like African-fried rice, a much needed extra in times of skyrocketing inflation. Where 58.4% of the US’ Logistics and Warehouse Sector is made up of Black and Hispanic workers, this cultural sensitivity brought workers on side.
Yet the most important factor is that the workers lead themselves – no political parties, no “third party” mediators or baron union leaders susceptible to collaboration with big business, as in America’s past.
“The working class can only really rely on itself,” says Smalls.
It’s not just taking place at Amazon. “We’ve been contacted by every building in the country for Amazon and overseas as well,” Smalls explains. “Workers in other industries from Walmart, Target, Dollar General, Apple and Google… a lot of people are paying attention to what we’re doing because they want to organise.” Clearly, 2022 has marked a sea-change.
Can the ‘new school’ continue to hold momentum?
The ALU has suffered some recent setbacks, including the failed campaign in Albany last month where workers voted against unionising. This was “a sham election”, Smalls declared in his public statement, the result of corporate “intimidation and retaliation”. Nevertheless, the ALU has managed to propel confidence for a nationwide labour movement, with recent gains in southern California, where workers at a Moreno Valley warehouse petitioned to form a union with the National Labour Relations Board.
One major challenge has been Amazon’s large-scale union-busting efforts since the original JFK8 victory. The company has offered pay rises to workers refusing to unionise. Amazon has even taken on the National Labor Relations Board itself in order to overturn the JFK8 outcome (in an attempt that has recently failed).
“The irony is that with just one million of the $4.3m Amazon spent on union-buster salaries, the company could have paid their own workers $30 an hour,” Smalls says.
Overall, the question is whether this year’s ALU victory is indicative of a sustainable, long-term structural change in the labour movement. Judging by the modest crowds at September’s Labour Day protests, this looks unclear; yet it was telling to overhear discussion of a “general strike” in the works for 2024 – the year of the US’ next presidential election. Recent polls have shown that 71% of Americans approved of unions earlier this year – the highest level since 1965. And although Amazon plans the largest lay-offs in its history, in November a federal judge ordered Amazon to stop firing workers for organising.
For Chris Smalls, whatever the setback, persistence is key – a core component of this “new school” militancy. “Keep building from within, talk to workers everyday until they’re ready to strike – whatever we can do to help, we will.”
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