Christian Smalls has been sitting outside of Amazon's Staten Island warehouse every day for the past week. He's working to get as many workers as possible to sign union cards with the Amazon Labor Union and plans to present these cards to Amazon as early as June, Smalls told Protocol.
Smalls and Amazon have a complicated history. The company fired him from his warehouse managerial position last March after he organized a protest against unsafe working conditions at the facility. Since then, Smalls has sued Amazon and founded The Congress of Essential Workers, a nonprofit organization focused on helping workers achieve better working conditions. The Congress, in turn, has created its own union, the Amazon Labor Union.
Amazon Labor Union is unaffiliated with any major union, unlike the recent Bessemer, Alabama unionization drive for Amazon warehouse workers with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. By forming a new, independent union, Smalls hopes to be able to have a fresh start.
"We have nothing to compare ourselves to," Smalls said. "That puts us at an advantage. Workers can't say we already tried it and failed. When talking to workers, we can say this is us creating this together as workers of Amazon. We're all in this together."
Amazon Labor Union originally intended to focus on JFK8, the fulfillment center in Staten Island, "but Amazon just seems to keep popping up buildings everywhere," Smalls said.
So in addition to JFK8, Amazon Labor Union is seeking to unionize workers as three other locations nearby: two delivery stations (DYX2 and DYY6) and a sorting station (LDJ5).
The union estimates JFK8 has about 5,000 employees and has about a couple hundred employees at the other buildings. Already, Smalls said several hundred workers have signed union cards.
But it's going to be an uphill battle. Amazon has already begun sending messages to workers and posting signs in the JFK8 warehouse advocating against unions. In one message, Amazon told workers "you give up the right to speak for yourself" if you sign a union authorization card. Amazon also displayed anti-union messaging on the TVs in the JFK8 warehouse.
A TV at the JFK8 warehouse.Photo: Amazon Labor Union
"And from what we heard today, managers are already talking to workers in small groups, pretty much lying to them," Smalls said. "It's like, 'Oh, sign if you want to, but don't sign, because Amazon's better."
Amazon reportedly engaged in similar behavior during the Bessemer union drive. RWDSU has since alleged Amazon interfered with the union drive and has asked the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the election results.
Protocol has reached out to Amazon but has yet to hear back.
Fighting the good fight
Smalls does not get paid for this type of work. He's relying on money from a GoFundMe campaign that one of his supporters set up for him last year, as well as unemployment benefits.
"I'm out here fighting the good fight," Smalls said. "And, you know, I'm OK for right now, but it's not sustainable. I don't get paid for media appearances. Everybody assumes people make all this money off of these things but no, everything I'm putting out is free. And I just think that the story and the struggle is more important than any time of money. Hopefully, I'll receive mine with the legal battle, but yeah, I'm just going to hold it out until then."
For the drive itself, Smalls is currently funding all of its operations out of pocket. But the union has its own fundraising page that is seeking to raise $5,000 to help cover the cost of things such as pamphlets, web-hosting costs and to help support any workers who may be fired during the union drive.
If this union drive proves to be successful, Smalls envisions Amazon Labor Union representing warehouse workers across the nation. Smalls said he's spoken with workers all over the country during the last year who are hoping to unionize at other Amazon facilities.
"If we're successful here, we'll be spreading like wildfire."