"We want a contract": Greed and racism are why Amazon denies its workers unions, says labor leader

Chris Smalls tells Salon why he won't let one of the world's richest men stop his pursuit of workers' rights

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 28, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Chris Smalls (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Chris Smalls (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

We like to believe that hard work pays off. But in America nowadays, it seems like the harder you work, the less you earn. Three years ago, Chris Smalls was clocking 10 to 12 hours a day, working a grueling shift on his feet at Amazon's Staten Island fulfillment center. He handled about 400 packages an hour and was a steward for one of the company's principles, "Work hard, have fun and make history." According to Smalls, the principle should be, "You work hard, and it's not fun, and the history comes when they fire you." 

When I spoke to Smalls on "Salon Talks," he shared why he has been dedicating his life to organizing as the founder and president of the Amazon Labor Union since he was fired by the company in 2020 (for a reason he disputes). Amazon spent over $14 million last year on anti-union consultants, attempting to shut Smalls down, but he prevailed and is now steps closer to a union contract. Smalls's revolutionary story is detailed in the Sean Claffey-directed documentary "Americonned," available now on VOD.

"We felt what Amazon's doing is deeper than just trying to bust up the union: it's racist," Smalls said. "For us, to try and keep this movement with the representation of Black and brown workers was important."

Meanwhile, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the third richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of $152.6 billion. "People ask me, 'Oh, can you talk to Jeff Bezos?' I'm like, 'The man is not cut from the same cloth as me. Why would I want to talk to him?' He can't do what we do. He's not coming to the warehouse packing a box, so it's just ridiculous to think that they'll even have these type of feelings and compassion for working-class struggles."

Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Chris Smalls here to hear more about traveling the world to talk about unionizing Amazon, why he thinks workers are close to a contract and the "surreal" experience of walking out of Amazon and now being the face of and muscle behind its union movement.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You are a hero to so many working people across the United States. What has that experience been like for you?

I take it day by day. It's still surreal because three years ago I walked out of Amazon, didn't expect any of this to happen, so for me, just trying to learn how to balance everything and staying focused on the immediate task, which is getting a contract for the JFK workers who voted to unionize last year. [JFK8 is the Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island].

What's your day-to-day like now?

I always say my time don't belong to me anymore. I wake up to a plethora of emails, and wherever I'm at, whether I'm on the road or at home, just making sure that I prioritize organizing at the building with the Amazon workers who are leading that campaign and making sure that their priorities and needs are taken care of. In between that, I'm trying to spread the message. I've been doing a lot of keynote speakings and panel events for other organizations and unions across the world.

Many of our viewers don't know what it's like to work in Amazon facility. Paint them a picture of that reality.

"It's sort of like solitary confinement. You only have short amount of time for breaks and the breaks that you're given are counted against you if you go overboard."

We work long hours. I used to tell my new hires, "If you got a gym membership, you might want to cancel it because you're doing 10 to 12 hours of calisthenics." JFK is over a million square feet, the size of 14 NFL football fields. You're standing on your feet for 10 or 12 hours, not including your commute, depending on where you at in New York or New Jersey, could be two and a half, three hours each way. Then the work at Amazon, when you're talking about productivity, you're on the clock, the time you clock in. My department was picking, so we had a rate of 400 an hour, so you're touching thousands of packages a day, and this is repetitive. Imagine doing the same type of work for 10 to 12 hours. It's sort of like solitary confinement. You only have short amount of time for breaks, and the breaks that you're given are counted against you if you go overboard. It's always a system that's tracking and targeting workers at any given moment, and you're an at-will employee.

And there's no bonus system or anything like that.

No. But it's funny, one of their principles is "Work hard, have fun and make history," and it's like, you work hard and it's not fun, and the history is when they fire you. We have to stop that. We got to put an end to that.

Take us to that moment when you said, "We need to unionize."

It was after we came back from Alabama. Bessemer, Alabama attempted before us, and because of what Amazon did to that Black-led movement, we felt that we had to try our efforts. We began our campaign in April of 2021, and yeah, it was pretty much that moment where their results came out that they lost. 

"What Amazon's doing is deeper than just trying to bust up the union: it's racist."

That building in Bessemer, Alabama is 85% Black and brown, 80% Black women. That really touched the nerve on us. We have similar demographics in our building. We felt what Amazon's doing is deeper than just trying to bust up the union: it's racist. For us, to try and keep this movement with the representation of Black and brown workers was important. That's when we began, and our campaign lasted over 11 months.

Amazon has spent $14 million on union busting. You taking a stance even led to you being fired. How do you have the drive to continue this fight?

It is really everything that's going on in the labor movement. I know there's a resurgence in this country, and now I'm starting to build that international solidarity. I just came back from London and Cuba and Canada, and these countries are organizing against Amazon too, and it's just continuing to grow. I get motivated by hearing these type of inspirational stories. And also, yeah, I cost this company a lot of money in the last few years. The fact that I can cost a billionaire a couple pennies and live rent-free in his head, that helps.

Has he ever reached out to you directly?

No, but I did have the pleasure of hopping on this year's annual shareholders' call, so he heard me for about two minutes, and that was good to be able to address Jeff Bezos and the current CEO, Andy Jassy and David Zapolsky, who said those racist remarks about me three years ago. They were all on the call, so he heard my voice.

He apologized?

Not to me directly, but you know how their PR, they spin things to make it seem like they're remorseful or whatever. 

"Americonned," the documentary film you are featured in, is a brilliant title. It represents the feelings so many people in this country have about work and life right now. Why did you get involved with the film?

It's amazing because my role in the film originally wasn't supposed to be as big as it was. At the beginning, when they were filming, it was so early on in our campaign. We didn't even begin our campaign. For it to transpire to what it is, we had no idea. It just turned out to be that way. 

"We want a contract and that's what we're fighting for right now—to have that be the first contract in American history for Amazon workers."

I thought I was going to have a little segment and that would be it, but it just turned into a whole journey, and I'm glad that I was able to tell and show people a different side of me that people don't see in the media. They just see me on interviews or whatnot, but to show me with my kids and bringing them to rallies and showing how we were fighting in the wintertime, we were trying to learn things as we navigated through our campaign and to see the victory at the end, that's going to motivate a lot of people to do the same thing, to stand up and fight back, and I'm happy that I'm able to do that.

This documentary gives a little bit of a history lesson about why the U.S. is the way it is today. It talks about the Koch brothers, the economist Milton Friedman and that bulls**t trickle-down economics. What things did you learn on your journey into becoming a leader in this movement?

I learn every day something new. What's really alarming is I learned how divided we really are. When you're organizing and you're trying to build a movement and you reach out to other organizations or other people that you think will be aligned with your movement as well, you come to find out that there's a lot of differences out there and a lot of egos out there.

Ego or fear or both?

It is a combination, but more so when you're talking about the systems that's been in place and the people that's leading it, they've been around for decades and we know who they are. We know who our enemies are, and the fact that it's taken grassroots organizing to combat that in the 21st century, that's very alarming. 

That's what I learned in my journey. I only been organizing in three years since I walked out of Amazon, but you would think that I've been a part of the movement my whole life. It's not like that. Some people, it takes something to happen for people to get involved, and that's something that is alarming, that we have to wait for those moments instead of people just saying, "You know what? His fight is my fight. I need to be doing something right now." So I'm learning we have to bring people into this fight and we got to meet them in different spaces.

Have you seen any of your goals accomplished since three years ago when you started?

Yeah, everything. Everything we're fighting for, we've been able to win. The toughest battle was the election. To go up against a trillion-dollar company and beat them, that was the toughest task. We know that's just the beginning of our journey. For us, we got to speak it to believe it. We want a contract, and that's what we're fighting for right now – to get a contract and have that be the first contract in American history for Amazon workers. That is the most important thing that we're fighting for right now. We speaking into existence and we believe that we're going to get it.

How far do you think you're away from that contract?

Well, it depends on the process in this country, man. That being the NLRB, the National Labor Relation Board. They're the ones who have to make these decisions, and we're waiting for that bargaining order. Hopefully it comes any day now. Once we get that, immediately we're going to file against Amazon to come to the table. Now, we know that that's going to be appealed and they're going to try to get it to the Supreme Court, which obviously is not working in our favor for labor right now, but we got to be resilient and continue to organize. We're hoping within the next year we'll have a contract.

Have you come across any organizations that treat workers right in America or during your trips abroad? 

Yeah, there's definitely companies that treat their employees right. Actually, when I was in London, there was a woman who runs a small warehouse, about 600 employees, and they're not unionized, but she came straight up to me and told me, "Hey, I want you to come talk to my workers." So you have bosses out there that understand workers' rights and

"People ask, 'Oh, can you talk to Jeff Bezos?' The man is not cut from the same cloth as me. Why would I want to talk to him? He can't do what we do."

understand that workers need to have a better quality of life and that's good. There's people I ran into that just straight up recognize their unions. Their workers want a union. They recognize it with no dispute, and that's good as well, but it's very rare and it's still not enough. 

Union density in this country is less than 10% still, and we have to hold unions accountable, especially the ones that's been around for over a hundred years. These powerful unions, they have to make sure that they contribute more than 3% what they did last year to new school labor and new organizing, which is Amazon workers and also Starbucks workers as well.

What kind of progress has been made with Starbucks and in their unions? Have you been in talks with anyone from Starbucks?

Oh yeah, all the time. We work pretty much hand in hand in the labor movement when it comes to doing events. We've been on countless panels together, speaking engagements. Our lawyers are in talks with theirs as well, and we always strategize on how we can amplify all of our efforts. 

But the problem is, once again, the numbers don't lie. Amazon spent $14.2 million on us, and organized unions only contributed 3% of their resources to known campaigns like mines and Starbucks, which, that's a shame. They have to do more so that we can, once again, get to a larger, broader movement and bring people into this movement.

What is it going to take for CEOs to understand that workers can have their union and you can still make a ridiculous amount of money?

Honestly, I don't know. I think it's just greed. That's the thing, people ask, "Oh, can you talk to Jeff Bezos?" I'm like, "The man is not cut from the same cloth as me. Why would I want to talk to him?" He can't do what we do. He's not coming to the warehouse packing a box, so it's just ridiculous to think that they'll even have these type of feelings and compassion for working class struggles. 

But to answer your question, yeah, I don't know. There are companies that have CEOs that are rich and their companies are doing fine. Amazon actually has unionized buildings, just not in America, but they have been, especially in Germany, their buildings are unionized with union contracts. We don't hear about them closing down or going out of business. So, they can absolutely work with unions. It's just the refusal and the greed of putting profits over people that they want to model their business after.

What's next for you?

Everybody's running for president, so I got to wait.

Democrats need somebody.

Nah, nah, nah. You know what? Once again, our main goal is get this contract. Once we get the contract, that's going to open up new doors and avenues for us to organize, and we are building the international solidarity and we're trying to become an international union, so that's the short term goal for us.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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