Chris Smalls is president of the newly minted Amazon Labor Union.
It is the behemoth company's first U.S. union, and was born on Friday after a dramatic and unexpected victory over Amazon by a ragtag grassroots movement.
At the heart of the campaign is Smalls who was fired from his job at the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 — the same day he had organized a walkout over safety conditions.
His co-star in the organizing drive is his friend Derrick Palmer, who currently works at the warehouse. Together, they will lead a union representing some 8,300 workers who work at the same warehouse.
In a conversation with NPR on Twitter Spaces, Palmer and Smalls spoke about their underdog journey and the response from workers all over the country. Here are highlights and edited excerpts from the event.
"You guys lit a fire under me. I want to unionize my building"
Smalls: I'll read you one email I got last night from a woman. I'm not going to say the building name yet, but in Sacramento, California, basically a 24-year-old woman emailed me last night and told me. She said...'You guys lit a fire under me. I want to unionize my building.'
We've been getting emails like that, you know, of course they're congratulating us, but most of them are saying: You guys motivated me. I want to unionize. How do I get involved? How do I start a new chapter?
So we have been contacted from over 50 buildings ... I'm talking about 50 different buildings all over this country and not just this country, even overseas in South Africa, India. Canada has reached out to us, the UK. So the world is definitely paying attention now and these workers are paying attention now, which is the best thing possible because that's exactly what we plan on doing. Just like the Starbucks movement, we want to spread like wildfire across the nation.
"If I can lead us to victory over Amazon, what's stopping anybody in this country from organizing their workplace? Nothing"
A worker and organizer, who identified himself as Ryan with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades was in attendance at the Twitter Spaces event and called the union's victory over Amazon "a watershed moment." He asked: "What message do you have for the millions of workers across the country who want to organize right now or, you know, who want to be in a union, but either can't or haven't had the opportunity, what would you say to them, what can they do?"
Smalls: If I can lead us to victory over Amazon, what's stopping anybody in this country from organizing their workplace? Nothing. You know, people got to get out of that mentality of, Oh, let me just quit my job. Because when you quit your job, guess what? They hire somebody else. So you're jumping from one fire into the next, and the system doesn't get fixed by doing that.
So we, as workers, the working class, we got to realize our value. If we don't go to work, these CEOs don't make their money. So if workers can realize that no matter where you work in this country, what you're doing, then you will realize that you can form something that can collectively bargain. That's what I think we witnessed on April 1st — we were able to share this experience with the world and let everybody know that any ordinary person can take down the most powerful company or retailer, or whatever, no matter how big or small.
"2 tables, 2 chairs in the tent"
Smalls: We didn't have no plan. We had no playbook. We just knew that we were doing something. We knew what we wanted to do ... But you're talking about a handful of people. We're talking about four people that started this all. Two tables, two chairs in the tent. And that was it. We started signing people up. We just say, You know what? We're going to sign people up for this union and see where it goes.
On the established labor union that is struggling to organize a warehouse in Alabama
Palmer: We actually went down to Alabama and we noticed a few things about how they ran a campaign. First of all, you know, they're an established union with a limited amount of Amazon workers that are actually organizing. So we feel like they didn't really have that one-on-one connection with the workers. And I feel like that's vital to a union campaign, that you need to talk to these workers, you need to really understand their pain and what they're going through.
So we felt like there was a lot of missed opportunities — just them, like not really communicating with the workers as much as we thought they should. Just because you have an election coming up doesn't mean they're going to actually win. You have to still engage with them on a consistent basis. So that made us feel like, you know, they were kind of like out of touch.
So, you know, when we took our organization efforts on, we just decided that, you know, Amazon workers need to organize other Amazon workers...we knew we had to have an unorthodox approach.
Smalls: Amazon's been around for 28 years. You know, that's it. These established unions had 28 years to try. We did it in 11 months.
"We were just regular guys with regular lives, partying, going to work ... doing what normal 30-year-olds do"
Smalls: We were just living our normal lives, going to work every day, just going home, watching sports. We had no intentions of doing any of this. And that is the god-honest truth.
Palmer: You know, we were just regular guys with regular lives, partying, going to work and coming home...doing what normal 30-year-olds do. Amazon pretty much motivated us to get to where we are now. And you know, who knows if Amazon would have treated us right? Instead of listening to our concerns, you know, during the pandemic, they decided to take their own stance. And ultimately, I feel like they paid the price...So it backfired on them. Everything they tried to do to silence me, silence Chris and all the organizers, it worked against them.