(NEW YORK) — Chris Smalls was fired from his Amazon warehouse job in 2020, after leading a protest over fears working conditions could lead to a coronavirus outbreak at the Staten Island, New York, facility.
Now, Smalls has a new job: president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU).
Smalls’ Amazon story begins in 2018, when he says he helped open the New York warehouse while employed as a supervisor for the online retailer. That’s when he founded the ALU, bringing together a scrappy group of former and current warehouse workers.
It was that Staten Island group that made history on April 1, after going head-to-head with Amazon in a union vote, and winning. This marked the first successful U.S. organizing effort in the retail giant’s history.
“After I was terminated, they had a meeting about me – [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos, and the general counsel — calling me not smart or articulate,” Smalls said in an interview on ABC News Live April 6. “And, ironically, they also said to make me the face of the whole unionization efforts.”
Following his termination, Smalls traveled across the country, protesting and advocating for workers’ rights. He said his mission was to educate Amazon workers on the benefits of unionizing, in hopes of encouraging them to fight for a change at their warehouses, too.
After months on the road, Smalls returned to New York, to finish the job of unionizing the Staten Island warehouse.
“We live the reality of the warehouse lifestyle. And we felt that this was the best way to go to try to unionize Amazon and it absolutely worked for us,” said Smalls, remembering the countless protests and walk-outs he’s participated in over the last two years.
Warehouse workers cast 2,654 votes in favor of a union, giving the fledging Amazon Labor Union enough support to pull off a victory. According to the National Labor Relations Board, which is overseeing the process, 2,131 workers rejected the union bid.
“We’re fortunate enough to have enough to win, but I think it would be a lot higher had Amazon not been able to spend millions of dollars trying to stop this campaign,” Smalls told ABC News Live.
Sixty-seven ballots were challenged by Amazon or the ALU, which wasn’t enough to affect the outcome of the vote. About 57% of the more than 8,300 workers on the voter list cast their ballot.
Despite victory in the union vote, Smalls blames Amazon for the overall results, saying the winning percentage would have been higher if the corporation hadn’t discouraged the unionization among employees.
“Amazon spends millions of dollars on union busting; they put these workers into captive audiences 24/7. Workers go to these trainings where there’s drilled anti-union propaganda all day and all night,” Smalls claimed.
Amazon did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment on Smalls’ claims.
After the historic union vote, Amazon posted the following statement on its website: “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. We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”
Smalls responded to the statement during his interview with ABC News Live, saying “the workers spoke for themselves.”
“To be disappointed that their own workers voted yes is utterly ridiculous if you asked me. And the workers said that they want a union and they voted in that favor, and that they should just acknowledge that, and accept that, and recognize the union in Staten Island,” Smalls added.
Since the vote on April 1, Smalls said he’s heard from Amazon workers across the U.S., asking for help with organizing a union at their warehouses. But right now, the ALU has its hands full with the New York warehouse and a neighboring facility slated to have a separate union election later this month.
The ALU is also preparing for a challenging negotiation process for a labor contract. The group has demanded Amazon officials come to the table in early May, but experts say the retail giant, which has signaled plans to challenge the election, could stall the process.
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