The president of the Amazon Workers’ Union (ALU), who caused a stir in early April when it became the company’s first union in the United States, is walking on the sidewalk he knows so well, along a road in an industrial estate in New York.
He’ll soon know if, after the JFK8 warehouse, he’s convinced the staff of the sorting center across the street, LDJ5. Voting took place April 25-29, and counting will begin Monday afternoon. “The feelings are positive,” he says.
A week before the result, veteran unionists want to have their picture taken with him, journalists attack him with questions, and his team members question him about the organization. He just shared the podium with two superstars from the American left, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and is preparing to lead a new career.
Christian Smalls, 33, unemployed, worked at the JFK8 warehouse until March 2020. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, faced with a devastating virus still unknown, he rose up against the lack of protection and called a small strike.
Protesting doesn’t gather crowds but it does attract attention, at least on Amazon. He will be fired after two days, officially for not respecting sanitary rules.
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According to an internal memo leaked to the press shortly after, a senior company official said of him that he was “not smart and doesn’t know how to express himself clearly” and that he should be “the face of the entire union movement. That’s what I’ve become.” He said two years later.
Meanwhile, he has demonstrated in front of several residences of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to advocate for the rights of essential workers. He also went in the spring of 2021 to support activists trying to form a syndicate in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama.
After this trip, they and a small team decided to try their luck in New York in their own way without the support of a traditional organization. Christian Smalls will be a mainstay at the bus stop, as he waits for shift changes to chat with staff.
Others—his friend Derek Palmer, a few employees convinced of the fighting interest and a handful of activists purposely assigned to Amazon to take part in the fight—work in the break rooms.
They listen, they tirelessly explain what the union is, they prepare food, they distribute a little weed. To get into the night shifts, they sometimes light the braziers.
Experts in labor movements give them little chance. They say they have almost no money: Before the first vote, they raised $120,000 through online fundraising and other T-shirt sales, when Amazon spent $4.3 million to counter their campaign.
With the help of a volunteer lawyer, they formally submitted their application to organize a vote after obtaining the signature of 30% of employees, when traditional unions often expect to have at least 50%. Their leader is unknown.
With his rap style, this African American “doesn’t sound like a traditional union leader,” admits Justin Medina, a member of the ALU. But, she says, “He’s witty, knows how to inspire people, customize tasks to work for everyone, and bring people together.” She asserts that all media attention “doesn’t go to his head, it stays grounded.”
To celebrate the union’s April 1 victory, dressed in red from hat to sneaker, he still jumped from the building where the count was done before spouting his champagne. Ironically, I thank Jeff Bezos for going into space while they campaign on Earth.
ALU arrived just in time. After the pandemic and harsh working conditions for essential workers, in the midst of inflation, employees are ready to demand more. And in a tight job market, they know the ball is in their court.