Photo of Chris Smalls following the w:Amazon Labor Union winning its vote. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

VERY few expected them to win, but the fight for US Amazon workers to unionise was won last Friday by just a handful of employees. Warehouse workers cast 2,654 votes, about 55%, in favour of the union. This marks the first successful US organising effort in the retail giant’s history, and many will say it’s not before time.

The battle to unionise Amazon workers in New York had been going on for nearly two years. In October 2021, the newly-formed Amazon Labor Union – which has no backing from any established union – filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a union election for two Amazon facilities on Staten Island but later withdrew the request because it didn’t have enough signatures. The union refiled in December, focusing on just one site, the JFK8 warehouse, which had been the site of worker protests and walkouts during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The man who led the fight

It was at this site that the man who led the fight to unionise, Chris Smalls, had worked. Smalls had been employed by Amazon since 2015, first in their warehouse in Connecticut and then on Staten Island, where this historic battle was won. Despite apparently being transferred to Staten Island for his good performance, Smalls was rejected 49 times for management positions which he believes was indicative of the systemic racial discrimination he observed in the company.

He organised a walkout on March 30, 2020 in protest at Amazon’s safety protocols at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, after an ill colleague was allowed to come to work with symptoms while waiting on the results of a COVID-19 test. He challenged the company’s personal protections and lack of social distancing and alleged that Amazon failed to disclose a worker’s COVID-19 illness to the workforce. Smalls had been exposed to the confirmed case on March 11, 2020, but was not notified until March 28, 2020, which prompted him to file a complaint with the New York State Department of Health. Yet Amazon then claimed it had fired Smalls for “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk” and not for the walkout over safety issues. 

Amazon obviously thought little of Smalls and his abilities to organise, as was evident when leaked notes surfaced. Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, in notes from a meeting of top executives obtained by Vice, wrote: “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.”

Zapolsky added: “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organising movement”, undoubtedly thinking this would somehow prejudice people against Smalls and his efforts to unionise.

Bernie Sanders tweeted at the time: “It’s disgraceful that Amazon, which is owned by the richest man in the world, is not only failing to protect its workers but has now fired a worker for protesting dangerous conditions. I stand with Chris and all Amazon workers fighting for their safety.”

I hope that everybody’s paying attention now because a lot of people doubted us

Chris Smalls, after winning historic vote to unionise

This victory cannot be overstated; the independent ALU won, with no backing, against a retail giant. A giant that is none too happy with the outcome. In a statement posted on their company website after the workers’ victory, they said: “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.” I have a feeling they mean ‘best for us’ but have it your way Amazon, because now the workers are having it theirs.

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